Will Your Next Wearable Come from Google, Apple, or a Middle Schooler?
In 1990 I bought a Nintendo Power Glove. I wasn’t exactly Mattel’s target demographic: I was twenty-four years old, and I didn’t have a Nintendo game system. I bought the glove for one reason alone: to hack it, hook it up to a personal computer and control the machine by gesture, alone. My real goal was to hack together a complete virtual reality (VR) interface, and the Power Glove — with its massively down-sampled bend sensors and acoustic pitch and roll tracking — was to be that first, tenuous step.
It didn’t happen. In order to make the Power Glove cheap — indeed, cheap was the only way I could afford it — Nintendo had needed to make it dumb. After much fussing and messing with the interface, I found I could bounce an on-screen ball, or flick open a new window with a toss of my hand. Most of the time. Okay, some of the time. Eventually, I would be able to play Doom, navigating the maze of twisty passages by gesture, and squeezing the trigger of my BFG9000 with the crook of my finger. But I could do neither especially well, and invariably an opponent — any opponent — could beat me handily using a mouse. Virtual reality would have to wait. 1
While VR may be finding a renewed boost in the gaming community, a new breed of Power Gloves — what we’d now refer to as wearable computing devices, or just wearables — have quietly been gaining traction in places occupied by decidedly non-gamer types: from Google Glass in the board-room to Fitbits and BodyMedia bugs at the gym and Nike FuelBands on the running trail. We are living our lives increasingly instrumented, with GPS receivers and accelerometers in our phones, motion sensors in our shoes, and still more telemetry strapped to our arms and wrists, all managed without wires, securely enmeshed in our personal area networks. And to be clear, this generation of devices is decidedly not dumb — quite the opposite. With them, we’ve never been more connected. We know where we are, we know when we are. More, we know when we can catch that funky food truck on which corner of town, and just how many miles we’re going to have to jog to make up for the indulgence. And we’ve only just scratched the surface.
While lots of folks are looking to Apple (many of them technology pundits, and Apple shareholders) to see what sort of next-level stuff they’ve packed into the long-awaited iWatch, I got an eyeful of what some our local hackers and makers are up to at last week’s Kansas City Maker Faire. Robots? Sure! Flying drones? Of course! But also all-new devices for wireless telemetry, micro-processor control, electronics-integrated apparel, and more and more kinds of 3D printers than even I might have imagined in one place.
Where wearable computing and wireless telemetry get simultaneously democratized by 3D printing and stretched by the limitless imaginations of eleven-year-old boys and girls, fascinating things are bound to happen. Add to that still more recent advances in softer, more flexible materials for 3D printing and you’ve got the stuff that your average middle-school maker-next-door would just love to play with. For that matter, me too.
- In a triumphant display of how much the universe likes to see things come full circle, it appears that virtual reality may have been waiting for John Carmack — the guy who *created* Doom — to close the loop by putting his stamp on the spiffy Oculus Rift VR display that Facebook recently acquired for some $2 billion. ↩