For the past few months, I’ve been testing out the Pebble smartwatch and talking to people who were in the test group for Google Glass smart glasses and one thing is becoming increasingly clear: We’re not ready for ubiquitous computers. As much as backers tout the benefits, wearables technology still flunks too many rules of proper etiquette. They need to be normative to be popular and right now, they’re not.
Even Vint Cerf, the internet pioneer and Google employee, sees a problem. “Our social conventions have not kept up with the technology,” Cerf said, speaking at the Future in Review conference earlier this yet. Cerf, an early supporter of Google Glass, believes that social conventions will evolve, but the challenge may be substantially deeper as it relates to social norms established for centuries.
“It basically means that you’re going to be an asshole, and that it’s easier and easier to ignore people around you,” said Scott Heiferman, founder of Meetup.com about Google Glass, adding that he plans to at some point “punch someone in the face wearing Google glasses.” And there are so many negative social responses to Google glass that the term “glasshole” has come to represent anyone wearing the device.
At The Next Web conference in March, tech columnist Robert Scoble, one of the most vocal supporters of Google Glass, came down on the side of their paparazzi-like power to shred whatever privacy we have left: “I could take a 1600mm lens with camera and shoot you from across the street, this is what happens to celebrities all the time and it can’t be stopped.”
“This is not going to be a Google only problem,” adds Scoble, pointing out that other vendors are moving into the space. Upon seeing that I was wearing a Pebble smart watch, a New York tech executive recently told me he was now leaving his at home. “People thought I was being rude and checking the time constantly when I was really monitoring incoming messages. It sent the wrong signal,” he said.
Therein lies the wearables technology conundrum. You put a phone away and choose not to use it, or you can turn to it with permission if you’re so inclined. Wearables provide no opportunity for pause, as their interruptions tend to be fairly continuous, and the interaction is more physical (an averted glance or a vibration directly on your arm). It’s nearly impossible to train yourself to avoid the reflex-like response of interacting. By comparison, a cell phone is away (in your pocket, on a table) and has to be reached for.
Wearables technology doesn’t yet have the benefit of being normative behavior. We’re used to being interrupted by previous communication technologies. In Europe, it is common for someone to excuse themselves and leave a conversation if he/she receives a phone call or has to use a smartphone. Proponents of wearable devices will have to solve this user experience problem.
Even if they don’t, the technology still has substantial potential in situations where an incoming data stream favors the wearer without imposing on the people around him. For example, surgeons could have access to a patient’s data during an operation, with the patient’s vital signs in their field of view as they operate. Repairmen could have access to information while fixing airplanes, cars, or other devices; journalists could wear those lighter cameras to document events without having to carry heavier equipment; people exercising could receive information about their run or bike ride from the device. This has become an important use case for the Pebble, which synchronizes data with several health-related applications.
But to become a significant consumer product, wearable technology is going to need the help of the general public in redefining social norms around their usage. Easier said than done.