June 04, 2015
“[Technology] is supposed to improve our lives, but sometimes it just distracts us from what really matters. That’s where wearable technology has the most potential – to be in our lives, to be there for us, but not in the way.” – Isabelle Olsson, Google Glass Lead Designer
In the next decade, typing on a computer keyboard, or even a smart phone, could be as anachronous as your Commodore 64, Atari Game System or eight-track. As the tech world experienced what was widely claimed “the year of the wearable technology boom” in 2014, devices that could monitor your sleep, track your activity, retrieve your messages and photo-capture your memorable moments appeared in the forms of watches, bands and even fabrics. And the momentum shows no signs of stopping – by 2018, projections of wearable technology in the market range from 130 to 180 million devices. Though the challenges for such devices are great – from privacy concerns to aesthetics to operability – the benefits to retail, medicine, entertainment and culture will seemingly only increase as the technology matures. In the fifth installment of our six-part Trendswatch 2015 recap, we’ll analyze some of the devices currently available, weigh the benefits and pitfalls, and consider how cultural institutions can take advantage of their potential.
Peaks and Valleys
According the Trendswatch report, “wearable tech is about seamless integration, invisibility and blending technology into everyday life.” Some of the world’s biggest companies have made great strides in wearable technology, but they’ve also experienced some major setbacks. In 2013, using a focus group of “Explorers”, Google attempted to deconstruct the fourth wall between technology and the “real world” with Google Glass. The glasses, which were available in three styles, featured a touchpad interface on the rim that allowed users to swipe through a timeline interface displayed on the lens. In addition to showing the weather, photos, updates and emails, the glasses could take photos and 720p video.
Though Google Glass was released to the public on May 15, 2014 at a price of $1,500 per unit, Google pulled the product from the market a mere eight months later. More than half of the 16 Google Glass developers jumped ship in late 2014, citing lack of consumer interest and poor hardware specifications and seeing more potential in enterprise software. There were also concerns about privacy, since Glass wearers can snap a photo with the blink of an eye, virtually unnoticed by those around them. Naysayers have even coined the term “glasshole” for those early Glass adopters that were so obsessed with their device that they eschewed the outside world, calling the spectacles “pretentious and intrusive.” A Fox Business Insider article dubbed the technology “the most expensive dust collector ever sold” and consumer electronics expert Tim Bajarin deemed it “the worst $1,500 he ever spent in his life.” In fact, the backlash around Google Glass’ unfortunate debut is such that consumers have begun questioning Google’s credibility – a hit to the brand that could cost a lot more than $1,500 per unit.
Apple hopes to avoid Google’s fate with its new Apple Watch. The company claims to have “invented all new ways to select, navigate and input that are ideally suited to a smaller device worn on the wrist.” The watch features a customizable face and notifies the user of incoming messages via a gentle tap. It can also send a tap, a canned text message or a heartbeat to another user, which Apple insists is “less about sending words than creating a meaningful connection.” In the health and fitness realm, the watch provides a complete picture of the user’s all-day activity – from sleep to workouts – and encourages the wearer to keep moving. It can serve as a credit card and as a phone, and already features hundreds of apps. Aesthetically, consumers can select from a wide range of face and band styles “for individual expression,” addressing a rampant criticism of most wearable technology being too masculine and homogeneous in appearance.
Dana Everhart, JRA Assistant Operations Manager and noted Apple product enthusiast, recently offered her opinions on the $350 Gen 1 Apple Watch. She purchased the watch in order to streamline her wearables, eliminating the need for both a FitBit for health tracking and a Pebble watch for communication. For her, being able to ditch her phone was huge selling point: “because I’m a girl, my phone is always in my handbag, not in my pocket, so I was always missing calls and messages. Now I can just look at my wrist.” She loves how the Apple Watch enables her to glance at a plethora of information quickly and then delete it just as easily – a faster way of processing and dismissing information. She also feels that she is not interrupted as much (“you would not believe how much time it takes to pull out a phone from my purse”), and she loves how she can talk on it, especially in the privacy of her home. While she enjoys being able to customize the watch face to what she wants to see, she laments that the device is cumbersome to set up and feels that you have to really have the patience to customize it and ride the learning curve. And she is not completely untethered to her iPhone – the phone needs to rest within a certain distance of the watch to ensure proper operation. Overall, she will continue to buy NextGens as they develop (she fantasizes that the next version will have a camera) and is 100% on board with the notion that wearable tech is the future despite its current challenges.
