Developing for Wearables: An Introduction

Plenty of people are smugly predicting the demise of Google Glass, justifying this position with myriad examples of its failings: Glass is too ambitious, too flashy, too in-your-face. It was a great idea, ruined by poor execution and an obnoxiously exclusive rollout. A former Glass evangelist even referred to the device as an embodiment of Google’s lack of empathy. So far, the social condemnation of Glass has been strong, and that doesn’t include the numerous criticisms levelled at Glass’ perceived privacy issues. However, even the harshest critics admit that Glass is a good idea that has potential to help people. This latent potential is exactly why developers should not shy away from creating apps for Glass or other wearables. In fact, developing for wearables may be one of the more important endeavors someone can undertake.

Programmer and tech consultant Allen Firstenberg, of Objective Consulting, Inc, says that wearables as a category are “making computing much more personal than ever before.” In other words, Glass and other wearable devices are significant because they signal a departure from a more one-size-fits-all approach embodied by smartphone and tablet technology. Creative developers will recognize this opportunity and build apps that pick up on and learn from a user’s habits and movements, so the apps can give you the information you need, when you need it. As Firstenberg points out, this intuition is something smartphones are not particularly good at (yet), although devices of all kinds will likely continue to make strides in this area.

While the general public is somewhat skeptical of Glass, the device has been embraced by various industries, from healthcare and energy to defense. Organizations are interested in Glass because it’s good for collecting, accessing, and sharing data in a quick and visual way. Glass has the ability to streamline processes and the heads-up display allows the user to maintain focus on the task at hand. It’s especially good for workers who need to keep their hands free, like surgeons or firefighters. Developers have taken note of the device’s potential here, and many startups are focusing on designing Glassware specifically for business and industry.

Firefighters using Glass

Right now, creating Glass apps for industry seems to be the safest bet for burgeoning wearables developers who want to get their product out there. There is speculation that Glass will probably never have wide consumer acceptance, and is better suited for industry and business. This prediction may hold true, but it’s still too early to make any sweeping claims about the future of Glass and other wearables. Eventually Glass will be less expensive, making it more accessible to ordinary consumers. Price points will continue to dictate who can afford to use wearables, but app developers and their creations will be crucial to giving Glass and wearables in general wider acceptance and adoption.

Developers will need to lead the way by creating great software, by taking risks, by solving problems, and by understanding that wearables do have limitations to their applicability, something Firstenberg, who has developed apps for mobile and for Glass, is quick to acknowledge. He cautions developers to avoid conceiving of Glass as a replacement for the smartphone: “Glass needs to have its own feel. And sometimes that means you can’t do everything on Glass, and that’s fine.”

Recognizing the limitations of wearable technology will be a major guide to app design for wearables, whether it be for Glass, Pebble, Jawbone, or some iWatch of the not too distant future. For now, developers looking to make consumer apps can take their cues from the way wearables can help solve real problems in business, medicine and industry. A common criticism of Glass is that it’s a flashy product looking for a problem to solve, implying that the problems of wearables don’t actually exist yet. But due to the highly personal nature of wearable technology, there won’t necessarily be a one-size-fits-all application that makes the collective populace suddenly realize that they can’t live without Jawbone, Pebble, Oculus Rift or Glass.

Rather, consumer adoption of wearables will probably occur at a more atomic level as individuals figure out how these tools can help them in their daily lives, whether for productivity, or health or business. For their part, companies that make wearables need to expand and nurture their developer programs and in some cases (particularly Google’s) should lower the barriers to entry if they want a chance at cracking the consumer marketplace with apps that consumers can recognize as something they want to use.

Images from the official Google Glass page and Patrick Johnson’s Explorer Story video.