100-year-old wearable technology, circa 1915

In a recent post I wrote about the wrist watch as a century-old example of wearable technology. Knowing the time of day was important for people to make meetings on time, to coordinate activities, and so many other things. Clocks were incorporated into important structures in cities around the world so passers-by would know the time. Businesses used to display the time on their signs. Time-knowing was essential in business. Having it readily available on your wrist was a competitive advantage.

With smartphones, we take accurate time-keeping for granted. If you carry a mobile phone, wearing a watch is now purely a matter of personal taste and style, not function. There’s nothing on that watch that isn’t also (and more accurately kept) in the phone. A spy show on television today wouldn’t contain the phrase, “Let’s synchronize our watches.” They’re all already in synch.

And now other wearable technologies are on the horizon, the most likely successes coming first in the form of wrist-mounted smart objects. In short, they will be smart watches. They will be highly functional, and not simply a matter of style. Note that Apple has put substantial resources into making their first smart watch very stylish, including many options to personalize the look. But I still see danger here.

I’m old enough to remember another wearable technology that was also made obsolete by the smartphone, but it fell from grace long before that. It’s biggest problem was that it came to be as identifiable with the nerd as the thick-rimmed, tape-on-the-frame glasses and the pocket protector.

Of course I’m talking about the pocket calculator and it’s belt holster. It was never stylish, a new accessory where none had been before. Advanced models replaced the slide rule, but that wasn’t something the average person on the street carried, let alone knew how to use. So I think the nerd effect is a real consideration with the adoption and acceptance of wearable smart objects.

I’ve heard many things about why Google Glass failed as a wearable smart object (if you accept that it has failed), but this article by Steve Mierzejewski highlights four key failures: design, etiquette, security concerns, and superiority displays (referring to the effect of having what others don’t and flaunting it, whether intentionally or not). While Glass definitely had some design issues, both in outward appearance and usability for the wearer, the nerd effect may still have doomed it. The nerd effect, in this case, would be some combination of Mierzejewski’s etiquette and superiority display issues.

So how would that play out? On the superiority display angle, I think style has a tremendous effect. Glass was obvious when you were wearing it, despite all attempts to make it blend in. The calculator on the belt was equally obvious. Both conveyed a “nerd-like” appearance, which I can’t substantiate other than state that’s how I feel. A stylish smart watch should easily avoid that aspect of the nerd effect.

The other danger is in how smart devices are used. Today, more than ever, we look down into our smartphones at improper times. In my opinion, that’s a nerd-like behavior, and yes, we have become a nation of nerds in that sense. When we pay attention, we try to defer checking email or our social streams during face-to-face conversations. All too often we can’t help ourselves and check in every chance we get. In conversation, we immediately reach for smartphones when any question of research comes up. And–let’s be honest here–people have been known to message each other across the table.

Wearable smart objects can, in theory, begin to reverse this behavior rather than exacerbate it. A smart watch could alert the wearer to important information in a less intrusive manner than with his smartphone. The wearer could also less obviously access her information when needed. What remains to be seen is how much this will be the case, and how much we continue to interact with our new wearable toys and spend as much time (or more) looking at them as replacements for our handsets. Will the new technology make us more effective, efficient, and productive? Or will we become the new nerd?

Thanks for reading!

smartphone user photo courtesy user boolij
calculator meme from


The New Nerd — 3 Comments

  1. I haven’t seen the Apple Watch in person yet but unless is slim and streamlined, I call nerd. I don’t want a huge bulky piece of equipment on my wrist, I did away with wrist watches well over a decade ago.

    For me, it’s a wait and see. I won’t be getting one either way but can’t judge for myself if they’re ‘nerd nerd’ or ‘cool nerd’ until I’ve had a chance to weight their technological benefit with the fact I’d have something on my wrist.

    I do think Apple made the right bet that wearable tech won’t overtake the smartphone though. Seem Google Glass figured it would take over the smartphone which shows in that it doesn’t tie in well with a smartphone and is built to be stand-alone.

    I still stand by my statement about wearable tech in that “it’s in our future, but it’s not the future” ( which is exactly where Apple is headed with the Apple Watch.

    I really need to revisit that post from well over a year ago now that there are a lot more watches out there and Google Glass seems to be just a niche device.

    • Thanks for the comment, Nick. I would love to read your updated thoughts. With the departure of Glass developers from Google, Glass’ fate seems inevitable. But I do see things a bit differently; it’s the smartphone that I see evolving into less of a communication handset and more of an Internet access device. I note we already have numerous audio input/output devices to replace the handset features of the smartphone, and these are the reasons I may move to the largest smartphone I can get at my next upgrade, or even opt for a tablet instead, if the wearable tech fits well into my work behaviors. Like you, I don’t see these wearables becoming standalone devices anytime soon. I do see multiple devices, serving a variety of purposes, connecting through my personal network access point. I imagine even the touch-sensitive display could become a peripheral in the not-too-distant future.

      Be sure to let me know when you write your update.

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