Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Apple Glass? Never.

One of tech's greatest progenitors, science fiction, often paints a picture of inelegance: Heavily modified humans with cybernetic implants; exoskeletons cradling soldiers as extensions of their own bodies; interfaces suspended in mid-air requiring histrionic arm motions to navigate while emanating the light-blue glow of a projection TV at night. My research in sci-fi design inspired by the Star Trek Verizon sponsorship in '09 made it obvious to me that at least one school of future design had a very formulaic look driven by the visual inspiration of circuitry and other electronic imagery.

It's to this very small niche—those who allow technology to cross into their personal aesthetic—that I feel wearables like Google Glass will be acceptable. It's also why, when it comes to ubiquity and universal adoption of a technological product, Apple remains the leader.

"You want me to make a donation to the coastguard youth auxiliary!"
Image copyright © 1985 Universal Studios/Amblin Entertainment
Wearables are here to stay, portending of a near future of cybernetic implants affecting our perception of the world around us. In this context, we have to discuss the subject of hardware and software failure, be it on, or even in the body. This need not be in actuality. Only a potential possibility is enough to raise discomfort towards adoption, and to ruin the user experience of those who have taken the plunge. The primordial master-slave relationship of wielding a tool; be it the reigns of a horse, a sword, a hammer, or in today's context, a supercomputer in our pocket; came baked into our subconscious with a presumption: We are in control. Though we may grow increasingly dependent on the held item to the point where it clearly has control over us, the illusion of control remains because it is in the hand.

Now, Frodo Baggins, put on the ring you once held. Move that same dependency to an object you wear, and at the very least symbolically, we relinquish control. In the case of Google Glass, an item you put not only on but in front of your face, we're looking at a degree of intimacy breached that is a tad more pervasive; a tad more demanding of an argument for adoption. This is key in understanding why certain future attempts at wearable technology will succeed in the mainstream while others will fail.

With the wearables revolution well under way, the iWatch cometh. Over the years I've heard people accuse Apple of making high-tech jewelry, style trumping substance in the classic case of artsy dreamers taking the helm. Job's relationship with Buddhism is often cited as a part of this predilection towards design harmony. In fact you don't have to go too deep to understand this formula. It's this very quality of jewelry being surface, superficial and even in some cases discardable, that allow for the ubiquity of adoption that the iPhone, iPad and future iWatch capitalize upon. Though none of these items command a discardable price-point, they are treated with as much acceptance. How do they do this?

The history of the human race gives us enough foundation to understand the simple fact that cosmetic items such as rings, bracelets and necklaces are an acceptable degree of intimacy for just about anyone. They are also much older and universal than anything evolved out of the information age. At their core, these items enhance our attractiveness, often reflecting our perception of self-worth. This —not texting, playing a game, blogging, or talking to someone at a distance—is the core value of jewelry. The exploration of this phenomenon is called "fashion," and as we think of "fashion," we draw images of a world that is very real and yet, very eccentric and impractical at times. Almost the antithesis of the tech world. To this day, no company harmonizes fashion and function like Apple.

The next level of intimacy are glasses and other objects with functional utility, which human beings justify to include on their person for this fact, but are theoretically more cumbersome due to having to satisfy two, rather than just one set of criteria: fashion and utility. History has also shown us that glasses, even without the functional aspects of a computer, are cumbersome and exhaust the value of having them on for any extended length of time. Though the utility may increase with higher functionality, I believe the cost of inclusion on one's person remains too high for Google Glass to become a staple of the average person's lifestyle, unless they themselves require prescription lenses.

In a roundabout way, I've illustrated a three-part trade-off: fashion, vs. utility vs. the burden of indulgence. Google Glass tells me a lot about Google's weaknesses in failing to understand this three-part dynamic. It tells me that Google doesn't pursue or understand fashion nearly as effectively as Apple does, and that Apple's strength in hardware design remains unwavering despite its weaknesses in software (I finally installed Better Touch Tool for simple split-window management and quick desktop access a la Windows). There's an impracticality to Google Glass that is by it's very nature representative of the company's core drivers of data and information, while at least the desktop user experience belonged to Microsoft until lately.

Fast forward to 2012 for an example that demonstrates imbalance perfectly. The "bigger the better" phone wars are on, and Google/Samsung bring us the Galaxy Nexus, the pure Google phone. I switched to Android after tiring of Apple's restrictive ecosystem. I never felt the Gnex was a good fit for the hand. The battery life was atrocious. NFC failed during the one time I tried to use it in an Atlanta gas station. (Granted, I don't see the American South as a high-tech bastion by any means and would probably have used it more if I were in Austin or the Valley.)

Gnex was far from elegant or even functional hardware, but I loved universally texting anyone from any device thanks to Google Voice, and having my wifi passwords maintained in the cloud. To this day I believe Google voice is superior in its recognition capacity to Siri, and I won't even speak of Google Maps in comparison to Apple's. Google remains my model of how to use data together with the cloud to provide a great user experience in software. iOS could definitely learn from Android. But Google, in partnership with Samsung and other hardware vendors for the one-size-fits-all Android OS, also remains my model of what not to do with hardware, with Glass being a very clear extension of the Google mentality.

Google Glass is fun, a novelty, and portends of a dismal future where we're all walking around talking to ourselves with augmented reality glasses on. The burden of indulgence is relatively high in this case. Perhaps Apple's pursuit of a less-intrusive-than-glasses-but-more-intimate-than-a-phone "iWatch" is a more ubiquitous foray into the exact same direction as Glass.

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