Not so long ago I was skiiing down a slope in France, wearing a pair of ski 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. 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 the music on my headphones. The goggles are popular with snowboarding professionals who want to keep tabs on their day's accomplishments: one of the settings tells you how high you have just jumped. You can then download that data to a computer.
The goggles are part of the next wave – another example is the Pebble watch, a private project in Silicon Valley that has acquired millions in funding from eager buyers. The wristwatch 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 what Charlie Brooker called the "black mirror" of our smartphone screens, the ones that seem to obsess us to the exclusion of all else when we're walking down streets, waiting for transport, or even hanging out with friends. Even if our attention is slightly distracted by the wealth of information being screened in front of us, we'll no longer be continually looking down at our phones.
Wearable computing suddenly came to notice in April this year 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. Need a traffic update? The quickest way to get to your next appointment across town, avoiding closed roads? Google Glass could show the map projected on to the glasses, in your visual field.
We don’t know yet when the Glass will be commercially available, but the idea of wearable computing has been around for a few decades. It's only recently, however, 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 MIT who helped set up its famous Media Lab and has for years been interested in wearable computing, wrote an article for the Association of Computing machinery in which he noted that "inaminate things are coming to life. He saw a world with "smart rooms" and "smart clothes". The clothes, he said, would be "like personal assistants ... trying to anticipate your needs and generally smooth your way".
Carolina Milanesi, smartphones and tablets analyst at the research group Gartner, believes that there is potential for wearables. "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," she says.
The rise of "appcessory" makers such as Pebble suggest it is already happening so where, you might wonder, is Apple? Won't the iPhone quickly sink into irrelevance? Perhaps - though Apple is known for picking its own time to enter markets, just as it did with the iPod and iPhone. Furthermore, patent filings that have been registered with the US patent office indicate that Apple is indeed looking at the idea of "head-mounted displays". If both Apple and Google were to get into wearables, usage would surely explode.
Milanesi wonders, though, how ready society is for the distraction and always-connectedness this technology implies. She thinks that our habits are already bad enough with smartphones; won't glasses take it to a whole other level? "I don't know if it's going to be more or less annoying, people peeking at notifications coming on the screen,” she said. “That becomes a behavioural issue, not a technology issue." Others have pointed to more unsettling worries about wearables; the front-facing camera on Glass, plus its internet connection, plus the ability to share a video feed with others - isn't that a charter for intrusion of privacy? Witness the case of Steve Mann, a pioneer in the use of wearable computing, who has been wearing devices just like Google Glass for years. He claims that last month he was assaulted in a fast-food outlet in France by its staff. Their concern seems to have been that he would be filming them; a concern that the pictures on his blog bear out. When we wear computers that see and record what we see, they record everything - good and bad.
But then, no new technology comes without problems. In fact, the biggest problem that Brin says he has found on his travels while testing the Glass prototypes is a much more boring one: battery life. It may be that wearable computing won't just be about the computers; wearable batteries could be the next big thing too.