Wearable technology - too scary, too invasive?

My previous article was a brief introduction to wearable technology. It was the first in a series about how I believe wearable tech is going to change our lives. When explaining what wearable technology is with people their initial reaction is often a fear that technology is simply going too far, being too invasive and becoming too much a part of our lives. However, as conversation progresses and I clarify exactly how I see us implementing this technology they become more accepting of the idea and excited about the potential it holds. In this article I hope to dispel some the concerns people have voiced to me about the impact too much technology will have on us as a society and alleviate some of the apprehensions people have when discussing the direction that our technology is heading.

As technology advances and becomes ever more present in our lives people seemingly grow more and more nervous about where we will eventually end up. I think what people fear is that we, as a society, will end up like the one depicted in WALL-E where we are utterly dependent on technology to fulfil our every need, experience and interaction (See video above). WALL-E depicts a dystopian future in which individuals no longer live their lives and are ignorant to any experiences beyond their floating chair. Humans have become meat blobs whose life experiences are limited to the screen in front of them. Technology is responsible for all the mundane aspects of life that should, theoretically, freeing them up to engage in a life of leisure (Pliny would be proud). But they've gone too far and all those activities now only exist virtually. To interact with their friends they video call them, all the time facing forward into the flashing screen even as their friends chair floats alongside them. Yes, the depicted situation is pretty far away from simply wearing a pair of high-tech spectacles but there are some interesting points made about losing sight of the bigger picture. The film makes important statements about an over reliance on technology. It would be detrimental both socially and physically to us individually and to society as a whole. When WALL-E interrupts one human and her gaze is broken from her screen there is a brief moment of awe and realisation that there does exist a world beyond her display. No one wants us to end up like that. In the film the complete dependence on technology came about because society lost sight of how it should be utilising technology. Technology should enhance our lives by being helpful and convenient without being invasive and detracting from the activities in which we engage. The humans in the film were existing, not living. Their reality was confined to the display in front of them. The film is, admittedly, a rather extremist portrayal of an over reliance on technology far in to the future but its message is clear about the possible outcome if we don't control our use of technology. It is an interesting thought to ponder. For now though, discussion will focus on some of the ways we are likely going to be impacted by using wearable technology in the near future and explore where I feel the boundaries need to be placed.

Physical Impact

Human dystopia - humans reduced to dependent meatsacks WALL-E made interesting points about the inactivity that came about from a reliance on technology. But I do believe their are opportunities for technology to play a role in some of our physical activities. I play rugby, squash, enjoy running and snowboarding. Surely I don't expect wearable technology to invade all of these experiences? Well actually, yes, some of them at least. I will admit games such as rugby and squash don't need wearable tech. I struggle to see how any implementation would benefit the game. Those kind of games are not experiences I want fouled with unnecessary technology and don't need further development. They are fun exactly how they are and the addition of technology into the playing of the game would only detract from the experience. But in activities such as running and snowboarding there is, perhaps, opportunity to enhance these experiences. I recently saw a concept video for an app called RaceYourself (check the video out here). These kind of concepts are exciting - they really capture the potential to utilise wearable tech in a completely new way. It does the basics that you expect of a running app: tracking routes, times, pace just as apps like MapMyRun and RunKeeper do already. Activities like running have already been enchanted with technology and it is only a small progression to move smartphone apps into a wearable form factor. The limitation with apps running on smartphones is that they are restricted to your pockets and its incredible inconvenient to check the screen for an update while out training. But the RaceYourself app runs on Glass. It overlays your performance information on your normal vision so it is always easy to check. Further, it visualises previous efforts as a runner avatar and gamifys training with boulder and zombie challenges. Yes, the video is only a concept and uses augmented reality. Augmented reality is not currently a feature of Google Glass but it is, in my opinion, its natural evolution. The important take away is that RaceYourself a wonderful demonstration of the opportunities that wearable tech offers without being too unorthodox. Snowboarding too offers many opportunities for wearable tech. We already use mounted cameras to record our adventures and snap photos without too much of a faff and the Glass's camera can help us do that too without the extra equipment. The smart phone has already evidence of our desire for devices that consolidate multiple features. But its use its not limited just to a camera. What if I could get piste directions and recommendations, avalanche warnings, visual overlays of where my friends skiing and markers pointing me to the best apres ski bars are reviewed by others? In these situations you can see there is a real potential for wearable tech to enhance our experience without detracting from it. I have only discussed a couple of activities here and different sports are going to present unique opportunities to utilise wearable tech. Once again I say, we should always be sure to implement technology in an appropriate way that enhances what we do. My thoughts for the near future aren't so much a concern about becoming the floating blobs in WALL-E but ruining games and experiences that work well just the way they are.

Social Impact

Is all this wearable technology going to affect how we engage and interact with each other? Well yes, but probably not as much as mobile devices already have. The impact the recent mass adoption of smartphones has had on us a society is a hotly debated issue with the proponents of tech highlighting the ease of communication and sharing it has facilitated whilst critics denouncing it for limiting our social interactions to a glowing screen. Last year, a video titled 'I Forgot my Phone' went viral. It is a two minute video portraying an intrusion of mobile devises into wonderful and special moments of our lives to the extent that we miss out on just experiencing the moment. It mourns for a society whose members are always connected and yet incredibly isolated. It is a very well made video and it does make you pause and think, but honestly it seems to me it has entirely misrepresented how we are using our devices. The video makes out that our obsession with mobile technology is entirely ruining our lives and doesn't acknowledge all those wonderful moments it has helped us preserve. For me there is a delightful sense of irony that many of the 39million views it has so far had will have come from mobile devices and because people sharing it with their networks. If you watched the New Year's firework displays many of the shots captured the mass of glowing screens in the audience and you may begin to think the video was right. But think further along, people have captured a unique moment with their friends and family. They want to remember it, who wouldn't?