Even “The Mouse” has experienced the learning curve of wearable technology. In 2011, Disney officially announced the MyMagic+ online customer service system with its corresponding MagicBand wearable tech. Disney invested $1 billion in the technology, which was considered “a sweeping plan to overhaul the digital infrastructure of Disney’s theme parks and change the way they interacted with customers.” It would keep Disney World relevant, as many feared the park was “on the verge of become ‘dangerously complex and transactional.’” The MyMagic+ system and corresponding Band, scheduled to launch in 2012, would enable guests to gain entry in the Walt Disney World Resorts’ parks and attractions, make purchases at restaurants and retail outlets and unlock hotel room doors. Initial plans even called for cast members (Disney employees) and animatronic characters to be able to read a guest’s Band so they could wish the guest a Happy Birthday or address them by name.
A guest uses her MagicBand to enter the park. Image courtesy Disne
But the $48 billion media conglomerate faced a number of setbacks along the way, chief among them both external and internal discord. According to one source, “the pushback was huge…you had operations pushback, security and fraud pushback, creative pushback. There was never any shortage of pushback.” In its initial stages, Disney’s "Next Generation Experience" team worked with a variety of outside consultants, keeping the technology on the down-low with the rest of the company until they were ready. But once word got out within Disney, the real sparring began: “almost half the work was to support a political situation…at the beginning, we could move really rapidly, but when it got public within Disney, it changed the way we worked. It became more about surviving another day.” Another challenge was the sheer infrastructure needed to support MyMagic+ and MagicBand. In addition to fabricating the thousands of actual Bands, more than 28,000 hotel room doors needed their locks changed to support the technology. Over 70,000 cast members (Disney employees) needed MyMagic+ awareness training, and the resort needed to install more than 30 million square feet of Wi-Fi coverage in order to make its wearable tech band function.
While a showy announcement was made about the technology in January 2013, MyMagic+ merely rolled out in bits and pieces throughout the year, only becoming fully realized in the first half of 2014. Despite more than 250 initial glitches, reaction to the customer service aspects of the wearable band has been largely positive. Most guests reported entering their hotel room without a hitch, breezing through the turnstiles, and relishing leaving their wallet at home. At the Be Our Guest restaurant, guests can order their meal in advance via the MyMagic+ system and have it magically appear at their table when they arrive. At Test Track in EPCOT, guests can digitally design and customize their own car via the band while queuing for the ride. And with the PhotoPass service, photos taken on rides are linked to a guest’s account, where they can be downloaded and purchased after their visit. Guest intent-to-return and intent-to-recommend metrics are up, as is per capita spending.
But while the logistics-related attributes of the MagicBand are impressive, one cast member noted that ’honestly, it’s not so magical…it’s just for your hotel room [door] and paying for things.’ The Fast Company article concluded, "when you look closely, there’s less to MyMagic+ than what some of the team had hoped for.” Alas, guests still need to wear old school buttons to alert a cast member to their birthday or anniversary, and Ariel and friends cannot yet greet visitors by name. Due to the high restructuring costs of enabling MagicBands in Anaheim, and the prevalence of and dependence on smartphones in Shanghai, guests will probably not see MyMagic+ in those parks any time soon. According to Disney COO Tom Staggs, “we will use [the MagicBand] everywhere it makes sense. But we don’t want to let something we think is cool and cutting edge become a legacy item that we are trying to drag along.”
