Making wearables, umm, bearable

Authors: Uday Gajendar
Posted: Fri, April 26, 2013 - 12:19:33

Wearable devices seem to be all the rage lately, from personal monitoring devices (like Nike FuelBand or FitBit) to smartpens (LiveScribe) to Google Glass, and beyond (medical accessories for the iPhone). I would also include the ubiquitous smartphone as a wearable, since we usually carry it on our body, in a jacket or pants pocket. And there's tremendous buzz on the interwebs pointing to a possible "smart watch" coming from Apple, Google, and/or Microsoft, after the success of the Kickstarter-based project Pebble. Whew!

Having a FuelBand monitor and LiveScribe pen, I can certainly attest to the personal lifestyle benefits of such intimate networked devices on my body, with ties to services (Evernote) and devices (iPhone apps)—visualizing data, tracking goals, enabling productivity anytime and anywhere. However, it's not all digital wonderment. 

There is a string of emerging issues for wearables in terms of UX and tech performance that we're just starting to realize. Here is a sample set:

Information jetlag: This term is from noted "cyborg anthropologist" Amber Case from her 2012 SxSW talk in which she cited an issue that we all run into if running a single service across multiple connected devices: You get an alert on one device, you clear it/respond, but that alert persists on other devices. They haven't "gotten up to speed" that you've already replied to the Tweet or Facebook notification. So you end up playing "whack-a-mole" amongst your devices and services. An annoying inconvenience that reveals "smart" syncing has a long way to go yet!

Battery power: Being "wearable" and on your body, you'd think such devices would leverage the kinetic energy of your moving around all day, particularly those that actively track your activity! After all, with more wearable devices coming into possession (watch, pen, phone, glasses) it becomes a (costly) chore to charge everything every night! After all, my Nike Triax digital watch from 2003 still runs, and I haven't changed the battery since the purchase date. I've forgotten about it, so it fits my lifestyle fluidly. Having to charge something breaks the silent transparent insinuation of a device into our lives. A great UX and tech opportunity would be to have implicit charging through routine use, via motion or even solar.

Misplacing devices: Now that we've got all these relatively small devices, the likelihood of misplacing one or all of them at a bar (ahem), subway, or airplane seat pocket increases. Yet another costly situation to be mindful of—and coupled with the "jetlag" syncing—you may lose your data upon loss. We need to shape a multi-wearable device UX that recognizes people are forgetful, busy folks running around, lost in trains of thought (if not the train itself). How can such a "body-net" of wearables maybe keep track of each other? A device finder app is a huge market opp!

Modalities of interaction: How exactly does someone interact with a pen or a tracker or a pair of glasses? How is that made known to the user yet implicit in the manner of interaction so as to avoid sticking out awkwardly? When I picked up my new LiveScribe, I had hoped for Siri-style voice interaction, along with hand gestures not locked to the dot-print paper, but I was disappointed. The FuelBand has a single button for tapping with a rich array of colorful LEDs communicating status and data. Glass features a nice choreography of voice, touch, and head tilts to visualize and augment your experience of the world. Shaping that mix of modality will be key to finding the sweet spot of how the wearable and its service smoothly fits into a person's daily routines.

Social perception of self: OK, let's face it—Google Glass makes you look goofy. A giant smartpen in your pocket might cause more snickering. Someone may mistake your FuelBand for a substance-abuse wrist manacle imposed by local authorities. While we've mostly become accustomed to seeing people "talking to themselves" with their barely visible BT headsets/earpieces, wearables in general cause a shift in perception of what's happening, where it's happening, and by whom. What are those people doing, and is it now "normal"? Care must be taken in the early days to not make someone feel awkward, but rather empowered and confident. That comes back to modalities of interaction, visual cues, body and gestural language in public, etc.

These are just a few emerging issues already arising with the spread of wearables. Looking back upon them, it occurs that these become criteria for what really could make a wearable not just smart and useful, but actually a helpful buddy, enabling you to get through your day, as a knowledge worker or social butterfly or resourceful family caregiver. This only skims the surface of what it means to truly improve the human condition by virtue of such personal devices. 

Posted in: on Fri, April 26, 2013 - 12:19:33

Uday Gajendar

Uday Gajendar is Director of User Experience at CloudPhysics, focused on bringing beauty and soul to Big Data for virtualized datacenters.
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