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Apple Watch vs. Google Glass: The psychology of wearables

To build that bridge, however, some technology will be embraced and fuel us for years, whereas some will fall by the side, a brief flash along the way. When it comes to mobile, the iPhone is clearly an example of the former. When it comes to wearables, Google Glass is clearly an example of the latter. But what about the Apple Watch? By analyzing human behavior, and comparing how both Google and Apple went to market with their first wearables, can we gain any insight into its fate?

Broken glass

Georgia Dow wearing Google Glass

Georgia Dow wearing Google Glass (Image credit: iMore)

Psychologically speaking, there are very specific reasons why Google Glass failed. That Google didn't understand and foresee them is both predictable and surprising.

To be clear, Google Glass wasn't a retail product and wasn't sold in stores. It was an experiment and a very publicly positioned one. But that's what Google chose to go with first, and how they chose to go about it.

The early adopters of Google Glass—the "explorers"— were staunch technophiles and Google enthusiasts. They were the type of people who thrive on being at the cutting edge and don't mind investing their time, effort—and $1500 a pop—to use and be seen using Google Glass first. The social consequences, unfortunately, weren't on their radar any more than they were on Google's.

Through evolution, we have learned that living in social groups greatly increases our chances of survival. That's why our need to feel connected and accepted, physically and emotionally, are exceptionally high. It's also why feeling ostracized from our social groups can be devastating. Studies have shown that people excluded from even minor social activities can express anger, anxiety, depression, and shame (Baumeister and Leary, 1995; Eisenberger et al., 2003).

Google Glass, for all its technological wonders, separated its wearer from social groups.

Google Glass, for all its technological wonders, separated its wearer from social groups. Part of that was physical—it grafted itself to your face and intruded itself in our gaze. It made us look more like the Borg than like ourselves and impossible not to notice. Part of that was emotional—popular perception became that anyone wearing it was creepily recording us at any time. It created a disconnection, more than a connection.

The first part was the result of poor design decisions. The second part, media sensationalism. But as pictures of people wearing Google Glass spread, and articles about establishments barring Glass users or altercations arising around Glass usage, the social stigma surrounding it grew.

That stigma transferred from what was being worn to the person wearing it, most infamously though the use of the derogatory term, "glassholes".

The eyes have it

Humans have a deep and abiding need for socialization. It's strongly linked to our feelings of happiness and wellbeing. When developing technology so intimate that it needs to be connected to our bodies for long periods of time, the developers need to be mindful of those dynamics and the technology respectful of shared experiences.

There's a reason why Alien terrified us with face-huggers rather than wrist-huggers.

That's why where an object is worn is so important, especially when that object contains new technology. It will have needs of its own, and those needs can't come before the wearer's. Google put Glass on our face and in front of our eyes because that was the most efficient, most logical place to put a screen and a connection to the internet.

But it was too soon. We hadn't gotten used to wearables in general, much less ones so prominently positioned.

With Google Glass, there was no way to not see it. It was a persistent visual barrier that directly interfered with one of the most primal and important ways humans interrelate—through the eyes.

The eyes are how we connect. We have specific neurons in the infertemporal cortex that fire with facial recognition. They're integral to our social constructs and linked to our emotional intelligence. There's a reason we say "eyes are the windows the soul," and why Alien terrified us with face-huggers rather than wrist-huggers.

With Google Glass, instead of seeing the eyes and the face, we see something strange and amazing. We notice Google Glass before we see the person behind it.

Decades ago Harlow showed the necessity of social interaction even over basic needs. He allowed baby rhesus macaque monkeys to choose between a mechanical "mother" that was warm and cloth, or a mechanical "mother" that was cold and metal but was able to feed the babies milk. The babies choose to spend their time with the warm, cloth mother, only reaching over for food when absolutely necessary. (Harlow, 1958; American Psychologist).

Harlow also showed the devastating effects of this social isolation and rejection on the monkeys. He found that monkeys that were unable to spend a lot of positive interactions from other monkeys increased their social isolation.

