The Return of the Wearable Computer?

The other day, Gordon introduced me to the “scope” feature of Urban Spoon, an app that he had on his phone. I thought it was incredibly neat. Point your iPhone forward, and the phone activates the camera lens, displaying an image of whatever is in front of you. With annotations! It annotates all the restaurants ahead. With ratings! Layar is a similar type of app, adding annotations to an image of what’s in front of you.

So I went home and I loaded Urban Spoon on to my iPhone and… it’s like Spock said. Having is not nearly so great a thing as wanting. It was neat to show off, but it’s not really the most useful thing I’ve played with. Pointing the phone is awkward, and I can’t imagine having that feature turned on for more than a minute or two.

Tonight I was reading an interesting blog called Quiet Babylon — it described this idea of annotated imagery as “augmented reality”. And it was a little bit skeptical of the potential for some forms of augmented reality. If you check out this entry, for example, there’s a nice quote on the topic:

Returning to augmented reality, there is of course a great risk that it will flop, just as the first wave of virtual reality did in the 1990s. I remember being taken to the Trocadero Centre to try out the “Virtuality” machines installed there – the first in the UK. I remember it clearly because it was such a huge disappointment. AR strikes me as massively more practical, but no matter how sophisticated the technology, it still comes up against a fixed limitation – the human arm. Are people going to walk around holding up their mobile phones to navigate the world?Rationally, I’d say no, but then I wouldn’t have guessed that people would experience real-life events through the tiny screen on their digital cameras or even their mobile phones – and they do, preferring to see an event through a technological surrogate. I wouldn’t have guessed that people would trust the information on their Sat Nav screen over the evidence of their own eyes and instincts, but they do. There’s no guessing what people might prefer to delegate to gadgetry.

The blog went on to talk about two models of augmented reality: the pocket model (like a pocket phone — which certainly seems to be having a hey day) and the lanyard model. Lanyards are certainly less common, but not unheard of. Maybe you’ve seen Ken walking around with a USB key on a lanyard. That’s a pretty boring type of lanyard. But consider this old blog post that I made a few years ago. The idea is that there’s a wearable computer that’s recording any conversation you have with someone. If I have a recording of all my conversations, then I have completely externalized my memory of discussions (but recall probably takes a lot of work).

That’s actually not a lanyard. It’s glasses. Which is really part of a third model of augmented reality (“Things you Wear on Your Head”), and mostly not talked about. But if the features of eyeBlogging were available on a doohickey you wear around your neck, that’s the lanyard model. As Quiet Babylon notes, Bruce Sterling believes that nobody wants to wear a lanyard (well, except maybe Tuco from The Good, The Bad and The Ugly). This bit is really interesting:

Pocket augmented reality tends to being active, burst-use, and private. It uses tiny screens on a personal device. No one else is meant to see what it shows beyond the person holding it. You have to actively decide to take it out and make use of it, and it spends most of its time in sleep mode in your pocket.In contrast, lanyard augmented reality is passive, always-on, and public. These are fuzzy boundaries, but take a look at a few prototypes and you’ll see what I mean.I’ve already pointed to Maptor, a GPS device that projects a map of your immediate surroundings onto a nearby surface. Yanko’s pitch for it talks about how useful it is because no one need ever know you are lost. They gets this exactly backwards.

Lost and don’t want anyone to know? Projecting a glowing map will probably blow your cover. You are much better off pulling out your Droid and pretending you are looking at text messages while you find your way.

On the other hand, being able to unfurl a map where everyone in the group can see? That’s something missing from tiny screens. With Maptor, a group of people can gather around and point to the things they want to talk about, taking navigation back to the shared collaborative experience that it was when we had paper maps.

Check out this TED talk about a lanyard device called Sixth Sense. Watch the video at least to the point where the device user is dialing a phone number on his hand.

Maybe this is just nerdvana, but I think it’s kinda interesting.

I also find this entry about conference badges really insightful. Clearly, there are spaces where we’ve completely normalized lanyards.

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