Matney: The ‘future’ of wearables is bright, but it’s best to stay away for now

Lucas Matney, Columnist

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On an average day, $1,500 could probably buy you a ton of random stuff, but Tuesday was the only day it could buy you a slice of the future, Google Glass.

On Tuesday, Google sold the device — a computer that consumers wear much like a pair of glasses — to the public for the first time since it was introduced nearly two years ago. Glass is the most high-profile of a new class of devices known throughout the tech industry as “wearables”— extremely mobile devices that allow consumers to gather data and access Internet services with greater ease.

The tech world is unabashed in its belief that wearables are the future. Several startups and major companies are already investing billions to be the first to command the market; however, the world they’re looking to serve isn’t quite ready for them yet. And until our culture is ready to buy into wearables, these devices will not only fail to reach their potential but will put early-adopters in a tough spot.

Though ideas like Glass are truly revolutionary, it may be too much too soon for most people. Even when ignoring the moral quandaries of having a computer directly built into your life, the strangeness of the situation is often enough to make some people uncomfortable. According to a recent poll from a mobile researching firm, 90 percent of Americans would be unwilling to use Google Glass on a regular basis. “Social rejection” was referenced in the study as one of the major factors for people’s timidity in adopting the device.

Herein lies wearables’ major fault: There really aren’t any advantages to being first in line to get them. All that awaits early-adopting consumers are spotty devices with little third-party support that will likely bring ridicule. Indeed, Google Glass wearers, endearingly referred to as “glassholes,” have already been mocked, detained, ticketed and even assaulted just for wearing the devices.

This backlash is strongly rooted in privacy concerns that have breached the forefront of public consciousness ever since the Snowden NSA leaks. Despite featuring far less monitoring capabilities than the average cell phone, Google Glass may appear even more alarming to those who are deeply concerned with privacy issues given that the device’s users literally have a video camera attached to their forehead. How Americans’ views towards technologies like wearables evolve will ultimately rely on how quickly they realize the inevitability of public profiles, big data and — sadly — mass surveillance.

Security concerns aside, like the Bluetooth headset wearers of the past, Google Glass users still look strange to outsiders, often drawing some rather intense reactions as a result. As technological advances allow wearables to be far less physically bulky, this stigma will definitely lessen, but all wearables are going to have to overcome this strangeness if they are to achieve the reach the tech world is hoping they will.

So where are wearables headed from here? In the short term, devices like smartwatches and fitness trackers that communicate with devices users already have will gain popularity and may do the most to shed current misgivings regarding wearables. Commercial success for the market as a whole will necessitate some major launches from companies like Samsung, Google and Apple that have the war chests and influence necessary to wait for consumers to come around.

The late Steve Jobs, the immortalized co-founder of Apple, often spoke of innovation as a way of giving the customer something they didn’t know they wanted. His attitude brought about innovations like the personal computer, the iPod and many others. Today, the hucksters in Silicon Valley are hoping to use this same mantra to sell consumers an inevitable future they don’t want now but hopefully will someday.

Lucas Matney is a Medill sophomore. He can be reached at lucasmatney2016@u.northwestern.edu. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to opinion@dailynorthwestern.com.

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