Google is stoking up the PR for Google Glass, its still-in-development “wearable computing” project that will let you view the web all day long through a tiny computer monitor attached to a pair of high-tech eyeglasses. But like many other tech companies that try to make consumer products, Google is struggling mightily in the design department. It’s time they took a closer look at the world’s first wearable computers, hearing aids.
In spite of Google founder Sergei Brin bending Diane von Furstenberg’s arm to have her models wear them on the runway, the reviews of the early versions of Google Glass are in, and they are not promising. The consensus among everyone from Seventh Avenue fashionistas to pork pie hat-wearing hipsters is that they are too big, too unattractive and simply too, um, geeky to become anyone’s next big thing.
Google and other companies developing wearable computing devices (including, no surprise, Apple) should talk to Stuart Karten, who designed Starkey’s award-winning S-Series hearing aid, or the marketing team at Phonak, which has been pushing the envelope on edgy hearing-aid marketing for years. While the hearing aid industry hasn’t cracked the code on making their products cool consumer items, they’ve come light years from where they used to be.
In fact, my latest hearing aids, behind-the-ear monsters which on their own are pretty ugly, disappear when I’m wearing them for one simple reason: when I bought them I got to choose from a color palette and was able to get hearing aids that matched my hair color almost exactly. Less than five years ago, the only color you got was something that looked like an ugly lump of pinkish-flesh-colored silly putty. Multi-colored hearing aids might seem like a no brainer and an easy fix. But that color palette represents a sea change when it comes to the attention the hearing aid companies now are paying to design aesthetics.
That’s why it bothers me that with all the talk about wearable computing there’s so little discussion about hearing aids, which in fact were the world’s first wearable computing devices. More than a decade ago, when digital signal processors got small enough for the hearing-aid makers to work with, you had fully functioning computers with some of the world’s most sophisticated software resident inside people’s ears.
And now with the Bluetooth computer/communications revolution, these devices are no longer just hearing aids but are fully functioning interactive communication devices.
The folks at Jawbone have understood this for a long time and have gone through their own design metamorphosis. Their Bluetooth earpieces were always designed with a flair, and now that they are moving into other wearable computing devices, they are beefing up their design capabilities with the recent acquisition of Visere, a full-bore design agency.
Unfortunately, in the grand scheme of things, Jawbone is still too small to lead the entire high-tech industry out of the ugly-design wilderness.
In the meantime, Google can commiserate with Sony, whose movie-captioning headsets provide awesome closed-captioning in the movies. I did a rave review of the Sony glasses recently. But since then, other people who’ve tried them have told me they’d like them to be smaller, lighter and more attractive. Where is Stuart Karten when you need him?