Glasses vs. Watches

So when we talk about wearable technology and Google, we immediately think Google Glass, but yesterday Google stepped into the burgeoning smartwatch arena. What it unveiled is probably the best-looking concept we’ve seen yet, especially when it comes to UI. Granted, the UI isn’t real yet and the bar for smartwatches isn’t very high, but it’s a great opportunity to compare and contrast the two prominent, near-future options we have for wearable tech: Glasses vs. Watches.

Now, the success of one doesn’t preclude the success of the other, but certainly most of the work around innovative experiences will be shunted to whichever devices catch on with the public at large.

Level of bias: I’m a watch guy. Always have been. Even today where I use my smartphone for telling time, I still wear a watch. I once wore a broken watch for an entire year. I’m completely invalidating this comparison, aren’t I?

Social Acceptance

Obviously, Google Glass has had some problems in this area. The fact that we have the term “glasshole” is testament enough to that. But the technology lends itself to disparagement…it’s showy and creates a filter between you and the people you’re interacting with.

Watches, on the other hand, are less obtrusive, stuck on a wrist, often hidden under a sleeve. Even the most expensive watch on the planet isn’t that showy for those reasons. Plus we’ve had centuries of getting used to the idea of a wearable timepieces (i.e., piece of tech). Heck, in many ways, the smartphone works on the same basic interaction principle as the pocket watch…you pull it out and look at it.

Personal Identity

Everything we do, everything we consume, everything we own, everything we wear contributes to our personal identity…how we perceive ourselves and how we want to be perceived by others. And we want to be in control of that.

For instance, many would wear a nice, expensive blazer, but few of us would raid Elton John’s closet circa 1975.

And that’s kind of the different between glasses and watches. Both say something about the person wearing it, but only one of the devices, like Elton John’s 1970s wardrobe, insists on us getting that message. And it’s that insistence that trips up glasses in the realm of social acceptance.

Plus, it messes with our face, the single biggest contributor to our personal identities. Even many people who love tattoos and get them all over their bodies reserve that space as a no-tattoo zone.

Interaction

Both glasses and smartwatches have voice and touch interactions, but one is a bit more alien than the other. Speaking into the air for Glass is different than speaking into a device on your wrist. Touching your face, different from touching a device on your wrist. In fact, speaking into or tapping a device on your wrist isn’t that far removed from speaking into or tapping a device in your hand.

Customizability

This aspect is connected to personal identity. Technically, there are a thousand different styles of frames a thousand different styles of watches, but the range of diversity is obviously much wider for watches.

In a way, personal devices have always been about fashion (and even when the devices themselves weren’t customizable, an enormous market for customizable cases opened up around them), but once we get to wearable technology, it’s even more so about how a device looks.

Watches allow customizability in the face (or, home screen in this case, I guess) and the band, whereas glasses lack that. And even if we were going to try to bedazzle our glasses like we bedazzle our phone cases, we get back into that trap of insisting on our personal identity that turns people off. Again, with watches, that’s less of a problem.

Future-Cool

Here, Glass should have the decided advantage, right? It’s way more futuristic than a mere smartwatch. The problem, though, is that it’s not the future we’ve been promised. In pop culture, all the cool personal technology advances we were promised were around our watches…James Bond, Dick Tracy…um…Inspector Gadget. So we’re not really looking for the future, we’re looking for the future we’ve been promised and which we’re comfortable with out of mere familiarity.

In pop culture, the heads-up display was always given to robots and invading aliens. Hm. Maybe that’s the real reason many are resistant to Glass. Bad connotations. Thanks a lot, movies.

Utility

Okay, here is where I think Google Glass finally wins and will ultimately win. Smartwatches are extremely tiny screens in out of the way spot on our body. Glass has the potential to offer screens of unlimited size, augmented reality, holographic projection, and all the conventional benefits of a heads up display. And that’s just scratching the surface. The eventual benefits of being able to have a large, hands-free screen anywhere under any conditions that can interact with the physical world as we see it has an unlimited number of applications.

Smartwatches are more constrained and seem more of a transitional technology at their best…which is basically the point of all the other points in this post: Right now, we ‘re probably more comfortable with the idea of smartwatches than Google Glass.

But cultural norms can change fast, especially with things that prove to be wildly useful.