On face computers

Given my history with face computers, every time a new one launches people ask me what I think about it. This time it’s Apple’s turn to try to make face computers happen.

I thought I’d write up a few of the things I learned in my Glass experience that apply to anyone doing this:

  • People really, really care about how they look. Especially how their face looks. If you wear eyeglasses, think about how many pairs you tried on the last time you got new ones. Then imagine the glasses store had only one style available.
  • Plus, when something covers your eyes, it’s hard to see what you look like to others. When you find out later, it’s often unpleasant.
  • Speaking of eyeglasses, over 50% of the world’s population already wears them. Especially the older, richer people. Are you replacing those glasses? If not, how will you work with them? Most face computer designers forget about or willfully ignore this, perhaps because they’re young people with young eyes.
  • Face computers are often pitched as the replacement for phones. But people love their phones! So far every new type of wearable device has only made phones more important (for sync, setup, handoff, etc), not less.
  • And the business case for mass-market face computers depends on them replacing mobile phones. If you aren’t replacing a phone, you’re an accessory, a productivity device, or an entertainment device. Game consoles are a $20-50B market; laptops ~$150B; phones are >$500B. That’s why Glass focused on a highly mobile device rather than an immersive, more stationary one; it’s a completely different market.
  • Comfort is only slightly behind fashion in priority. Weight especially matters. Every additional gram makes the experience worse; anything over 50 grams makes it time-limited. You can play some tricks by shifting weight rearward off the face to the ears (as we did with the battery on Glass) but that buys you only a bit more.
  • The critical experience point is not using the device, but charging it. Any charging friction at all makes you have to think about whether and when you’ll need to use this device again. If that time is not in the next few hours, most devices won’t get charged–and they’ll be dead when you next think to use them.
  • Business uses change a lot of these equations. If it helps you do your job, people will use (and charge) devices far more willingly. Glass eventually pivoted to enterprise and found more success there.
  • “The killer app for glasses…is sight!” My colleague Ricardo Prada expressed this once in a brainstorm and it crystalized better than anything else what features, constraints, and use cases were going to be most important for Glass. Does it help you see more about the real world? Then it has a chance. If it’s trying to replace the real world, it’s much more challenging.

I still believe that the glasses we already wear (to help us see) can and will do more for us. I don’t believe people will make any compromises to how they look or feel in order to have those improvements. Unfortunately I expect this will limit the appeal of face computers to niche (or business) purposes for the foreseeable future.

I’d love to be wrong about this. Apple in particular has a history of succeeding where others have failed, and I fully realize I’m opening up myself to a “less space than a Nomad” moment. But this area has fundamental human physical and social challenges, and I haven’t seen any device yet that is up to that task.

When technology advances to the point where lots of face computer styles are possible at 50 grams or less, I think things will get interesting again.

Volcano power!

A new approach to geothermal power generation posits that we might solve our green power needs and defuse the civilization-ending Yellowstone supervolcano at the same time.

Intelligence as skill acquisition

The intelligence of a system is a measure of its skill-acquisition efficiency over a scope
of tasks, with respect to priors, experience, and generalization difficulty. – François Chollet, On the Measure of Intelligence

Why I work on productivity software

I made a shift in my career four years ago to work on productivity software. The motivating force was a desire to contribute to solving the climate crisis. I’m not a climate scientist, nor a physicist or even an engineer, who could contribute directly to eliminating greenhouse gas emissions.

However I can design really good software, and it turns out that’s something everyone who is working on the problem needs.

Nick Bostrom, in his article “[Three Ways to Advance Science](” does a good job summarizing the opportunity:

> Imagine a researcher invented an inexpensive drug which was completely safe and which improved all‐round cognitive performance by just 1%. The gain would hardly be noticeable in a single individual. But if the 10 million scientists in the world all benefited from the drug the inventor would increase the rate of scientific progress by roughly the same amount as adding 100,000 new scientists. Each year the invention would amount to an indirect contribution equal to 100,000 times what the average scientist contributes.

Bostrom is specifically interested in medical interventions…but I think in today’s world the more mundane problems of distraction, confusion, and noncooperation are the bigger opportunities to tackle.

Anarchy and our interconnected future

Most societal critiques today come from either the right or the left, so it was interesting to read this (very!) long analysis of multiple interconnected issues–democracy, capitalism, equality, opportunity, the climate crisis, technology, and more–from a self-professed anarchist perspective.

Near the end the author describes the central challenge of defining societal narratives that can compete with the dominant one:

We are increasingly being sold a transhumanist narrative in which nature and the body are presented as limitations to be overcome. This is the same old Enlightenment ideology that anarchists have fallen for time and again, and it rests upon a hatred of the natural world and an implicit belief in (Western) human supremacy and unfettered entitlement. It is also being increasingly used to make the capitalist future enticing and attractive, at a time when one of the primary threats to capitalism is that many people do not see things improving. If anarchists cannot recover our imagination, if we cannot talk about the possibility of a joyful existence, not only in fleeting moments of negation but also in the kind of society we could create, in how we could relate to one another and to the planet, then I don’t believe we have any chance of changing what happens next.

This is one of the few attempts I’ve read to even describe an alternative system encompassing economic, political, environmental, and technological aspects; the Green New Deal is another, though that’s still early in development. It’s clear that trying to change any single aspect of our interconnected society is doomed to fail against the inertia of the status quo; change will come all together or not at all.

The Automation Charade

> The phrase “robots are taking our jobs” gives technology agency it doesn’t (yet?) possess, whereas “capitalists are making targeted investments in robots designed to weaken and replace human workers so they can get even richer” is less catchy but more accurate. – [The Automation Charade](

The Ethical OS

Great toolkit and checklist for designing software that doesn’t “accidentally” turn into a tool for addiction, oppression, inequality, and hate: [The Ethical OS](

> If the technology you’re building right now will some day be used in unexpected ways, how can you hope to be prepared? What new categories of risk should you pay special attention to now? And which design, team or business model choices can actively safeguard users, communities, society, and your company from future risk?

Maybe the most important fact about living in the 21st century is that we are now hackable animals.

Yuval Harari

[Five principles to design by](, by Joshua Porter:

> 1. Technology serves humans
2. Design is not art
3. The experience belongs to the user
4. Great design is invisible
5. Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication

I’ve learned most of these the hard way…take the shortcut by following the list!

> We should teach our kids sports, music, painting…Everything we teach should be different from machines…we have to teach something unique, so that a machine can never catch up with us. – [Jack Ma](