With Google Glass, the lack of positive interactions simply caused people to stop using or wanting it.

Watching the wrist

The Apple Watch is both similar and different to Google Glass. It's similar in that it's the first major wearable from one of the biggest technology companies on the planet, and none of us yet know where exactly it will fit in. It's different in that Apple isn't starting with the face. Apple is starting with the wrist.

Some people will still buy the Apple Watch—or Android Wear, Google's more recent foray into wearables—for the same reason they bought Google Glass. They'll want to be the first to have, to try, and to show off the latest technology. But long term, early adopters will only keep using it, and the mainstream will only start adopting it, if it fits their needs and helps them live better lives.

The advantage the Apple Watch has is that it isn't on the face and isn't constantly in our lines of sight.

The advantage the Apple Watch has is that it isn't on the face and isn't constantly in our lines of sight. It's on the wrist, which is a place people became comfortable wearing technology decades ago. When we look at someone who's wearing an Apple Watch, we may not even see it. But we will see them, unobstructed, as a person.

There will still be growing pains. The Apple Watch is still on our bodies. Holding it up for anything longer than seconds isn't ideal. Trying to use the small screen the way we've gotten used to using bigger phone and tablet screens isn't practical. We'll try to learn how to keep things brief and to use controls like the Digital Crown. If we like it, Apple Watch has a real shot at becoming part of our lives. If we don't, it too will struggle.

The Apple Watch can still intermediate human connections, but only intermittently. Even more so than the phone, the watch is designed for for brief interactions, for glances. Not for anything permanent or persistent.

So far, engaging with someone wearing an Apple Watch feels far more comfortable than engaging with someone wearing Google Glass. The idea of having to interact with someone wearing an Apple Watch isn't a concern, where being put in the same position with someone wearing Google Glass still feels immediately stressful.

Human first

The difference between Google Glass and Apple Watch may be one of impatience vs. patience, of face first vs. wrist first, of unavoidable vs. inobtrusive. Psychologically speaking, though, it's all the difference in the world.

For Google's first wearable, they shot for the moon and failed. For Apple's, they shot for the human and have a chance at succeeding. If the Apple Watch—or Android Wear—does prevail where Google Glass failed, however, it won't entirely be because of technology: It will be in part because of psychology.

Perhaps, in time, wearables will slowly move from the wrist to face—the same way Locutus of Borg was a horror and Seven of Nine, eventually, a hero.

The effects of social exclusion are devastating. Any company that wants to involve itself in how we interact with each other has to be mindful of that.

If we want to build a bridge to the future, it will take more than just technology: It will take patience and understanding of human psychology.

Senior Editor at iMore and a practicing therapist specializing in stress and anxiety. She speaks everywhere from conferences to corporations, co-host of Vector and Isometric podcasts, follow her on Twitter @Georgia_Dow and check out her series at anxiety-videos.com.

