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Intel’s Anthropologist Genevieve Bell Questions the Smart Watch

Genevieve Bell, director of Intel’s user experience research, says companies building wearable computers haven’t figured out why people might want them.

Many technology companies are rushing to develop wearable computers without much evidence that people want such devices.

As director of Intel’s interaction and experience research group, anthropologist Genevieve Bell helps the company understand how the chips and other products developed in its labs might fit into the world of humans. Her team of social scientists, designers, and engineers interview and observe people in countries around the globe to understand how they use and think about technology.

Gadget ethnographer: Intel’s Genevieve Bell travels the world to study people’s lives and how technology fits into them.

That work has recently included investigating how people think and feel about technology worn on the body, or wearable computing. Bell is wary of the early examples of wearable computers being readied by companies such as Google (see “Google Wants to Install a Computer on Your Face”), Samsung, and others (see “Smart Watches” and “Samsung’s Galaxy Gear”). She says they won’t be popular until it becomes clear how their technical features can enhance people’s lives.

What has your research taught you about wearable computers?

The idea of wearing technology is hardly new. There’s armor and swords and many other things that we’ve worn on our bodies that were the technologies of the day. That can help us think about the current obsession and where these things are going.

The technologies that we have put on our bodies over the last multiple thousand years tend to have two functions. One of them is literal. They’re doing some kind of work to extend our physicality, or reach. The other is always symbolic, what they say to others. The armor and the coat of arms on it say “I’m on his team, keep away.” Watches from 200 years ago said, “Not only do I have the money to have a timepiece, but I believe in punctuality.” I’m interested in how you start to weave those two things together, the functional and the symbolic.

Does that hold true today for wearable computers?

Absolutely. The challenge at the moment is that we’re just dealing with the literal piece, not the symbolic piece. The choices about what you have on your body are entirely personal, but how they’re read by others is slightly out of your control and it’s a symbolic transaction. At the moment we’re still very much in the “task” piece of wearable computing, not in the symbolic “how do we make sense of it” piece.

Can that missing piece be worked out inside technology companies, or does something have to happen in wider society for wearable computers to make sense?

It happens in both, I think. That happened with [conventional] watches, clearly.

As we’ve made each leap down in the size of computing, there’s been this interesting set of challenges. Was a smartphone just like a smaller laptop that made phone calls? Was a next-generation television like a big laptop? Smartphones only got interesting when people stopped thinking of them as phones. In my mind, the central promise of a smartphone is that you’ll never be bored again. You’ll never be without something to do. Once people stopped being held hostage to the idea that smartphones were like old-fashioned phones, they could imagine that they needed to do all kinds of other things like good gaming and good photography.

I think in the wearable space we are still bringing all the old metaphors of computation with us and still interpreting them in a somewhat literal way—that they are a smaller smartphone, or a little computer. It will become much more interesting when we let go of that and work out the promise that wearable computing will make to us.

To me the wearables space is so nascent that we haven’t worked out what the promises are yet. We haven’t quite liberated ourselves to take advantage of all the really interesting technical stuff that’s happening.

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