Put on wearable tech

Glasses, watches, even clothes will link us amid privacy cautions
2013-05-19T00:00:00Z Put on wearable techHayley Tsukayama The Washington Post Arizona Daily Star
May 19, 2013 12:00 am  • 

Scan any waiting room, and you'll probably get a good survey of the tops of people's heads, with row after row of folks hunched over their smartphones. But heads up: That common sight may change as tech companies bet that users are so attached to their screens, they'll start to wear them.

It's more than sci-fi speculation. The first testers of Google's Glass device - which puts Google Search, Maps and other services on a screen mounted in front of your eye - are sporting the devices on sidewalks across the country.

Other companies, such as Samsung and Pebble, are working to get apps and data streams to users' wrists through Web-connected watches; some reports say Apple, Microsoft and other tech titans will also jump into the mix.

A majority of American smartphone users keep their phones on or near them at least 22 hours per day, and analysts say it's a short jump for wearable tech to take off. Research firm IHS estimates that wearable-technology firms could sell as many as 9.4 million devices by 2016, up from an estimated 50,000 shipments last year. That figure includes smart glasses, smart wristbands and smart watches.

The fitness industry has also embraced wearable tech, with devices that track everything from how many calories you're burning to how well you're sleeping at night. Pebble's watch is designed to work with your smartphone as a pedometer, control panel for music or caller ID screen.

But the always-on, always-connected lifestyle that smart watches and glasses encourage doesn't sit well with everyone. Privacy advocates have cautioned that users have to think carefully about giving companies even more streams of data about their lives - not to mention the information those devices may capture from the unwitting people around them.

Pebble's watch doesn't collect information on its own, and the company secures the data transfer between the watch and your smartphone. But if users are concerned about people seeing an email or text message that pops up on their wrist, chief executive Eric Migicovsky suggests users take a common-sense approach: turn their arm.

That sort of approach should be the guiding star as wearable tech raises debates about the line between public and private life, said Daniel Post Senning, the tech and social media etiquette specialist at the Emily Post Institute.

"Everyone has these cameras on every phone now," Post Senning said. "We have some responsibility on all of us to think that we're always on film. The question is: Do we want that to be the standard, or is there another side? Do the people who are filming also have responsibility?"

Early adopters, Post Senning said, should act as "ambassadors" for this new technology and temper their enthusiasm with caution and common sense.

He also recommended that small courtesies, such as asking others before you take or post pictures, and letting others know when you're shooting video, will go a long way. He also recommends propping the glasses on your head when you're not using them. It's a concern that hasn't gone unnoticed among those using Google Glass. The company hasn't offered any official guidance on how it plans to navigate the privacy or etiquette questions its product is likely to generate, but some developers have tackled the topic.

Noble Ackerson, an Alexandria, Va.-based developer, has created etiquette tip cards that encourage users to "Glass with Class." Tips include, "Don't use Glass in the locker room or restroom."

Ackerson said he has gotten good feedback from Google on the cards and hopes they will help wearable tech become as normal in social situations as smartphones and Bluetooth headsets.

"There are some features of Glass that scare a lot of people," he said. "The whole idea behind the etiquette cards was to dispel some of the myths about people wearing these devices."

There's also the question of whether anyone other than the most devoted technophiles will take to the cyborg look. Google Glass put in a runway appearance at last fall's New York Fashion Week, but even that stage couldn't obscure the fact that the emperor's new glasses are, well, dorky. The metal frame spans users' foreheads, and a square screen almost completely obstructs one eye, making conversation awkward.

But the fashion industry is eager to jump on the trend to spur creativity, said NPD Group fashion analyst Marshal Cohen. Smart fashion companies, he said, will partner with technology companies to create products, if only to head off accessory competition from businesses that have proved they know how to design gadgets to sell.

Also, he added, the first mobile phones looked ridiculous - "like a box with a strap," he said - as did the first earbuds. But they quickly evolved into everyday essentials as their worth earned them their own cool factor.

"If these products make our lives better, it could very well become something that makes its way into every household," Cohen said.

IHS analyst Theo Ahadome said Glass, which Google has said will go on sale next year, could accelerate the wearable tech world in the same way that Apple's iPad jump-started the tablet market, because the company can use its strength as a software developer and its banks of search information to build useful programs to make Glass more than a gimmick.

"The hardware is really not so relevant," Ahadome said. "It's more about the applications you can develop for it."

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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