Not so long ago I was skiing down a slope in France, wearing a pair of goggles which, when I looked down and to my right, showed me my precise location, how fast I was going, where the ski run went (useful in a white-out). It also told me if I had a phone call and, via a wrist-worn ski-glove-friendly control, allowed me to switch between answering calls or changing music on my head phones. The goggles, made by Recon Instruments, are popular with snowboarders who want to keep tags on their day's accomplishments - one of the settings tells you how high you have just jumped. And while you are enjoying the apres ski, you can download that data to a computer.
The goggles are part of the next wave - the one that experts say will, in time, enhance and even supplant smartphones. As well as the goggles, there is the Pebble watch, a private project in Silicon Valley that has acquired millions in funding from eager buyers. The watch will connect to your iPhone or Android phone via Bluetooth and show details of incoming emails or calls. Or there's the Nike+, a ''sportwatch'' that measures how far you have run and at what speed.
''Wearable computing'' is the new buzzword in how we're going to live our lives. It might even free us from … our smartphone screens, the ones that seem to obsess us to the exclusion of all else when we're walking down streets or even hanging out with friends. Even if our attention is slightly distracted by the data being screened in front of us, we'll no longer be continually looking down at our phones.
Wearable computing came to notice in April with the announcement of the Google Glass project. The idea is straightforward: you wear a pair of clear, wraparound glasses; there's an earpiece with a built-in microphone. When someone calls, or something significant happens in your internet life, you get a message appearing on the glasses in front of you. There's also a camera mounted on them which sees what you're looking at and sends that back to Google's servers, which figure out where you are and what you're doing. Google is offering prototype versions to developers for $1500 from next year.
The idea of wearable computing has been around for decades; but it's only recently that phones have acquired enough computing power, data connectivity has become pervasive, Bluetooth connections low-powered enough and screens cheap enough, for us to start thinking of adopting it.
In 2000, Alexander Pentland, a professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology who helped set up its media lab, wrote an article noting that ''inanimate things are coming to life'', but, reassuringly, more like Walt Disney than Frankenstein: ''the simple objects that surround us are gaining sensors, computational powers and actuators [which move things]''. He saw a world with ''smart rooms'' and ''smart clothes'' that would be ''like personal assistants … trying to anticipate your needs and generally smooth your way''.
Carolina Milanesi, analyst at the research group Gartner, says: ''There's definitely room for connectivity through devices that can send you what you need at that point in time; it might be a tweet, or a Facebook notification, or a weather update or a traffic update.''
But she also wonders if society is ready for the added distraction.
Guardian News & Media