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A plethora of "smart glasses" products hit the market next year. They're designed to augment reality, make mobile computing instant and hands-free and turn you into a cyborg.
There's absolutely no question that such technology has a future. But will consumers embrace these gadgets?
Googleappears to think so. And, in fact, the company seems to be involved in one way or another in several recently announced products.
But I have doubts. In fact, there are three basic reasons why smart glasses may never become broadly accepted by consumers. I'll tell you about those reasons at the end of this column. First, let's look at some recent product announcements.
The goal of the project appears to be the development of a mobile computer that you wear like or on eyeglasses, and which you can use without your hands.
Google Glass gives you data in just one eye, and you control it mostly with your voice, or with eye movements.
The advantage of the Google Glass system is that you no longer need to toggle between paying attention to a mobile device and paying attention to reality. You get reality, but with benefits -- namely, information and instant interaction.
A camera on the front could let you take pictures with eye movements or voice commands, and also provide input.
For example, you could tell Google Glass to give you the names and contact histories of anyone you're talking to. Just as you engage in phone calls now while you're walking around, Google Glass would enable you to do the same thing with video calls.
Although Google Glass is a research project, it's also a product of sorts. Google plans to ship a $1,500 developers kit next year that combines an SDK with the Google Glass hardware -- but only to developers who attended the company's most recent developers conference.
Vuzix Smart Glasses
Google's not the only company working on smart glasses. A company called Vuzix this week announced a $999 Android-based gadget called Smart Glasses M100, which they say will go on sale next month. Android, of course, is Google's mobile operating system.
The Vuzix system will support both iOSand Android phones -- so the computer is in the phone and the smart glasses hardware is an integrated input and display peripheral.
To oversimplify, it's a Bluetooth headset, camera, display and head-motion sensor that connects to a phone wirelessly. Presumably, it will have an app from the company, and others could make apps, too.
The headset comes has a memory card, onto which you can store pictures and video for uploading later.
Another product in this category comes from Motorola, a company now owned by Google.
Called the HC1, the headset actually houses the entire computer.
Unlike the Google or Vuzix products, however, the HC1 has a big, bulky display and conspicuous camera, as well as other bulky hardware. It runs on Windows CE. The whole thing apparently requires not just glasses, but an entire head strap apparatus.
It goes on sale next year for a starting price of about $3,000, and will be targeted at vertical applications, including maintenance engineers, warehouse workers and other occupations where the work requires both hands.
It's big. It's bulky. It's built on a third-party app-unfriendly environment. But it's the kind of thing that big companies buy truckloads of, and pay top price.
What's the Smart Glasses Opportunity?
Juniper Research boldly predicts that the "wearable" computing market will be worth more than $1.5 billion by 2014 (it's worth $800 million this year).
The category includes sci-fi projects like Google Glass and other smart glasses, as well as things like "quantified life" type applications and even the fitness tracker type gadgets already on the market.
I'm absolutely certain that smart glasses will be a huge hit over the next decade for vertical applications, including military, medical, industrial and other areas.
But consumers aren't going to embrace these gadgets in huge numbers for the following three reasons.
Why Consumers May Reject Smart Glasses
1. You're aiming a camera at people.
When people wear these devices all the time, you can't know if they're filming you or taking your picture. If you don't agree that this could make people nervous, try aiming your camera phone at people while you're talking to them. It's going to be socially awkward.
Gadget makers may add a light that tells you when the cameras are running, but you're still aiming a camera and people can't be sure.
2. You're going to look like a geek.
Wearing smart glasses will be akin to riding a Segway -- cool technology, but viewed by the public as something dorky.
There's nothing wrong with Geeks, of course. I'm a geek myself, and don't mind looking like one, as my kids would be happy to tell you.
But geeks are a minority, and we're talking about the larger consumer marketplace.
3. One-eyed displays are psychologically uncomfortable.
When you beam a display into one eye, but not both eyes, the effect is subtly disturbing -- like 3D glasses.
There are some people who don't mind 3D glasses, and others who do. For the most part, however, 3D TV technology has been largely rejected by consumers for that reason.
Yes, companies are selling a lot of 3D-capable TVs. But are people watching in 3D? Generally speaking, most consumers choose 2D over 3D because sending different messages to each eye is profoundly unnatural and unsettling.
Personally, I'm looking forward to these smart glasses products, especially Google Glass. I will wear them. I will just aim the camera at people. I won't care how they look. And I'll deal with the uncomfortable feeling that will result from a one-eye display.
You might, too.
But for the vast majority of consumers, this category of mobile computer will not compute.
As cool as they are, I predict that consumers will think smart glasses are dumb.