Thursday, March 19, 2015

Cyborgs: Coming Soon

A personal trainer once told me, "if you think you look stupid doing it, it's probably not worth doing." While she was specifically referring to some of the more cumbersome weight machines, the statement is even more applicable to marketing gimmicks like the Shake Weight or the Beautyko Vibrating Butt Toner

The notion that looking like a jack ass is universally synonymous with simply being wrong is obviously not always true. We're put in a number of awkward positions, strapped down with silly looking gadgets, and asked to board airplanes without a belt for the sake of scientific research, medical procedures, and safety precautions. 

But when it comes to voluntarily integrating our human forms with modern technology, our vanity always trumps the potential benefits. Yet for hundreds, maybe thousands of years, product developers have been trying to tap into this market, with very little success. 

Short of watches and glasses, wearable technology is relegated to science fiction. Virtual reality visors look cool on Star Trek, but Google Glass on Chestnut Street is another story. Remember the Timex Calculator Watch? Sure, I had one. But I was eight.

In some cases it's truly unfortunate. Fitbit has been marginally successful marketing its activity trackers, and it's a good product. But if you're wearing one in the gym you'll probably get some sneers. Athos is currently developing an innovative body suit that looks like a compression shirt and pants, and tracks a number of key fitness components and provides dynamic feedback, essentially allowing you to wear your own personal trainer. But it's had trouble attracting an audience.

What are we, as potential users, afraid of? I understand a certain level of resistance in the fitness industry. There's a level of machismo that says, "I don't need gadgets to tell me what to do." So why is the same industry a gold mine for high-priced athletic clothing, sneakers, and exercise equipment that hasn't really advanced much in the past fifty years?

When it comes to communicative technologies, online gaming, and networking capabilities, our resolve to avoid wearable technology is even more curious. Go to any restaurant and you'll see dozens of customers frittering away on the cellphones, sending texts, checking email, and reading BuzzFeed. Technology already makes us look like idiots. What's truly stupid is avoiding the technologies that allow us to access the same information while keeping us mobile and active within the real world around us. 

Despite its potential to invade privacy, Google Glass was a good idea. It wasn't necessarily new or novel, just better than some of its bulkier predecessors. But the collective voice of the internet took to their phones while bumbling through traffic and ignoring those around them to call anyone wearing the product an ass hole. Sure, there was a level of arrogance that surrounded Google Glass, as with many products that come out of the Silicone Valley, and those who took part in the beta period didn't do themselves any favors.  That proves that technologies companies need to be very cautious in how they market these innovative products. But those criticizing Google Glass from Smartphones that's are Jurassic by comparison displayed a superficial level of hypocrisy. 

Consumers are fickle. Any technology - mechanical, electronic, or virtual - is often only as good to the mass-market as it looks. 

Google isn't ready to give up on wearable technology, and hopefully this time around, they'll get it right. They teamed up with Tag Heuer to develop a "smart" Android watch hoping to challenge Apple's Smartwatch. But Apple's Smartwatch, integrated with its own fitness technology, has yet to see the kind of success it saw with the iPhone or iPad. Considering that watches are perhaps the only form of wearable technology we've ever managed to turn into a fashion statement, aiming at the wrist may be the best bet. However, even though I've always considered Tag Heuer to be "the cool man's Rolex," the first thing I thought was, "I guess Tag Heuer is going downhill." 

There is a valley between what looks cool in science fiction and what looks cool on the street. As technology continues to blow our minds with through 3D printing, virtual environments, and unheard of medical procedures, we might finally be on the verge of finally allowing ourselves to live in a future we so fancifully adore on the movie screen. A watch will always be a watch, but what Google and Apple are capable of offering in that small space might be the bridge we need to allow us to embrace what can be done with some of the more integrated wearable technologies.

Scientific research and military development has provided a vast foundation for a retail industry that has yet to find a profitable audience. But in terms of what has been done, the future possibilities seem endless. Wearable technologies go far deeper than products that require the general market to buy in to a fad. They allow amputees to compete in athletic tournaments, they can feasibly enable paraplegics to walk upright, and someday soon they may even help the blind see.

If you want to truly understand the mind boggling potential of wearable technologies, look at this study from the UC Berkley that managed to reconstruct images directly from the brains of subjects by aggregating billions of online images. This technology would allow us to record our dreams. But more importantly, the possibilities of reverse engineering this technology are simply unbelievable to those who are completely blind.

The human body is the most advanced form of technology the world's ever seen, and the brain its most complex computer. We're at the cliff of the unknown and about to dive into a completely unrecognizable future. Smartwatches and Google Glass will be relegated to the history books next to the abacus as the human machine is integrated with any technology its mind is capable of inventing. Get ready, the cyborgs are coming.

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