Social Wearables

We’ve been thinking about social wearables in the Lab recently; that is, objects that explicitly leverage their visibility or invisibility to create social affordances. In this post I’ll expand on this concept and frame a few questions we’re pursuing.

Framing

Wearables right now are almost exclusively recorders: we use them to record sensor values at a resolution and duration that we, as humans, aren’t capable of doing on our own. Today’s wearables exist in the physical world only to the extent that their sensors require: if it were, for example, possible for Fitbit to know my minute-to-minute activity levels without me carrying their device, they’d happily sell me quantified-self-as-a-service, rather than expending more effort trying to squeeze more battery life into an ever-smaller hardware package.

My Fitbit is small enough to conceal in my pocket, but there’s another sensor-laden device in my pocket, one that does more than just record accelerometer values; why don’t I use my smartphone to do the recording? And in fact, Google Now’s “Activity” card is more or less selling me Fitbit’s QS-as-a-service with one key upgrade: there’s no extra device to carry around.

People are enormously sensitive to the cost of carrying stuff around – one look at everyday carry illustrates the extent to which we choose our personal effects for optimal weight, utility and style. What if your phone got heavier with each app you installed? Obviously, you’d apply a logic similar to your everyday carry, carefully considering the net benefit you expect to receive from donning a device against the cost of lugging it around all day.

In other words, wearable devices need to have a reason for being physical, separate objects in order for there to be a good use case for carrying them around.

There’s also a more diffuse, conceptual unease accompanying public/visible technology that only one person may use. The archetypal rude businessman talking on his Bluetooth earpiece; the anxiety we feel when in the presence of a Glass-wearer but are not able to know what he’s looking at: these bad experiences that happen when technology allows someone to superimpose their world onto the world we have to share with him, but without letting us participate.

More generally, anything I wear is going to be read by others in the same way that they already “read” my clothing choices, my grooming, my affect and so on. It’s just strange to ignore the social-performative component of a wearable device. Conversely, one good reason to wear a thing that is visible/readable by others is for the social affordances such a device might offer.

What I’m getting at is the implausibility of an enduring category of wearables that only record: I think they’re an anomaly in a larger trajectory in which wearable devices come to leverage their physicality, their presence in my immediate environment, to add to my interactions as they happen, rather than record aspects of the world for later.

New types of information

Wearables that engage with the world around me, and particularly with the people around me, are few and far between right now, but I think that as we move from low-level sensor fusion (gait analysis, GPS breadcrumbs) to more nuanced, semantically-rich signals (Curriculum, anticipatory systems), we’ll be able to author more synchronous and in-context experiences; we will have moved from recording to listening.

I’m particularly interested in social wearables because they will make rapid progress in the near term, as our listening capabilities (semantic analysis, real-time speech-to-text) improve. They also have the potential to introduce totally new types of information into a face-to-face interaction: we have an opportunity here to add bandwidth to ourselves, to make our own superpowers.

What kinds of interactions are we looking out for? I’ve tried to categorize the main functions I think we might see wearables focus on:

Prosthesis / Behavior Augmentation

These are devices that I wear to assist in my interactions and behaviors. For example, a band that vibrates when I’m speaking too loudly, or when it seems like I have been interrupting someone frequently.

Deeper Connections

Devices that marshall extra information or that retain/recall my cognitive context (for example, “what was I thinking about last week?” or “What ideas led me to bookmark this article?”) across space and time. Blush falls into this category, as do some features of Android Wear’s SDK.

Dowsing and Divination

Devices that I use opportunistically to find affinities between myself and others, or between myself and spaces. The 90s toy Lovegety, which lets wearers know when they’re near a person with similar interests, is an early instance of this kind of device. A wearable that knew and understood its immediate context would be the ideal platform for many different types of ad hoc affinity- or resource-driven dowsing: automatic opportunistic mesh networking in areas with spotty network access, local dead-drop file exchange, and the like.

These examples are obviously just some of the futures that become possible as wearables evolve.  I think the real promise of the next decade of wearable technologies will be realized when we apply ourselves to these questions:

  • What new kinds of information might best feed a “Deeper Connection”-type wearable? Will these new feeds be legible to everyone, or will they have their own private meanings?
  • How will we negotiate the additional levels of disclosure that a wearable might make available? We already see a deep anxiety about Glass’s photo capabilities; what happens when the next generation of Google Glass, or its successor, is more or less invisible?
  • Are these wearables really leveraging their presence on the body? Do they augment or extend my capabilities in the world, or are we just fragmenting phone functions to more convenient forms, pushing the UI out of the screen?

We’re already using these questions to frame our work as we continue to think about the opportunities and challenges presented by semantically-informed, socially-engaged wearables. I’ll be posting more works and thoughts here as they develop, including a couple of new wearable experiments to be completed in the next few months.