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The Ultimate Wearable? It's 'Invisible'

Wearables and other digital devices should be heard and not seen, says product design consultant Stuart Karten.
IT Dress Code: 10 Cardinal Sins
IT Dress Code: 10 Cardinal Sins
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If you build wearable devices and haven't yet seen the 2013 movie 'Her,' in which a lonely writer falls in love with his computer's "virtual human" operating system, perhaps you should.

Or so suggests Stuart Karten, president of Karten Design, a Los Angeles-based industrial design consulting firm that's worked with a variety of major consumer and medical device manufacturers, including Samsung, Procter & Gamble, and Medtronic.

Karten was one of several speakers at last Friday's Body Computing Conference at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles (USC). His message: The best digital devices are unobtrusive and integrate seamlessly into our daily lives. In a sense, they're "invisible."

Which brings us "Her." So what's the connection?

"It's a love story between a man and his technology," Karten told the conference audience of medical, investing, and tech industry professionals. "Technology is seamlessly integrated into his entire life."

Samantha, the voice-controlled OS and object of the protagonist's affection, is a powerful "virtual human" capable of complex interactions that seem effortless.

[It is hard to make drones invisible. Read A Drone To Watch Over Me.]

"First of all, she's powerful -- huge computer platform in the background, algorithms at work," said Karten. "She's ubiquitous, she follows him everywhere, and she's intuitive. He speaks to her in natural language, and there's no friction between him and the interface."

But what's most compelling about Samantha and the digital devices of "Her" is what you don't see.

"You don't see sensors, you don't see electronics, and even the devices are minimalized," said Karten.

The hardware, in fact, isn't designed to stand out or make a statement, nor is the user interface.

"There's no glossy white, matte black, glass, aluminum," Karten added. "It's so human. It's informal. It's natural. No awkward sentence constructions like 'open Google' or 'weather in Detroit.'"

By comparison, today's device makers (and many consumers) are "obsessed" with screen size, resolution, thickness, gestures, and "bendability," Karten said.

This may change soon enough, though.

"I believe the future of our interaction with technology will … be invisible," Karten predicted. "We will need to camouflage our devices. We will need to make them less intrusive."

Today's wearables have many good qualities, of course, such as the ability to affect behavior change (e.g., exercise daily) and deliver fast access to relevant data. But their truth value as a mainstream digital device is still unclear.

Said Karten of wearables: "You put them on your body and you can take them off. They're not fully integrated into your life. So my perspective is that wearables are a step toward something much bigger and better."

So what's really the next big thing? Perhaps a natural-language audio interface not unlike what's shown in "Her."

"What everybody wants is to bring information to people -- when and where they want it -- to allow us to interface with the digital and real world," said Karten.

But today's wearables often create a barrier between those worlds, resulting in a public boredom or backlash. Consider, for instance, the "glasshole" pejorative hurled at early adopters of Google Glass. (Karten wondered if people who check their wrist wearables too often might soon be labeled "glanceholes.")

Device designers must move beyond wearables and focus on "invisibility" to keep users engaged, Karten stressed.

"As a designer, I'm keenly involved in the interface between technology and people," he said. "We design to surprise and delight people. We also design products that have to do with life and death. And the ability to reduce the friction between people and technology has a huge effect on whether or not people will adopt that technology."

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