Originally published October 17, 2013 in Mediapost’s Search Insider
Rob, I took your advice.
A few columns back, when I said Google’s Glass might not be ready for mass adoption, fellow Search Insider Rob Garner gave me this advice:“Don’t knock it until you try it.” So, when a fellow presenter at a conference I was at last week brought along his Glass and offered me a chance to try them (Or “it”? Does anyone else find Google’s messing around with plural forms confusing and irritating?), I took him up on it. To say I jumped at it may be overstating the case – let’s just say I enthusiastically ambled to it.
I get Google Glass. I truly do. To be honest, the actual experience of using them came up a little short of my expectations, but not much. It’s impressive technology.
But here’s the problem. I’m a classic early adopter. I always look at what things will be, overlooking the limitations of what currently “is.” I can see the dots of potential extending toward a horizon of unlimited possibility, and don’t sweat the fact that those dots still have to be connected.
On that level, Google Glass is tremendously exciting, for two reasons that I’ll get to in a second. For many technologies, I’ll even connect a few dots myself, willing to trade off pain for gain. That’s what early adopters do. But not everyone is an early adopter. Even given my proclivity for nerdiness, I felt a bit like a jerk standing in a hotel lobby, wearing Glass, staring into space, my hand cupped over the built-in mike, repeating instructions until Glass understood me. I learned there’s a new label for this; for a few minutes I became a “Glasshole.”
Sorry Rob, I still can’t see the mainstream going down this road in the near future.
But there are two massive reasons why I’m still tremendously bullish on wearable technology as a concept. One, it leverages the importance of use case in a way no previous technology has ever done. And two, it has the potential to overcome what I’ll call “rational lag time.”
The importance of use case in technology can be summed up in one word: iPad. There is absolutely no technological reason why tablets, and iPads in particular, should be as popular as they are. There is nothing in an iPad that did not exist in another form before. It’s a big iPhone, without the phone. The magic of an iPad lies in the fact that it’s a brilliant compromise: the functionality of a smartphone in a form factor that makes it just a little bit more user-friendly. And because of that, it introduced a new use case and became the “lounge” device. Unlike a smartphone, where size limits the user experience in some critical ways (primarily in input and output), tablets offer acceptable functionality in a more enjoyable form. And that is why almost 120 million tablets were sold last year, a number projected (by Gartner) to triple by 2016.
The use case of wearable technology still needs to be refined by the market, but the potential to create an addictive user experiences is exceptional. Even with Glass’ current quirks, it’s a very cool interface. Use case alone leads me to think the recent $19 billion by 2018 estimate of the size of the wearable technology market is, if anything, a bit on the conservative side.
But it’s the “rational lag time” factor that truly makes wearable technology a game changer. Currently, all our connected technologies can’t keep up with our brains. When we decide to do something, our brains register subconscious activity in about 100 milliseconds, or about one tenth of a second. However, it takes another 500 milliseconds (half a second) before our conscious brain catches up and we become aware of our decision to act. In more complex actions, a further lag happens when we rationalize our decision and think through our possible alternatives. Finally, there’s the action lag, where we have to physically do something to act on our intention. At each stage, our brains can shut down impulses if it feels like they require too much effort. Humans are, neurologically speaking, rather lazy (or energy-efficient, depending on how you look at it).
So we have a sequence of potential lags before we act on our intent: Unconscious Stimulation > Conscious Awareness > Rational Deliberation > Possible Action. Our current interactions with technology live at the end of this chain. Even if we have a smartphone in our pocket, it takes several seconds before we’re actively engaging with it. While that might not seem like much, when the brain measures action in split seconds, that’s an eternity of time.
But technology has the potential to work backward along this chain. Let’s move just one step back, to rational deliberation. If we had an “always on” link where we could engage in less than one second, we could utilize technology to help us deliberate. We still have to go through the messiness of framing a request and interpreting results, but it’s a quantum step forward from where we currently are.
The greatest potential (and the greatest fear) lies one step further back – at conscious awareness. Now we’re moving from wearable technology to implantable technology. Imagine if technology could be activated at the speed of conscious thought, so the unconscious stimulation is detected and parsed and by the time our conscious brain kicks into gear, relevant information and potential actions are already gathered and waiting for us. At this point, any artifice of the interface is gone, and technology has eliminated the rational lag. This is the beginning of Kurzweil’s Singularity: the destination on a path that devices like Google Glass are starting down.
As I said, I like to look at the dots. Someone else can worry about how to connect them.