Is it time for wearable computing?

My latest BBC Future column – reprinted here for UK readers – takes a look at the possibilities of wearable computing in the light of Apple’s putative “iWatch”.

There’s nothing the internet likes more than rumours about Apple products – apart, possibly, from cute cuts. In the last few days, it is the former that has preoccupied countless netizens.

Specifically, it was rumours about the possible appearance of an iWatch from the Cupertino tech giant. The frenzy of speculation was sparked by a piece written by interface expert and ex-Apple employee Bruce Tognazzini, who argued that a watch would “fill a gaping hole in the Apple ecosystem” and herald a new phase in how we interact with technology.

The article offered no proof that Apple was working on a watch – or that the device that was rapidly christened an iWatch was even a timekeeper (could iWatch be the name of the long awaited TV from Apple?). But the story – true or not – offers a fascinating insight into the rapidly emerging field of wearable computing.

For Tognazzini – the designer behind the Apple Mac’s original user interface – what’s at stake is computing that is able to treat you, for the first time, as a human being. Today, smartphones know roughly where we’re standing, the logins for a selection of our online profiles, and hold a selection of apps and files. Tomorrow, wearable computing might know everything from your altitude and posture to your pulse, blood type, height, weight, and daily routines, right down to the way you take coffee from different stores.

All of this is already technically possible. The question, though, is whether we actually want it. Wearable computing has been on the cusp of the mainstream for years. But are people ready to take the next step into making digital devices such an intimate part of their daily lives?

So far, the mobile computing trend has been towards a multiplication of screens: an increasingly powerful second screen held in the hand, supplementing the flat panel TV on the living room wall, and quite possibly supplemented in turn by further devices at home and work.

Yet the portable power behind this second screen, as Tognazzini highlights, presents an under-exploited opportunity. Why rummage around on the move or constantly brandish an expensive, delicate smartphone if you can instead use it as the hub of your own portable media ecosystem? With a smartwatch on your wrist, smart headphones in your ears, and so on, your phone can remain tucked away while these interlinked devices mediate seamlessly between you and the world.

It’s one of the first visions of wearable computing that, to me, feels like something ordinary people might actually want to do, rather than a black box into which only the earliest of adopters will be willing to pour their efforts (not mentioning any names). The key word, as so often, is “convenience” – which in this case flows from the steady blurring of our physical and digital identities.

Take the laborious task of remembering passwords and passcodes, for instance. Some speculate that the fictional Apple device – or others like it – could soon see them off. After all, if you’re wearing a watch that pairs with your phone, and both devices were activated this morning by a fingerprint and haven’t been more than a few feet apart ever since, it’s pretty safe to assume that you are indeed who you claim.

This means that all the important, secure stuff in your life – from train tickets to banking to social network passwords – can be deployed with a minimum of fuss and active intervention. And it also means that the version of you the world is interacting with via the devices you’re wearing is actually, well, you, rather than just your login to a particular profile – complete with your truly “personal ecosystem” of apps and assets, ready to act on your behalf more like a collaborator than a tool.

This, at least, is the theory; and it’s worth noting that this theory depends upon both the constant presence of an internet connection and the conversion of our sartorial accessories into a kind of always-on electronic ID. None of which will be cheering to those concerned about privacy, unintended consequences – or the special species of stupidity that, as I argued in this column last month, can apply to the proliferation of “smart” systems.

Yet I suspect these hurdles will be overcome – with or without Apple. “Technology,” as the American author and academic Sherry Turkle once wrote, “is seductive when what it offers meets our human vulnerabilities”; and the kind of ease on offer here is more seductive than most.

Think of how social networks have already become a kind of second self for so many of us. The rewards for success, on both the user and creator sides of the equation, are simply too great. No matter how great the reservations in some quarters, we’re not far distant from a future in which apps and devices become as much a unique part of us, in the eyes of the world, as our haircuts or glasses.

Humanity, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, can resist anything except temptation. Yet before we gratefully submit and slip on the next generation of wearable devices, it’s worth reflecting on the fine line between creating technologies that reflect our lives and technologies that control them.

I love my phone dearly, but I’m not sure quite how far I trust it – and its creators – with everything it already knows about me, let alone giving it unfettered access to my heart rate, blood type and beverage preferences. If these visions come to pass, some of us may yet discover that there’s only so much of ourselves we’re prepared to share.

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