Ubiquitous wearable computing – or “how not to take accidental nude selfies”

Well, unless of course that’s what you’re in to in which case…go ahead.

So, out there, is Siri, Google Glass with its Google Now stablemate and now Cortana from Microsoft.  It’s all about getting personal with the impersonal.  Soft ends to the hardware.  It’s probably not by accident that Microsoft chose a name which is well known to gamers via Halo and, in a double rock-on edgy marketing flourish I also doubt it’s an accident that Googling the name “Cortana” produces a slew of racy blue-skinned women complete with nerd-friendly bosoms and other shapely bits designed to positively associate Windows phone’s electronic assistant with naked femininity fit to drive the electric sheep from nerdy sleep.

Is that a bad thing?  No, probably not.

In comparison, Siri seems a little like starch-collared prim partner in mundane office chores.

 “Siri, set the timer for five minutes”.

“Five minutes and counting”.

“Cortana, I’d like to watch a movie”

“I’ve found eight videos for you, three of them are pornographic”

You get my drift.  The reality is, of course, that both ‘digital assistants’, as I expect we will call this genre of application, will not do anything so wonderful as be truly intelligent or shamefully racey as to suggest illicit content.  Apart from anything else the producers of the respective software would most likely land themselves in endless cycles of court appearances as the lawyer-sharks take bite after bite from the chunks of money and the government twonks of various countries pitch in with whipping-boy rules and breaches of rules raised retrospectively and with glorious well-timed hobby-horse name-in-the-spotlight investigations.

Through them we get to see the world edge-on through the filter bubble – not necessarily because of nefarious intent but, well because they have to pick and choose carefully.  Plus there are partnerships…and there are anti-partnerships and agreements and non-agreements to consider.  Why can’t I post to Google+ directly from my iPhone share sheet?  I assume because Google and Apple are not besties any more.

But wait, where does that leave me?  I *want* to be able to share out my Very Important Dog Pictures to Twitter, Google+ and Facebook with one click.  In fact, in an ideal world I would just say “take a picture of Nemo sleeping and share it using the text ‘This is what a comfy face looks like'”.  Then it would go to all the social networks I’ve said yes to (and by implication with whom I have my own personal partnership).  Not a partnership someone else has decided for me.  Not used in advertising unless I’ve said “alright then, you can use it in return for using Facebook for free” and so on.  But I can’t do that.  iOS is a closed operating system.  Apps are signed by the developers in a traceable way and the apps are curated by Apple with ones that misbehave being either denied residence on the App Store or being pulled from the stores and even phones if it turns out you’re a wrong ‘un.  This is why I don’t jailbreak my kit.  I don’t want to be the arbiter of what app is good or bad or which vendor is legit in a post install oops I found out when it deleted my stuff kind of way.  I want Apple, with their shed loads of sweatshop/robots/enslaved Martians to run the app through a load of tests and do the work for me.  As an Apple developer myself it’s a pain to go through the hoops to get my apps out there and on to people’s Macs, iPhones and iPads but as a consumer it makes me feel a whole lot better to know the hoops are there.  I hate the restrictions though.  I want Apple and Google to call a truce so I can post to Google+ and a few other things…I doubt it will happen.  Life is not about making nice.  Business even more so.

So wearable stuff and digital assistants.  To me, it’s all a world of baby steps right now.  I curse at Siri more times than I smile at it.  Me: “Text my daughter and tell her I am outside”, Siri:  “I don’t have an email address for My Dochta”.  Me: [slowly, really c l e a r l y] “Text my daughter and tell her I am outside”, Siri: “I don’t know how to Extmy Doctor.  Would you like to do a websearch?”

That is, of course, if I don’t get the dreaded “I’m really sorry about this but I’m not able to take any requests right now”.  Me: “^%^$^%^&”, Siri: “I don’t have a contact number for Fercoff Yoazz”.

It does set a timer consistently well though.  Although, why do I have to tap the phone to turn it off?  Why can’t I just say “stop the timer” with it listening as the timer bleeps?  That would be useful.  Especially as I tend to use the timer most when I’m cooking (I cook a  lot) and therefore have my hands covered in flour/guts/spilt red wine.

For a long time – since about 1996 in fact – I’ve followed the wonderfully crazy Steve Mann.  The world needs as many Steve Manns as we can possibly fit into a small country.  I don’t endorse everything he says but he has been advocating for and researching wearable technology for many many years.  He was the first person I ever heard of suggesting wearable technology as a democratization project but also suggesting that right-minded ubiquitous wearable technology could enhance humanity in a leveling way.  Interesting stuff.

This is what I would want from the near to middle future. I don’t care if you think it’s not possible – I am a software developer, every day I have to make things that came out of my head and crystallized into a program, stuff that someone else says is impossible or tricky or they just can’t do. Dream big. Make big.

  • My wearable computer should be as subtle as I want it to be.  There’s a certain level of visibility that is necessitated by doing things like making screens visible to the user and verbal responses audible.  The screens could be contact lenses – not so great for me nowadays – or much more subtle glasses in the style of a way-cool can’t-really-see-it so don’t look like an ass Google glass.
  • I want a better interface.  I want it understand me when I speak normally – not understand me because I speak understandably.  I want it to talk back naturally.  I don’t want it always to sound like a canned response but I also don’t want it too chirpy and trendy paperclip “hey, it looks like you’re trying to write a letter”.

I want to be able to say things like:

  • How tall is that tree over there?
  • What breed of dog is this?
  • Do I know this person at the dog park?
  • What direction are those clouds going?
  • What kind of fruit is this?  How much does it weigh?  How do I use it?  What sort of recipes can I use with it?
  • If I give it a recipe I want it to tell me where to get the stuff and tick off the ingredients as I put them in my shopping basket.
  • I want it to remind me to pay the bill at the dentist.  I want it to listen to my dentist’s receptionist when she tells me of my next appointment – and then remember it.
  • If I really enjoy a meal I want it to know that (even if I have to tell it) and then add the restaurant to my list of good places to eat, remind me what I had last time I was there, was it good, how much the meal cost, and who I ate it with.
  • I want to be able to say things like “what just happened?” and the system to tell me. I want to say “did he really tell me that labor charges would be extra” and understand what I mean by that.
  • I want it to answer “am I allowed to park here?” “Does he have the right to search my bag?” “What is the maximum charge an airline can ask for this bag?”
  • I want to be able to say “overlay the wiring diagram on my car engine” when I look at it. I want say “show me what’s behind this wall”, “how far away is the bus stop?” and for me to be shown.

In short, I want the technology to be truly useful, to make us gods of a better world. I want us to be enhanced by technology not tricked by the baby steps we have made into thinking small.

All this has to take place from a first principle of recording everything all the time. Give up your privacy but in return you should expect that your privacy actually stays private between you and your digital assistant because if it doesn’t then how can we trust it?

Don’t be evil should translate in the future to “and while you’re at it…don’t be a dick”.


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