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What CES SHOULD Say About Wearable Devices (But Probably Won’t)

Coming up to CES this week, one of the big themes discussed is around having wearable computers.  There has been speculation about the announcement of smart watches and smart glasses like Google Glass.  InsideFMM even asked “when will wearable computers become fashionable?

To me, there are several interesting aspects to this question: Reinventing the past, Repacking the present, and Rethinking the mobile screen.

Reinventing the past: People of a certain generation remember the calculator watch, which probably reached its evolutionary peak with the Casio Databank DBC600.

(Yeah, I owned one of these bad boys. Don’t be too jealous!).  Although the calculator watch died off in the 80s for the most part, it looks like we’re going retro in yet another space.  The 80s are truly back.

Repacking the present: Today, we’ve started to create much more functional versions of the “smartwatch,” mainly by attaching our iPod Nanos to watchstraps, but we still haven’t fully taken advantage of either the functionality or the style that a 2013 smartwatch can take advantage of.  Can we think of any possible way to make a smartwatch easier to use, more functional, and sexier than the things we strapped on 30 years ago?  Can we add additional functionality to the wriststrap itself by embedding Bluetooth and NFC, a battery, or region or function-specific radios?

Rethinking the mobile screen: Although the wriststrap and aesthetics are important as well, the fundamental challenge is in thinking about the potential for a 2-inch screen.  When the iPad reinvented a moribund tablet market, it did so by reimagining the possibilities for a 10 inch screen.  Similarly, what can be done with a high-definition 2-inch screen?  Is GPS the only real use case here?  Or is there potential for adding alerts?  Voice-enabled social media updates? Audio or sensor-based context?  Old-fashioned paging? The 2-inch screen needs to go through a full usability audit for the smartwatch to reach its full potential.

In addition, there is also the potential for specific accessories to be coupled with touch-free and contextual user interfaces, such as Leap Motion.  This combination of accessory, context, and interaction is going to provide individuals with an augmented reality that is immersive enough to provide new value, yet limited enough to refrain from overwhelming humans trying out real-life augmented reality for the first time.  It will need to be simply, like the iPhone, yet complicated, like the iPhone app ecosystem.

Once this happens, Apple (or whoever else figures it out first) will have its next new product that will provide new types of interactions.  Right now, the smartwatch is just a reappropriation of other technologies, but hopefully CES will show a new smartwatch that considers the form factor on its own merits.  If not, 2013 will not be the year of wearable devices.  And for my Casio Databank DBC600 loving heart, that would be a shame.

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