When I say "wearable computing," what first comes to mind? Science Fiction? Minority Report? Some distant future with jetpacks and flying cars? Perhaps not so distant, after all, and I'm willing to bet that we'll see some of this technology at the next CES this January.
Wearable computing will mature under two specific scenarios for the near term: one of Augmented Reality, and one of Virtual Reality. Virtual Reality is, for the most part, what you expect: a three dimensional world that is fully interactive, that allows you to look around with natural motion by turning your head, and that is 100 percent generated by a computer.
Augmented Reality, on the other hand, is one that "paints" computer generated graphics in front of your view, essentially "augmenting" your world around you, either giving you more detail or radically altering it on the fly.
In early phases, we will see fairly basic interactions while "wearing" these computers. More than likely, we'll see them in the glasses' form factor (see the Google Glass project, as well as quite a few other research projects). From there, we'll be able to see things like the most recent SMSes we've received, read an e-mail, receive reminders or even have live video conferencing where your attendees can see what you see. The familiar computer keyboard and mouse will be replaced by a simple gesture or voice.
As technology progresses, we're bound to see more complex interactions. In the near future, you might be able to walk into an empty board room filled with images of your remote colleagues. Your headset will immediately show you any public information available about the augmented images. Names and titles could hover above their heads.
Virtual Reality will also have a lot of use if paired correctly with wearable computing, and I'm certain we'll see quite a bit of progress at next year's CES in this arena, too. Already a fully-funded KickStarter campaign, the Oculus Rift looks to be a great, mass affordable VR headset. For the moment, the Rift is solely focused on the gaming market but the technology also has the potential to be applied to business. Imagine you're an architect working remotely with your client to prototype a new design together. You're making the ceilings taller here and the hallway narrower there with a point of your finger in virtual space. The possibilities are endless.
In short, I think it's quite possible that when these two technologies catch on, they will easily be as revolutionary as the powerful mobile smartphones that have changed our world forever. The world around us will literally be a software developer's playground, and I'm certain savvy businesses will quickly take advantage of it.
So how soon could we see this, and who will be leading the pack?
We have a *lot* of ground to cover when it comes to computer vision, bandwidth, positioning technology, and other sensors before we see anything like bubbles over peoples' heads during a board meeting. In the short term, we're likely going to see minimalist interfaces painted over our vision, with simplistic gestures or voice commands to control the interaction.
This will happen in the next two years, and we'll likely see several new competitors enter the space (Google, Microsoft, and Apple have all filed patents or have working prototypes in the space).
VR will also start to catch on within the next two years as hardware and software makers come together on similar projects. This is precisely what the Oculus Rift hopes for.
The Rift is set to ship to developers in Q2 2013, while the Google Glass project is set to ship to consumers in 2014. I can't wait to try both myself and do some development of my own!
Looking beyond the introduction of these early devices, I hope that we'll see some early wearable computers interface directly with our smart phones at CES this year. Google, Microsoft and Apple are already poised for this, and I can't imagine this technology not becoming commonplace in the next five years.
As wearable computing becomes mainstream and hardware manufacturers bring faster and cheaper devices to market, we'll see AR and VR merge. In order for that to happen there will need to be a huge amount of processing power packed into these devices, so that is quite a few years off.
My bet is on the big three as they begin beating the path for the rest of us, particularly on Google. That said, the Oculus Rift is a fine example of the "little guy" coming up with the best idea and forcing it to come to market. I'll also be interested to see how many investors will get on board early enough for entrepreneurs to take advantage. It's fairly obvious that consumers are begging for the devices (the Oculus Rift raised $2.4m!), and it's a matter of time before businesses adopt it as well.
We're all glued to our boring two-dimensional screens for now, but in the near future, we'll be able to hover over our reporters' shoulders as they deliver first hand experiences of the CES show floor. I guess we'll have to wait until then to find out just how soon that will be!
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