Apple, Beats and wearable tech

by Andy Polaine on June 5, 2014

in General

All the speculation about Apple designing and iWatch and the noise about their acquisition of Beats got me wondering why we do not pay more attention to the tech we are already wearing and why some of it is socially acceptable and some not.

There is a kind of inverse correlation between assistive technologies and wearable tech. It is socially acceptable, cool even, to wear glasses—a medical aid that sits front and centre on your face—but hearing aids are seen to be uncool, even though they are less visible. This is quite unfair, but despite the efforts of artists and designers like David Hockney and Susan Cohn to make hearing aids a feature and not hide them, they remain socially stigmatised.

Conversely, wearing Google Glass turns you into a glasshole, whilst wearing a pair of Beats headphones makes you cool. Well, the coolness factor is debatable with Beats headphones. One Amazon reviewer describes a pair of Sennheiser Momentum headphones as “much more of a premium look and feel than the plastic ridden beats. These are something that an adult can be seen in public in without looking like a complete tool.” Nevertheless, plenty of people do find Beats cool, despite them being the worst noise polluters I ever have to sit next to on the train. Besides, it is hard to argue with $3 billion. In short, headphones and glasses are hipster, hearing aids and Google Glass are not. Bluetooth earpieces appear to have taken on the stigma of hearing aids, plus the toolness of Glass. Wearers shouting into thin air and mostly being annoying salesmen probably does not help their case.

Obviously, wearable technology has a future, but it is easy to forget that how much of the future is already here. I carry my iPhone around in my jeans or jacket pocket. Am I wearing it? Kind of. It depends on your definition of “wearing”. If I stick it in my front shirt pocket like Joaquin Phoenix in Her, is that wearing my phone or just carrying it around more publicly? What about sticking it on my arm while jogging? That probably counts as wearing it.

The irony of all the bullshit calls for Apple to produce an iWatch is that people are wearing watches less often because they have a smartphone in their pocket that they use instead of a watch. To make an iWatch would be for Apple to make a device that replaces a device the iPhone already made redundant.

The other trend for wrist-worn tech either look like a bloated Livestrong wristband or a flexible ruler from the 80s. All of these require lots of persuading people they are cool enough to wear, which usually requires lots of marketing money. Pre-iPhone it was hard to imagine a phone that had no buttons and was just a panel of glass. Although Apple did spend plenty of money on marketing, the key factor was that it was the phone everyone had been waiting for because manufacturers had made such a hash of phone design up until then. Nobody thought they were going to be ridiculed for using one in public. It was designing for an unarticulated need more than marketing that achieved that. The iPhone went with the flow of public desire for such a simple, yet powerful, device.

If you are designing a piece of wearable tech today, perhaps one that is not so miniature—the size of a matchbox, say, so that it has some decent processing power—then you have two choices. You either come up with something that is new and confronting, like Google Glass and try and persuade people that, no, honestly, they really are cool. Or you look at the big chunks of tech people are already wearing, like those half-buns perched on your ears. That’s where I would consider building some new, amazing, wearable technology. You can jam a lot in that space an people still think you are wearing a cool pair of headphones instead of looking like a tool. That is far easier to sell and eventually the technology will get smaller and fit into earbuds, which is what every iPhone comes with anyway and everyone is used to wearing. The production designers of Her got that part very right.

Tim, Jony, Mr Dre (because I’m fairly certain you are not really a doctor), you know what to do.

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