The first successful personal computer didn’t have a screen — not even a command-line screen. It communicated with the user through blinking lights. It was called the MITS Altair 8800. This blinking-light box was such a revolution, a kid named Bill Gates dropped out of Harvard to write software for it.
I have the feeling that the first successful wearable computer will also show nothing more than blinking lights.
I’m going to tell you why the high-rez wearables may not go mainstream over next couple of years, but why blinking-lights devices might. But first, let’s check out two interesting blinking light wearable devices.
A startup called Ringblingz plans to introduce tomorrow a wearable device for teens. It’s a ring that communicates through flashing colored lights.
To the best of my knowledge, the company has successfully kept their device a secret — we won’t know what it looks like until tomorrow when the company rolls it out at New York Fashion Week. The company will start taking pre-orders in March, and it’s expected to cost roughly $50.
A few reports say the ring has a circle on top that flashes different colored lights.
The initial target audience is high school girls.
The Ringblingz ring connects via Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) to an Android or iOS phone or tablet (they’re working on a Windows Phone version). The ring’s battery is non-rechargeable and lasts between three and six months. The company will replace batteries for free.
Users will be able to customize which lights blink and the pattern of that blinking to mean different things. The ring also has a vibrate mode as an alternative to the lights (for use in, say, class).
So, for example, a quick-flashing blue light might be an incoming text from a specific friend. A solid red light might mean any kind of communication from parents.
ION Glasses were crowd-funded on Indegogo, and they still post an estimated delivery for the early funders of this month. The retail price is listed at $129.
ION Glasses are similar to the Ringblingz device, in that customizable, multi-colored lights flash to tell you what’s happening with your phone notifications. The difference, of course, is that ION’s product a pair of glasses. These can be used for sunglasses or prescription lenses, including even progressive lenses, which Google Glass cannot handle.
ION Glasses can be configured with 256 colors and various blinking frequencies. An audible alert is optional.
The glasses can also be used to remote-control some basic features on the phone. The most useful of these is that a button on the glasses can trigger a phone’s camera shutter for taking group shots and selfies. It also can activate the video feature and voice recorder, change the volume of music or skip songs. You can even control presentation slides.
ION Glasses do other neat tricks, too. For example, a “radar” feature in the included app helps you find your glasses.
The glasses are rechargeable, and last a week on a charge, according to the company.
Why These Gadgets Might Go Mainstream
Over the next five years, I believe wearable computers will usher in a massive transformation of human culture. As I wrote recently, they’re waiting for artificial intelligence agents for that transformation to take place. And as they wait, the size and price of wearables will keep dropping. Eventually, the functionality, size and price will all be ideal for some of the more powerful wearable devices we’re always hearing about.
In the meantime, however — as in, this year and next year — the super powerful wearables with detailed screens, great cameras and other features won’t succeed as mainstream electronics devices. The low-end, blinking-light devices just might.
To understand why these might succeed, let’s first understand why other wearables might fail. There are three basic reasons why most wearables won’t take off:
1. Too conspicuous
It’s pretty hard for most people to strap on a Samsung Galaxy Gear smartwatch or put on Google Glass and walk around in public. It’s doable, but you’ve really got to own it. Wearing these kinds of wearable devices screams “GEEK!,” and most people don’t want to scream that.
2. Too expensive
Google Glass is currently $1500, and it’s not even one of the more expensive devices in the category. Meta 1 glasses are coming in at twice that price. Others in the category cost far less — some even in the $299 range. The difference is functionality and screen quality. The more powerful they are, the more you’ll pay. Some people will pay these prices, but the majority of consumers will not.
3. Too invasive of other people’s privacy
Everybody obsesses about the cameras on Google Glass and other wearable devices. That’s why I wrote in this space two weeks ago that maybe Google should just remove the camera. That might be the only way to get past the ignorance and myopia around Google Glass and what it can do. Without understanding smart glasses, people assume that it’s some kind of Borg device surveilling everything it sees. The camera makes Google Glass borderline socially unacceptable, and that’s a massive barrier for widespread public acceptance.
In short, the vast majority of wearable devices are ahead of their time. They’re trying to do things that can’t be done in acceptably-small form factors and at acceptably low prices. They also freak people out because in some cases the public just isn’t ready to understand them.
But none of these barriers exist for Ringblingz, ION Glasses and other blinking-light wearables. They’re not conspicuous to wear. They’re super cheap. They don’t have cameras or other features that “spy” on people.
And they do a core feature of what wearables are supposed to do — keep you up to date on incoming information without you having to obsessively check your phone every ten minutes.
Eventually, we’ll have the wearable equivalent of the iMac — sleek, elegant and powerful.
But for now, the devices that succeed will be the wearable equivalent of the Altair 8800.
Because no matter how powerful and capable a wearable device is, you won’t buy it if you can’t afford it and won’t wear it.