- Microsoft, Google, Apple, Sony and other manufacturers are actively building wearable computers that will supposedly usher in the next step in human-computer interaction.
- Ready or not, when these reality augmenting devices will find their way into the enterprise, IT will have to deal not just with new hardware but more importantly with potentially litigious challenges in “human-human interaction.”
Yesterday the rumor mill began citing some rather convincing evidence that Microsoft was readying a new smart watch. That’s right, your shiny new tablet and smartphone are about to become history. The future of the human-computer interface isn’t fingers tapping on glass. As Google’s Sergey Brin showed us at the last Google IO conference, the sky is quite literally the limit when it comes to redefining how we interact with one another through the medium of technology. And they’re not alone. Sony has been working on a wearable computer (the Nextep) for some time now. Samsung and LG have as yet undisclosed projects in the works, and Apple has patented (no surprise there) a wearable computer with a curved screen.
Of course, these are all a long ways off. Sergey’s Google Glass seems close with small manufacturing batches beginning to emerge, but it won’t reach the market in earnest until 2014. And who knows when and if Microsoft’s rumored watch-phone-thingy will come to fruition. Given Microsoft’s efforts, such as its 2004 Smart Personal Object Technology (SPOT) dalliance, the world won’t change overnight. But change it will, regardless of Microsoft’s success or failure. With such an illustrious crowd of mobile-savvy vendors fully engaged, the enterprise and the way employees collaborate will evolve.
So what will happen once users begin freely engaging with their computers just as they do with their co-workers? The distance between users and information evaporates. Why pause to pull out your mobile phone and conduct a Siri search on the subject of your next meeting? That’s what Apple promised us with the Newton back in 1993. What we’re about to get is a wearable augmented reality device like Google Glass, which can continuously feed relevant information based upon your surroundings, who you’re meeting with and even the topic under discussion. And that’s only one side of the coin. Such a device can capture, analyze and respond to your surroundings, taking photographs, recording audio and video, even broadcasting this data back out. Imagine conducting a virtual conference with one co-worker while speaking directly to another.
But that’s exactly where things start to go wrong. Forget that IT will have to wrap these new toys in a manageable, secured, and governed cocoon. An augmented reality like that described above breaks our existing expectation of privacy in the workplace. That’s because a wearable computer is quite capable of capturing information (photos, audio recordings, video, etc.) discreetly, much more discreetly than pulling out an iPhone and hitting the “record button.” Non-governmental employers are free to monitor employees. But do employees have a reasonable expectation of privacy when the eavesdropper may be another employee or a business partner or a customer? And should a company have rights to potentially litigious material gathered by an employee using a company-supported device? Using current FCC regulations as a guide, upon greeting one another ‘round the water cooler or at a business lunch, each party may be required to utter an audible “beep” and utter the affable phrase, “this casual conversation may be recorded…” Clearly, social norms and human behavior will have to change right along with technology.