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Why wearable technology keeps failing.

Hint: You can’t be the right answer if you keep asking the wrong question

Google Glass

If you want to see how far wearable technology has fallen in the popular imagination, you should check out Kingsman, the Bond-like secret agent film currently in theatres. It is the most subversive movie of the season. The thing about the Bond movies, and their many imitators, is that the villains manage to capture the zeitgeist. They reflect the collective fears of the day: evil Russians, manic scientists, nuclear bomb builders, organized crime syndicates, and so on.

In Kingsman, the villain, played with shameless relish by Samuel L. Jackson, is part Internet mogul, part environmentalist, and total Glasshole. Therein lies the subversion. Internet moguls and environmentalists are supposed to be the heroes of our day. But it’s easy to tell that this Internet-savvy environmentalist is as sinister as they come because he sports a pair of glasses with a Google Glass-like attachment. The glasses even respond to nerdy-sounding verbal commands, the same way Google Glass does.

Just slip on a pair and you have instant bad guy. Like the cat belonging to the arch-villain Blofeld in the Bond films, or the hairless feline Mr. Bigglesworth in the Austin Powers movies, Google Glass has become a shorthand signifier of evil genius. It wasn’t supposed to be like this.

In early 2013 Google Glass was rolled out into public view with great fanfare, being touted as a visionary “moonshot” project that could transform the way we interact with technology. But it remained stuck on the launch pad for almost two years before finally being hauled back into the lab in January of this year to be totally rebuilt.

Until tech companies get out of the lab and into the world to ask people what they actually desire, they will continue to run the risk of making things nobody wants.

Following this retreat, Google claimed that the problem was that they had shared the product with the public too soon. In fact, the problem was precisely the opposite.

The person making this claim on behalf of Google was a man who carries the official title, “Captain of Moonshots,” one Astro Teller. (We assume this is his real name, and not a nom de guerre borrowed from a defunct Las Vegas psychic magician.) As with his unusual name, it’s hard to ignore Dr. Teller’s unusual appearance.

It seems superficial to comment on someone’s appearance when they’re in the business of designing technology. But when you’re designing technology for people to wear, all bets are off. And Teller’s entire wardrobe, along with his greying ponytail, appear to have been pilfered from a dumpster behind Ice T’s home back in the 1980s. If you have no appreciation for what people will actually wear, you should not be in the business of designing things for people to wear.

But, appearances aside, Dr. Teller’s real sin is to imagine that you can invent a product people want without first figuring out if they really want it. It’s not an uncommon problem in the world of new product development. And as a marketing consultant I’ve seen plenty of ideas that were incubated in the boardroom or in the R&D lab that have failed in the marketplace. Usually, they’re pet projects of the CEO or the product development folks.

They fail because they begin by asking the wrong question. They ask, “What can we make that’s really cool?” Instead, they should be asking, “What can we make that people really want?”

If Google had asked if people really wanted a computer you could strap to your face before they started tinkering in the lab they might have called the whole thing off. The problem isn’t that they showed the product to the public too soon, it’s that by the time they asked what people wanted it was too late.

The same problem has been playing out in the world of smart watches. It’s been a fantasy since the days of Dick Tracy to have a watch that works like a phone. That’s why makers of smartphones today are flattening, stretching, and bending them to fit on people’s wrists. The problem is they’re making a smartphone for your wrist that is harder to use and less functional than the smartphone in your hand.

Until tech companies get out of the lab and into the world to ask people what they actually desire, they will continue to run the risk of making things nobody wants.

No Bond movie is complete without a visit to Q’s lab where he unveils the latest fantastical crime fighting gadgets. It’s hard to imagine how some of these inventions can actually be of use. But, inevitably, when the action reaches a crisis point, our hero reaches for one of Q’s unlikely gadgets to get him out of a tight spot. Even in the fantasy world of James Bond, the inventions coming out of Q’s lab manage to fill a real human need. And that’s more than can be said for most wearable technology these days.

Spin by Clive VeroniIn the tradition of Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers and Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow, Clive Veroni’s Spin is a fascinating investigation of how the techniques of political strategists are being applied to the world of consumer marketing.

In the early twentieth century political operatives did their work in the backroom, a shady place of secret deals and dark arts. By the middle of the century, the politicos were heading to Madison Avenue to learn the techniques of mass communication and persuasion. Today, they have moved from the dim light of the backroom to the bright lights of the war room, the central command for political campaigns. And along the way the pupil has surpassed the teacher.

Aided by masses of data, sophisticated computer modelling, and smart manipulation of social media, political strategists are reshaping the way voters think. And act. Forward-thinking marketers are now adopting these techniques to convince consumers to buy their products. The strategies being used to influence our choices at the ballot box will soon be used to influence our choices in the grocery store.

Drawing on political and marketing stories from North America, Europe, and beyond, Spin gives readers an insider’s view of this stunning turnaround. The book will focus on well-known characters from the worlds of politics and marketing and reveal how all of us will be affected by the surprising new ways in which companies will try to persuade us to vote for their brands.

Spin has been shortlisted for the 2015 National Business Book Award.

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