Human dystopia - humans reduced to dependent meatsacks

The ever present phone gives us amazing opportunities to capture moments more casually than ever before. I like our devices are available to hand. My current phone background is a picture of my friends and I in Gauchos during a reunion weekend. I love that we were able to capture that one moment in a photo quickly and easily during our meal and go back to spending the time together. What I find more worrying than idea of the ever-present mobile phone is that the producers of the video had so little faith in people's self control. We are entirely capable of going out to a meal without spending the entire time ignoring those we are with in favour of liking other people's status updates. If you're sat around a table where all the other guests are entranced by the glow of a small screen it is perhaps time to either reassess your friendships or brush up your conversational skills. Technology isn't going to lead to the break down of our relationships in society. Gillian Tett recently wrote a piece for the FT about the differences in how teenagers and adults interact with and use technology (Paywall) at their disposal. She highlighted an observation made by Danah Boyd that teens were using their devices and sharing the content that was on them. This sharing occurred not just remotely through the social networking sites as you would expect but also sharing the device's display with their friends that were physically around them. Ironically, it was the older generations that traditionally chastise the youth for their addiction to their devices who were more isolated with their engagement with technology. This is potentially why they fail to grasp just how much technology can be used to connect with others because they are not doing it themselves. It is not the case that the waves of new technology are going to destroy our social connections but it will cause change. We do, however, have a responsibility as a society to develop etiquette for when is and isn't appropriate to use our devices. If we do this the situations depicted in 'I lost my phone' won't become the norm and their occurrence will be contemptible.

This article has so far had an extremely liberal approach to tech but there are things that do concern me. A facial recognition app called NameTag has recently attracted a lot of negative press. It is capable of recognising a face at a distance and bringing up information about the person. Initially, this seems pretty invasive and I would tend to agree. I don't live the idea of a stranger being able to pull up a mass of information about me based just on my face. We already live in a world where a name is all it takes to pull a load of details about your online activities (I wrote an article previously on how to control that). However, the information would only be what I explicitly permitted the app to share through privacy controls available on all popular social networks. The intent of the app is to help foster new connections and relationships. We've always been taught not to judge a book by its cover but seems like this app gives you a way to see someones blurb. When realising that you have control over what information the app displays about you it seems slightly less controversial but I am sure the concept will still make some uneasy and is potentially open to a host of social engineering attacks. The app will allegedly have iOS and Android versions for smart phones but we react to these differently. With smartphones, it is relatively obvious when someone is trying to capture your image; the smart phone is in your face and obvious. But glass isn't. It is worn all the time regardless of what the user is doing. It is not in your face but on theirs making it harder to know what they are doing with that camera and HUD and the source, I believe, of many people's concerns. Google have an outright ban on facial recognition apps, likely because they understand the potential trouble it may cause. But I have other issues when it comes to facial recognition apps. My concerns are not privacy related, I am generally confident that most app developers will give you the ability to lock down your information like on other social networking sites. Instead my fears relate to how it may change how we interact with each other. Will facial recognition lead to us simply building up a list of notes about someone for future reference instead of engaging with that person in the moment? I am not suggesting this doesn't already happen. A friend of mine told me about black books the account managers had in a company he used to work. These books contained pages and pages of information and notes about their clients private lives (that they had mentioned in general conversation). This meant they were able to casually ask things how little Johney was doing in his new school to boost their relationship with their client. It is a sort of relationship engineers and what if this sort of relationship tracking became widespread? It would make us question if the person we are talking to actually cared enough to remember that I have a boxer dog called Lilly or if they just pulled it up on their display to maintain the conversation? I currently work part time in a bar and restaurant. The manager I work with is fantastic with customers, he knows his regulars and engages with them in a way that I have rarely seen before. It is all genuine. He knows them because he cares about them because they are his customers. His customers love him for it (if anyone has ever eaten at Wildfire in Jersey you will know exactly whom I am talking about). However, if he was wearing Google Glass how many of those customers would doubt his genuine nature? Maybe some, but his rapport with customers extends beyond remembering tidbits of information about them. It is nature and how interacts with them that cements it. Flash cards of information are simply not enough build a relationship so the concern is perhaps not as inimical as initially thought. As with anything there will be risks and negatives but we shouldn't let them ruin the potential of the technology. It is is once again about us applying the technology appropriately and as a society defining the boundaries for it.

Conclusion

Fundamentally, the shift from mobile devices to wearable ones isn't that big. It is a natural evolution of our technology. The change pales in comparison to the tech revolution of the last 10 years that has put incredibly powerful, functional and versatile devices into our pockets. These devices allow you to call your Mum, search the wealth of human knowledge, learn immediately about events on the other side of the world and throw displeased birds green pigs in questionable structures. The backlash against wearable tech is not because it is a huge leap away from what we know but because it moves to a prominent position and people don't yet understand it. I believe that is what worries people. That isnt going to change over night. It will take time for people to understand what it is and the opportunities it can offer. It will be apps like RaceYourself created by visionary entrepreneurs that will move Glass to prominence and reveal its potential.

The rapid advancement of technology and its roles it now plays in our lives is fantastic. Our social networks are getting larger and stronger not smaller and weaker and this growth is fuelled by the technology we are fortunate enough to have at our fingertips. But with all these changes comes the potential for misuse. We should always be mindful of how and where we are using it. It is important that we define boundaries and etiquette for the use of this technology so it does not grow to be invasive but supportive and helpful - as it was intended.

This article provides a summary of the current state of wearable technologies with some throughs as to their direction.

2014/03/01

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