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Google Glasses are just the beginning: Why wearable computing is the future

the future of HUD glassesTo say that Google Glasses stole the I/O show last week is an understatement. The next-gen device took the conference by storm, and we all forgot that Google is (was?) a search company. Now that the world is in the throes of Project Glass and Sergey Brin’s circus of skydiving, rappelling, BMX biking demonstrators, word is spreading about other manufacturers’ plans to create and sell wearable computers.

According to a Japanese press release, Olympus has announced a prototype of its own headset. The device appears to be called the MEG4.0 and uses Bluetooth to connect with your smartphone – as you can see from this very technical graphic:

olympus meg4.0 bluetoothThe MEG4.0 features a QVGA 320 x 240 display, an accelerometer, Bluetooth 2.1, and approximately eight hours of battery life (as long as you only switch it on for 15 seconds every three minutes).  Strangely, there is no mention of the MEG4.0’s camera – a surprisingly choice given the fact that Olympus’ consumer-facing technology is digital cameras and lenses. Was this lost in the translation, or would Olympus actually launch a Google Glasses competitor without one of its most lauded functions?

True to form, Apple has also been researching HUD (heads-up display) goggles. Hot on Google’s heels comes news about an Apple patent from way back in 2006. “Peripheral treatment for head-mounted displays” describes a device users wear the combines what they are actually seeing with an augmented reality. It’s a very general sort of patent; there’s nothing in the way of specs, and the purposes for use are broad.

While less encouraging given the company’s lack of a tech background, remember that Oakley is also going to give the wearable tech thing a go. “Ultimately, everything happens through your eyes, and the closer we can bring it to your eyes, the quicker the consumer is going to adopt the platform,” Oakley said this past spring.

Personal computing is taking a page out of sci-fi lore with HUD computing glasses, and it’s a big step toward what’s called the wearable computing movement. This is no novelty, as indicated by the fact that major manufacturers are throwing their hats (and money) in the ring. Even patents from the past are surfacing with renewed interest in the wake of the Google Glasses hype.

Amber Case is the co-founder and CEO of mobile location platform Geoloqi, as well as a cyborg anthropologist, and she is downright giddy about Google’s creation – although you could say she and the rest of the wearable computing community saw this coming. “Wearable computing was really started by Steve Mann in the late 70s,” she says. “He put together and wore 80 pounds of computer equipment and walked around MIT’s campus.”

According to Case, Mann was “mad at computers,” and wanted devices conform to us instead of the other way around. The wearable computing movement has continued that legacy, and Google glasses are just the next iteration.

Despite Google’s impressive demo, Case notes that Google Glasses in their current stage don’t have all the answers. A better way to configure the display would be to have a laser inputting data directly into your eye – but that would involved eye tracking. Surely Google heard the thousand cries from privacy advocates in its future if it were to leap that far right away. And on the subject of privacy, there’s also the question of where we will be allowed to take pictures with the device.

twiddler keyboardSince Google Glasses aren’t hands-free, we’ll also remain at the mercy of the smartphone. Case says one-handed keyboards called Twiddlers could be part of the eventual solution. The goal is an era of what’s called calm computing, where technology is actually seamless and fades into the background. More significantly, where it’s bringing people together instead of keeping them apart. Right now, the desktop and the laptop keep us stationary, inactive and in one place. (You can move that place with laptops, but then you’re just in another stationary, inactive place.) Smartphones have improved the situation, but it’s a more limited experience, and they certainly aren’t HUD-friendly. Wearable computing means that technology truly adapts to you and you can truly use it for social means.

“The next big thing at that point is going to be location,” says Case, whose Geoloqi team gets its Google beta unit shortly. “Once you have this mobile device that’s attached, the most important thing becomes location, because everything has to be relevant to you.”

She’s justifiably excited, in part because it means she can win a bet: that within the next five years someone will use a wearable headset display and be cool for wearing it. “Technology should be an extension of the physical self, and this allows you to share more. It’s a natural extension of what we’re doing with our phones,” Case says. “Why would anyone not get into this?”

Besides the technology, the other very interesting part of the Google Glasses story is that Google will launch them. Yes, that’s implied, but it’s still remarkable. Does anyone else remember that Google was once just a search engine? The ramp up into keyword-based advertising came pretty early on, but hardware was but a twinkle in its founders’ eyes. Now, this company that only just got into hardware development is going to be the one that introduces consumers to the next phase of personal computing. The risk is that Google is ahead of its time here, that we’re not ready, and that someone else will capitalize on this market once buyers are prepared to take that leap. But that doesn’t take away the fact that Google will have done it first — and that regardless of make or manufacturer, we’re all going to be wearing these things.

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