The Revolution Will Be…Worn?

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Looking at the state of mobile technology today, it’s clear that the tablet form factor is the flavor of the week. A decade ago, however, the future of mobility looked a lot less like a clipboard and a lot more like a wristwatch.

For years, people were focused on wearing their computers. What is a thin, rectangular window to endless content now was a wrist-mounted portal to information then. The problem that designers always ended up getting stuck on, however, was the interface.

Designers tried to tackle this in a wearable computer concept, but the end result is still a mashup of the ideas of the last few decades and the fancy swirly graphics of today. The input method in the aforementioned concept (a swing-out keyboard? really?) is kludgy, at best, and the whole thing looks, well…huge. Would anyone actually wear that? No, no they wouldn’t because that sort of thing is a fashion nightmare.

Then there’s this one. Ouch. Really? I mean, sure this is military technology, so we’re not looking for haute couture here, but…I mean…really? This just won’t do.

The problem is that the input method for all of these concepts still involves directly interacting with the device, touching buttons, or tapping the screen with a tiny stylus. All of these options are unacceptable when it comes to wearable computing. A person cannot have devices oozing out of every pore and orifice just to get at a Wikipedia article. What they need is a device that is intuitive and simple, something that “just works”.

This is where it gets difficult.

Apple has already developed a powerful, revolutionary computing interface powered by speech. They call it Siri, and I’m sure that most people are familiar with it at this point. If not, the link should tell you everything you need to know. The bottom line is that it’s intuitive, and allows a person to perform almost every single task they usually need a computer to do with little else than a functional set of vocal cords. This powerful computing interface, however, requires a persistent connection to the internet to be able to send your voice to Siri, and to receive Siri’s reply. Furthermore, access to Siri’s beautiful mind is limited solely to owners of Apple’s iPhone 4S, at the moment.

Here’s where it gets interesting.

Apple designs hardware. They also design software and build empires on their intuitive, simple interfaces. Siri is about as simple as you can get, but not everyone has the ability to talk to Siri, and there may be those who simply don’t want to purchase a new phone for the privilege. What if, however, access to Siri could be granted by wearing a watch? Apple’s design team could surely design a beautiful watch. What if this watch was actually a computer, however? Or, perhaps not a computer, but rather a gateway to this magical, intuitive, almost infinitely powerful computer? Follow me, child, the path to this potential future is an interesting one.

Apple has been doing a lot of work behind the scenes, as it usually does. It’s been chugging away at the internal components of the iPhone 4S, upgrading a little-loved part of the phone that may actually end up being the key to this whole new ecosystem that Apple has developed: Bluetooth 4.0. The main thing about the new Bluetooth 4.0 specification is that it allows for a very low-power state, which keeps certain communication avenues open while allowing others to close. This versatility means that a wrist-mounted “computer” doesn’t actually need to do any processing of its own, but requires a connection to a device that can. Furthermore, while previous iPhone models may not sport the swanky new Bluetooth 4.0-compatible chips, they can still perform admirably with normal Bluetooth connections. This opens up the possibility for previous iPhone models to access Siri through a special piece of hardware that piggybacks off of the existing iPhone data connection through Bluetooth in much the same manner a headset would.

The end result is that a person will be able to talk to Siri, but do so without any sort of visual feedback. Ultimately, this is the sort of interaction that Apple is going for anyway. The device doesn’t need a screen (but may have one like the iPod Nano) because the interface is completely invisible. Much like the iPod Shuffle’s tiny form factor that can still communicate with the user, the new “wearable computer” does not have to be anything more than a gateway. The magic of the iPod Shuffle is that it feels like it’s so much bigger. The power of the new wearable computer is not that it is super fast and spec’ed to the gills. The power is that it feels like the world is no more than a question away.

Dick Tracy would be jealous.

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Now Accepting Warm Feelings

Navigating the latter half of this year of my life has been treacherous. Let’s leave it at that.

Apple’s new iPhone 4S continues to sell well, while competition from other phone manufacturers remains steady. In recent news, the focus has shifted away from the iPad and the tablet space, back to the iPhone vis a vis the competition. Competitors need to put out a real alternative to Siri, which really won’t happen because Siri is a thing, an entity unto itself, one that everyone has his or her own personal experience with. I just don’t think any voice interface will do. The experience has to be wholly natural, use no jargon or “commands”, and needs to integrate into the OS in a way that is basically ubiquitous. Good luck to everyone on designing that.

The iPad is also the only game in town when it comes to an authentic tablet experience. Yet, news surrounding the iPad and the tablet market has quieted of late. There was a tablet sporting nVidia’s new Tegra processor that was released and supposed to kill the iPad. I…maybe I missed that one? Doesn’t look like anyone’s favorite fruit-flavored tablet friend is in the crosshairs, so perhaps this new “Transformer Prime” is just waiting for Shia? Dunno.

Furthermore, other tablets that I’ve seen miss the point, entirely. Have you seen the Kindle Fire? Ouch. I was traveling at the time that it was released, but there was nothing about it that made me want to use it. I picked one up at a kiosk, hoping to walk away from the experience with my eyebrows still raised. Upon taking my seat at the gate, I found my eyebrows in their normal resting position. Mission failed, Amazon.

The problem is that all these companies are all playing catch-up, trying to create value in a market that is valued on features that Apple defines. It’s a tough market to be in, and it’s getting more crowded every day.

I remember when MP3 players were all the rage, and some of my friends got them. I was excited to get one too, but never more so than when the iPod came out. I could never find the money to plunk down on one of those beasts, but I yearned. I also wouldn’t accept imitations. My father, never one for paying full price, would buy lots of off-brand MP3 players and say “Look! Just like an iPod!” He was wrong, of course. They weren’t. My first iPod was an iPod Shuffle, which was, despite its unorthodox appearance, an iPod. Next came the iPod Nano, which my sister also received. We moved up, we enjoyed, and we haven’t looked back. I believe the same can be said of the experience many people are having or will have with the vast majority of tablets out there…they’re not the iPad. Nothing else is.