Beyond Google Glass: Get ready for more wearable computers

Wearable computing was hot at AllThingD's conference, setting up a possible showdown between Google Glass and rumored iWatch

The battle for your body is about to begin. The era of the PC is being ushered out by mobile computing devices like smartphones and tablets, which could themselves be overtaken in the not-too-distant future by the next trend: wearable computers.

In case you missed it, wearable computing was a hot topic at AllThingsD's D11 conference this week. Opening speaker and Apple CEO Tim Cook said he found wearables to be "incredibly interesting" and "a profound area for technology," but refused to be drawn out about Apple's rumored plans for an iWatch. Wearables are "an area ripe for exploration. I think there will be tons of companies playing in this," he added. (Check out the InfoTube video of Cook's AllThingsD appearance.)

Analyst Mary Meeker, a partner in venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield Byers and well known in the industry for her annual Internet Trends report, made an even stronger case for wearables in her D11 presentation. While the last few decades were about the rise of the personal computer and the smartphone, the next few decades will be about "wearables, drivables, flyables and scannables," which are coming on strong, Meeker said. While some people laugh at wearables, people also laughed at PCs and the Internet, she said, citing Digital Equipment founder Ken Olsen's infamous 1977 pronouncement: "There's no reason anyone would want a PC in their home."

The concept of wearables is hardly new. After all, this year will mark IEEE's 16th annual International Symposium on Wearables Computers. Nor is wrist computing new; at Comdex 2002, Bill Gates talked up SPOT -- Microsoft's Smart Personal Object Technology Initiative -- and previewed examples that included a wristwatch that could link to your PC via a cable, providing stock, weather, and other data updates. Sony currently has the SmartWatch, which works through an Android smartphone connection, making it more accessory than stand-alone computing device. And there is a range of wristwear available to monitor and log personal fitness, including the Nike+ Fuelband (which Apple's Cook sported at D11), the Basis Band, and the Jawbone Up electronic bracelet. (For more on the future of monitoring devices, check out Galen Gruman's report on how wearables might help fix U.S. health care.)

But the excitement and hype building around the rumored iWatch is new and could only be generated by Apple, with its proven track record for transforming existing technology into something groundbreaking.

Reaction to the Google Glass project on wearable computing has been polarized -- coming in for a heavy portion of ridicule (as in this "SNL" skit) as well as enthused anticipation. InfoWorld's Galen Gruman notes:

The geek community [in Silicon Valley] is swooning over Google Glass, imagining a world where they can keep one eye on virtual reality rather than both eyes on the real world, all without the inconvenience of pulling their iPhone or Galaxy S III out of a pocket. ... Sadly, there's also a Neanderthal group of people that make fun of the objects of geeks' passion, reminiscent of those old Charles Atlas ads where the beach bully kicks sand in the face of the nerdy 98-pound weakling.

Reaction to Apple's project is positive -- albeit based entirely on rumors. The New York Times says:

The wrist is the perfect place to introduce customers to a computer they can wear. ... Think of it as the first mouse with a really large button and no multitouch. That's how Apple is probably thinking about it, too. It's a different approach from the one taken by Google, which is going straight for the face, making its augmented reality Google Glasses to try to introduce people to wearable computers. But some consumers will very likely be intimidated by a computer hanging from their brow. The wrist, in comparison, is not as scary.

This sentiment was echoed, not surprisingly, by Apple's Cook at D11 as he got in a dig at rival Google: "In terms of glasses, I wear glasses because I have to. I don't know a lot of people that wear them that don't have to," he said. "I think from a mainstream point of view, this is difficult to see. [But] the wrist is interesting. It's somewhat natural."

The wrist is indeed "natural." But the idea of strapping technology to it? Not always the case. Adobe engineer manager Christian Cantwell writes (in his generally favorable review of Google Glass) that "even wristwatches were once widely thought to be a threat to masculinity. It wasn't until soldiers started strapping their pocket watches to their wrists because it was much more practical than having to remove them from a pocket that wristwatches started to gain acceptance beyond frivolous feminine accessories."

Once consumers accept the idea of wearables -- be they on the wrist or on the face -- you can be sure they'll begin showing up in the workplace. "The same way that tablets followed smartphones into the enterprise on the backs of employees bearing the cost, Google Glass will also flow the same way," said Chris Hazelton, research director for Mobile & Wireless at 451 Research. "This will also drive acceptance. So you may see tools that will directly manage Google Glass."

IT managers, get ready for the next wave of BYOD. Wearables are coming.

This article, "Beyond Google Glass: Get ready for more wearable computers," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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