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.