Streamlining Our Workplaces and Saving Our Lives
While retail and entertainment companies struggle to create consumer products of wearable tech, the medical industry and professional realms have largely succeeded in using the technology to streamline our workplaces and potentially save our lives. Per an article in the New Scientist, At Tesco, wearables can track where employees are going to give them location-specific tasks. Virgin Atlantic has new recruits record their performance with Google Glass so managers can assess it later. In a human resources experiment, Bank of America used sensors to investigate how co-workers interacted – who they talked to, their body language, even changes in their vocal timbre throughout the day. They used the data to eventually change their office structure to incorporate more employee interaction. And many companies are using wearable technology to encourage healthier habits in their employees in and out of the office. Of course, privacy is of great concern, and the use of wearables could substantially blur the lines between at-work and after-work life. According to NYU bioethicist, Arthur Caplan, “there need to be rules in place to prevent employers from using the technology to the detriment of employees.”
The Embrace Watch can detect seizures and alert friends and family. Image courtesy Empatica.
Per the Trendswatch report, “wearables can transform medical monitoring into an unobtrusive, portable, personal, always-on function.” The Embrace smartwatch can spot warning signs of an epileptic seizure and alert friends and family. A wearable skin patch currently in development can detect issues and release and record activity, while looking like nothing more than a child’s temporary tattoo. A Google nanoparticle covered pill can pinpoint cancer by interacting with wearable magnets on the skin. And sensors inside of helmets or mouth guards can help collect real-time cranial impact data on athletes and send it to their trainers. In the accessibility arena, devices like Glass can help the blind navigate their everyday environment through GPS and audio output, and those with communication challenges can use voice controls on Glass to help express themselves. These products are only a sampling of the medical advances that have come to light through wearable technology, providing a glimpse of the vast opportunities that may lie ahead.
Wearables in the Cultural World
As with the other four technologies we’ve covered so far, if used wisely, wearable technology could have a positive impact on the cultural world, allowing new and richer opportunities for audience engagement, and also for the protection of artwork and artifacts. Google Glass could help with video documentation of artifacts for better record keeping. It could also be used to create teaching videos and materials for “Ask a Curator” Days. Wearable technologies could be incorporated into what the Center for the Future of Museums (CFM) calls the “Biometrics of Cultural Engagement” – a simple wristband could track a guest around the museum to assess visitation patterns and exhibit popularity. A “cultural smart watch” could track a person’s culture-based activities, similar to fitness apps that currently track sleep or exercise, providing them with feedback on the number of arts-related visits they may enjoy in a given week, month or year.
Several museums are already incorporating the technology. The DeYoung Museum in San Francisco was the first museum to officially partner with GuidiGo to offer a guided tour on Google Glass. The device brought up images, audio and video files for the user on select paintings. In the “Body Metrics” exhibit at the Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose, guests were equipped with a sensor kit consisting of three wearable devices, which measured their activity level, tension, mental focus and talkativeness as they participated in activities throughout the museum. At the recent American Alliance of Museums Annual Meeting and MuseumExpo, the CFM offered a Museum of the Future, in which Expo visitors could access a GuidiGo tour of a mock-gallery via Google Glass. The “museum” featured mini-exhibitions from six different museums, and CFM found that participants were eager to find ways to incorporate the technology into their facilities.
Testing Google Glass in the Museum of the Future.
According to Neal Stimler, Digital Asset Specialist at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, “wearables traverse borders - connecting us to the information, people and experiences that define our lives,” and “museums’ engagement with constituents via wearables is key to sustainability in a mobile world.” In order to fully take advantage of this technology of the (very near) future, cultural institutions must develop polices regarding its use and proactively consider the privacy concerns. Museums also need to ensure that their infrastructure is robust enough to support wearable technology, meaning free and open WiFi and ample charging stations for devices, and create content suitable for several platforms so that guests can “BYOD”. Recalling Trendswatch trend #2, museums need a way of capturing the data that wearables provide in order to better suit their programming, flow and content to the needs of the guest for future visits.
Perhaps most importantly, museums need to incorporate wearable technology within an overall creative plan. Wearables are not ends unto themselves, and technology for technology’s sake, absent of any connection to institutional mission, will only leave the visitor feeling hollow and disconnected from the museum. But used wisely, with the right content and support system, wearables could provide yet another way for museums to strengthen their relationships with visitors and demonstrate their value to their communities.
For more information on wearable technology, please visit the Center for the Future of Museums blog. And join us Monday for our last Trendswatch 2015 recap, as we take a breath and slow down to embrace the value of art.
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