wearable-computingThe tech industry has been talking about it for decades: the personal area network (PAN) and wearable computing. It’s the logical outgrowth of the smart phone craze – computing devices that you attach to your body (or even, in extreme versions, that permanently become a part of your body). Various companies have tried marketing smart watches and other wearable devices but none have ever really caught on.  With the advent of Samsung’s Gear and Google Glass (and rumors that Google is also making a smart watch-specific version of Android), some believe the time is finally right. But if it happens, how will this next phase in the evolution of computing change how we do business – and how we relate to one another on both a professional and personal basis?

Once upon a time, computers were enormous things. Often considered the forefather of the modern digital computer, ENIAC (Electronic Numerical Integer and Calculator) weighed 30 tons and filled a 20 x 40 ft. room. That was in the 1940s, and we’ve come a long way over the intervening seven decades. The cost of ENIAC was $500,000 in 1940s money (equivalent to $6,760,578.03 today, according to the US Inflation Calculator). Today you can buy a $500 smart phone that’s thousands of times faster than ENIAC, weighs less than five ounces, and can do things its programmers couldn’t even dream of.

The replacement of vacuum tubes with transistors and then with microchips made possible the incredible shrinking computer. For many years, chip makers have been engaging in a race to make their circuits increasingly smaller, and the field of nanotechnology is taking miniaturization to the next level.

Over just a couple of decades, most of us have come to depend on our computers in a big way. They store the vital information that our brains are too overworked to remember, such as our contacts and schedules. They serve as portals to find information we don’t know, via the wonders of the web. They enable us to communicate with other people all over the world in a variety of different ways – email, instant messaging, voice and video. They provide an easy way to record our ideas and capture images. In a modern world where global transportation makes it easy to travel to anywhere in the world in a relatively short time and many of us are always on the go, it’s important that our essential devices be highly portable.

Smart phones fit that bill, but they still pose some inconveniences. Anyone who has ever fumbled with a phone while trying to do something else (not driving, I hope) can attest to that. Have you ever tried to take a photo of something you’re passing while walking your three dogs down the street? I have; it’s not easy. Have you tried to sneak your phone out to look up your next appointment while in a meeting, without it being obvious that your full attention isn’t on the speaker? It can be a challenge.

Then there’s the problem of keeping up with the things. I’ve never lost a phone (knocking on wood), but I know people who have. A study done in 2012 found that Americans lost over $30 billion worth of mobile phones in one year. Consumer Reports said around 1.6 million phones were stolen in 2012. Even if you manage to keep it in your immediate possession, that doesn’t mean it won’t slip through your fingers and end up smashed. Those slippery backs seem almost designed to make you drop them and have to buy a replacement (been there, done that).

Wearable computers can solve many of these problems. The only place my watch and glasses ever get lost is somewhere in my house; when I’m out and about, they’re always on my body. If my computer were incorporated in one (or both) of them, I wouldn’t have to dig it out of a pocket or bag when I wanted to use it, either. And wearables give a whole new meaning to “multitasking.” Taking that photo during my walk would be easy, and accessing my calendar could be as low profile as glancing at my wrist or could even be done without turning my head away from the speaker if the info were displayed in a corner of my glasses lens.

Google Glass is the wearable computing product that has generated the most interest – both positive and negative. I got an invitation to join the Glass Explorer project to beta test the device. I reluctantly declined for two reasons: a) the $1500 price tag and b) the fact that the first generation wasn’t available for those of us who wear prescription glasses (and I’m virtually blind without mine). Since then, Google has come out with new models that will accommodate prescription lenses. They’re also a tad more “fashionable” (i.e., similar to regular glasses) than the futuristic Borg-implant-like look of the originals. The cost of the frames ($225) is in addition to the still-$1500 price for the Glass device itself. Cut the cost in half and I’d be in.

Glass (or similar technology) has the potential to greatly increase our productivity. The medical profession is already adapting Glass to assist in their specialized protocols, allowing doctors to more easily look up patient records without having to carry around a tablet. Virgin Atlantic is testing both Google Glass and Sony smart watches in their concierge service to make it easy for staff members to get passenger information without being tied to the usual airline computer terminal.

The New York Police Department (NYPD) and other police agencies are reportedly testing Glass for applicability in law enforcement. Along with the obvious use of the camera as a surveillance tool, the glasses could also eventually allow officers to access criminal histories, driving records and other information that’s now transmitted from dispatch by radio or MDT (mobile display terminal) while the officer’s hands remain free. An added benefit would be that the glasses could offer a degree of eye protection in certain situations.

The introduction of Glass hasn’t been without controversy; fierce debates have sprung up around the privacy issues associated with the technology (which I hope to address in a future article), but more and more businesses are beginning to realize the potential of such a technology and Gartner has predicted that Glass and gadgets like it could be saving companies a billion dollars per year within the next three to five years. They estimate that five years from now, 10 percent of field workers will be using Glass, but who knows? If it catches on (and the price comes down), growth could be faster.  Once the smart phone craze took off, the devices proliferated quickly in both the consumer and business spaces.

What comes after Google Glass? New concepts in wearable computing technology dubbed “soft electronics” attempt to integrate the computer into clothing fabric. These are still in their infancy, with a few challenges to overcome (you can’t just throw your computerized jacket into the washing machine), but innovative designers will no doubt find ways around them.

Smart phones changed the way we work, communicate and socialize. Wearable computers are poised to do the same thing. It’s not a matter of “if”, it’s just a matter of when.