Wearable computing should be invisible computing

Could wearable data-collectors and their ilk be the heralds of the age of unconscious computing?

It’s easy to forget that when Steve Jobs introduced the iPad, he asked a question: is there room for a device between a phone and a laptop. Three years on, the answer seems obvious: yes. Back then, it wasn’t. His question was based on the idea that this device had to be better at somethings than either the laptop and the phone, and he suggested they experiences like reading or browsing the web would be perfect on the tablet – and millions have agreed with him since.

When it comes to wearable computing, and particularly the quantified self, that seems like a question we should be asking. What should those devices do better than anything else? What do computer-based glasses or wristwatches, or earpieces actually do better then the devices we have right now? In what ways will adding them to our personal pile of devices enhance our lives? If that question ins’t answered, they become just another gadget that will linger, forgotten, in a drawer…

Kyle Baxter presented an interesting answer to that question in a post on TightWind. And he starts by presenting us with the problem with the existing definitions:

The phrase “wearable computing” bothered me, though, because it’s very limiting, and it doesn’t seem to capture what’s important about it. The defining characteristic is that they are computing devices which monitor and do things on their own for people, and there’s no reason that they have to be worn.

Exactly, “Wearable computing” gives us a purely descriptive name, that doesn’t clue us in to function. So, what is the function? What are these devices good for? Kyle again:

While reading about the brain, I realized that a much better term for these devices is “unconscious computing.” Our unconscious does an incredible amount of things for us so we do not have to consciously take care of it. It keeps us stable while standing and walking, keeps our bodies’ internal processes in balance, handles breathing, and an overwhelming number of other tasks that, if we had to handle consciously, would completely cripple us.

That’s an interesting link – these unconscious computing devices seem almost like the ultimate post-digital devices: clever little pieces of technology that gather data and process it for us, without us becoming consciously aware of the fact they’re doing it. (And I can’t help but chuckle at the link with my sleep-analysing app, which is computing while I’m unconscious… ;-) )

Baxter goes on to point out that this is a viable approach to the future of computing.

[…] I think that should be the general goal for the future of computing: they should handle tasks for us so we don’t have to, to allow us to live more fulfilling and effective lives.

And, perhaps, be completely unobtrusive while they’re doing it. Small, cheap, incredibly focused and incredibly forgettable – the background cloud of data agents that enhance our lives with minimal intervention from us. As long as they keep our data personal, that’s an idea I can buy into.

Photo by Nicola since 1972 on Flickr, and used under a Creative Commons licence.