At the end of last year we began exploring the potential of wearable technology in research. Tom took the Autographer on a sweaty, whirlwind tour of Elephanta Island in Mumbai, and we shared the result with you in our most recent newsletter.
The wearable technology revolution is rapidly gathering momentum, with forecasters predicting that it will change the game of technology and photography in 2014 in the same way the smartphone has. In his article Why Wearable Tech Will Be as Big as the Smartphone Bill Wasik argues that not only will the wearable devices render the smartphone redundant, these devices will transform the way we experience the world.
The best-known wearable device, Google Glass launched last year, offering a slew of features including hands-free internet, voice recognition, the capability to take photos and videos and share them in real-time. Samsung has developed a companion watch for its smartphones, with Apple widely rumoured to be exploring a similar device. Razer has released a body-tracking wristband called the Nabu, which tracks steps, monitors sleep, logs your location, and delivers you notifications from connected web services. Olympus is currently experimenting with smart goggles.
Wearable cameras are also an emerging market, with the Autographer leading the way in this domain. This is spurned by the trend of “life-logging”, and the fact that we are seeing a continued move towards more visual ways of communicating.
Wearable technology creates opportunities for the user to record everything, anytime, anywhere, without holding a camera. They facilitate unencumbered life-logging, because they capture photos and footage of what the wearer is doing, without them having to be at all conscious that this is occurring. As Thad Starner points out, this means that wearable devices have the ability to play a supporting role in what the user is doing, rather than being the primary focus itself. For this reason, they have captured the interest of researchers for their potential as tools of self-ethnography.
We can intuitively see that wearable devices have the potential to promote more authenticity in the vision that can be obtained in research. Having people actively record things disrupts their normal behaviour and thought processes. Also, we know that the observation of behavior alone is sufficient to cause a change in the behaviour. Minimising the respondent’s awareness of the recording of images or footage means we are getting a more naturalistic, authentic, accurate capturing of the situation or behaviour of interest.
One application where wearable cameras are being used in a research context is shopping safaris, where they enable us to see what the consumer does in the shop (for example, immediately sending a text upon entering the store to check what they need to buy with their partner; making a last-minute run to the snack aisle). These are details that the consumer may not be consciously aware of, may not remember or admit to, or may not deem significant enough to capture using a regular camera. In this way, wearable cameras also provide huge amounts of context around purchase and consumption. Wearable technology is also being used in qualitative research as a way of minimising social desirability bias – for example, to gain an accurate read on people’s health or ‘green’ behaviours over a period of time.
Wearable technology has many benefits, but Google Glass early-adopter Matt Honan complains that they can be socially jarring, setting you apart from everyone else. Privacy concerns have also been voiced in response to the advent of wearable cameras: that these devices will make surreptitious photography easier, and that the chronicling of every move you make can lead to the curtailing of the personal freedom of the person in front of the camera.
By all accounts, wearable technology is the future, as the use of these products will inevitably tip from niche to mainstream. In terms of the potential value these devices can bring to research, it seems we have only just scratched the surface.