Did you rush out and buy an Eyetop wearable DVD player when it debuted in 2004? Neither did anybody else, which is why the contraption—which included a portable disc player, a carrying bag, earphones, and goggles that contained a mini video screen—promptly flopped.
The excitement of new technology tends to make us forget about all the duds that promise remarkable breakthroughs, only to end up largely forgotten. So with wearable computers now shaping up as the Next Big Thing, it might be a good moment to practice a little skepticism.
A computer you wear, like clothing or an accessory, is not exactly something you'd wake up in the morning thinking you need. Yet if you believe the late Steve Jobs, brilliant Silicon Valley technologists are supposed to tell us what we need before we actually know it ourselves.
That's why Google Glass, a kind of computerized headpiece, will debut this year to knowing oohs and aahs. Google hasn't released all the details yet, but Glass is supposed to have the functionality of a smartphone packaged into a hands-free device that wraps around your head like a pair of glasses (although anybody who has ever worn glasses knows they're not always hands free). Commands will be verbal, with features like a camera that lets you videotape what's happening right in front of you as you walk around unobtrusively (except for the smartphone stuck to your face.)
Another wearable innovation is the "smartwatch," which syncs with the smartphone in your pocket and acts like an extension of it, allowing you to keep that bulky phone stowed away. A smartwatch can tell you who's calling on your phone, show you text messages, alert you when you've left your phone behind, and—get this—even tell time. More features are coming as the technology improves. Recent reviews in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal offered considerable enthusiasm for a roundup of early entrants.
Wearable computers will get the ultimate endorsement when Apple introduces one, which could happen this year with the rumored debut of an iWatch. But I'm betting wearable devices won't live up to the hype. Here are three reasons why:
1. Diminishing returns: The revolutionary breakthrough of mobile computing is the ability to take the Internet with you wherever you go. That's it. Moving the Internet from your pocket to your wrist or your face is an incremental change, not a dramatic one—and it's not clear that it will even be an improvement.
There could definitely be niche applications for wearable gizmos. Head-mounted video cameras are already popular with snowboarders, skateboarders, and other adventurers, so Google Glass could catch on among people who want to live-stream their own exploits straight to a Website or social-media platform. There will probably be a few cool uses for smartwatches as well. But how much ground is really left to break in mobile computing? (Bigger breakthroughs will come from technologies such as artificial intelligence and 3-D printing.)
2. Overconnectivity: Digital connectivity is reaching a saturation point, taxing even our cognitive ability to keep up with the flow of electrons streaming before our eyes. Another gizmo strapped to the body won't help, unless it simplifies computing rather than complicating it. In theory, Google Glass could be a simplifying device, since it's hands free. But anything that resides on the face interferes with the primary sensors we use to figure out what's going on around us. That might be a godsend for special forces chasing terrorists in the dark, but the first time you stroll into a lamppost because you're watching a YouTube video on Google Glass, you might decide your pocket is the right place for your smartphone after all.
To test whether I'm simply an old codger who can't imagine the future, I asked my 16-year-old daughter if she thought she'd ever wear a smartwatch. "We're already too attached to cell phones," she said. "It would annoy me if every time I got a text my watch would vibrate. I think it's too unsocial." Young'uns, of course, might be persuaded otherwise by some catchy advertising or celebrity endorsements, but the point is that even teenagers feel overconnected these days.
3. The dork factor: Google cofounder Sergey Brin argues that using a smartphone is "emasculating," while sporting Google Glass, presumably, will be a lot cooler. Uh, OK. But it's still hard to imagine that wearable computers will ever become a mainstream fashion statement. Sure, there will be some sleek styling and tie-ins with famous designers. But up till now, there's been a large chasm between technology and fashion. Even the trendsetting iProducts from Apple have largely been consigned to a pocket.
Tech innovators are accustomed to convincing people they've got to have the latest thing. But there's a long list of passé innovations that turned out to be trendy but not lasting: Netbooks. Palm Pilot. Blackberry. Friendster. My Space. Farmville. Segway. Some new technology changes everything, but a lot of it merely amuses us until the novelty wears off. Wearing your smartphone might be fun for a while, but pockets will continue to have an important role to play.
Rick Newman's latest book is Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.