25 Comments
  • I've missed your writing, Georgia! Great article. Being a therapist myself, couldn't agree more. Same reason telemedicine has such a hard time catching on in the mainstream therapy world - there's this intangible disconnect that even the best video conferencing package can't solve.
  • Great article! My biggest take away from this? Without directly saying it, you summarized the internal mindsets of each company, as well as the "fanboy" community of each. "impatience vs. patience" - OR Being first or getting it "right" Taken a step further, you can see why Apple makes some of the decisions it does. Could Apple have put 16 GB or 32 GB in the watch, and still come to a price point? Probably. But by limiting the storage, it forces users and developers to think about what they really NEED to put into a watch app. Same thing with waiting until watchOS 2.0 for proper apps. Apple helps shape the vision of the future not by giving us everything under the sun all at once (that will likely cause most advances to get missed), but, rather, by giving us a path to get there. Cynically? The easiest way to boil a frog is to warm the water they are already in slowly, not throw them in a boiling pot. Technology is not just great hardware + great software. It is that PLUS a great experience. The Human needs. This is the next frontier of technology, and it is more important then ever to get the human experience part right. Fortunately for Apple, it has been part of their DNA for a long time, vocalized by Steve Jobs in 2010, I believe at the iPad introduction. “We’ve always tried to be at the intersection of technology and liberal arts, to be able to get the best of both, to make extremely advanced products from a technology point of view, but also have them be intuitive, easy to use, fun to use, so that they really fit the users – the users don’t have to come to them, they come to the user.” —Steve Jobs
  • Wonderfully said, thanks
  • They don't need limited storage to think about that. They only need to realize that the watch has a tiny screen and there's not much you can do even if you tried to crap all that functionality in those apps. Also, I'm pretty sure Google, Samsung, and practically everyone else knows no one will try to use a smart watch like a smartphone, because the form factor is simply not equipped for that - nor do people want smart watches with 3" screens on them to enable such use cases. Limited Storage helps them make sure they don't cannibalize iPhone sales. If the Apple Watch had 64GB Storage than people would get 16GB iPhones and put all of their music on their Watch, instead. It also helps to passively keep the mediocre battery life in check, since you're limited on how many apps you can install on it by the storage, assuming you want to use the storage for more than just apps (especially). It also will give users a clear reason to upgrade when they introduce Apple Watch 2.0 with double the storage, or something to that effect.
  • Yet everyone loves Iron Man. Sent from the iMore App
  • I really don't see any gradual transition from wrist to face unless it is completely inconspicuously built into normal glasses. Even then, people differently perceive those who wear corrective glasses compared to those who don't. (20/20 w/ Ms. Walters...???)
    Maybe if Apple makes the eyePhone as seen in Futurama, we'll embrace the idea. Sent from the iMore App
  • Agreed, I think inconspicuous is a good point and then it will be more accepted and can be more obvious
  • Comparing the Apple Watch & Google Glass is less than useful. It's an apples/oranges situation. The problem isn't an acceptance of wearables, but that of ubiquitous cameras. What made Glass problematic was the prospect of constant recording of people. The watch has no camera and would rarely be in "recording position", even if it did. A better comparison would be with smartphones in general, which have all the potential for surveillance that Glass does. The greater acceptance of smartphones is that with them, people generally have an idea what people are doing with the device in the moment. If they are reading, or filming, or recording audio, the actions of the phone's user give people around them some idea about what they are doing. A person near you in public may have all the technology to record your actions in their hands, but the tapping at the screen, and downward angle of the device suggest that person's texting, and not filming. The seeming disconnection from the world is actually a bit reassuring to people. Glass however, is theoretically "always on" as far as other people are concerned. You never know what people are using Glass for in any given moment. It's always in position to be running and recording, it affords some privacy to the user, but puts everyone around the user on guard. The classic example is the Glass user who was kicked out of a bar for wearing glass, insisting it wasn't recording. The user tried to prove that it was a hostile act, by releasing the video of it that was recorded on the Glass, simultaneously proving the users point, but proving the broader point of those creeped out. Glass (or similar technology) may still become acceptable in certain situations. Certainly as a form of police body camera, or other security arrangements. A camera-free, display-only variant on the Glass may become more socially acceptable, but the history of Glass itself will be a bit of an impediment to that.
  • Georgia is on vacation, but hopefully she'll reply when she's back. In the meantime, if you read her article, cameras is only one of the issues. The concept of the device itself was another—it was something strange-looking on your face. Camera or not, that's a barrier to social interaction. Might be small for some, huge for others, but instead of seeing a person and their eyes, you see a device. Glasses—normal ones—had this problem as well, and maybe they still do. Moving clocks to the wrist took time as well. Georgia's point, as I understood it, is that it behooves companies to think about the people and our psychology as much as they think about the science and technology. Or, to be patient and take the time to get it right. And that's definitely a great Google Glass vs. Apple Watch comparison point.
  • "—it was something strange-looking on your face. Camera or not, that's a barrier to social interaction."
    IDK what you're talking about...
    https://www.google.com/search?q=juggalo&num=50&rlz=1C1CHFX_enUS601US601&...
  • Lol
  • Everything Rene said :)
  • Nice review! Great comparison between wearables. Sent from the iMore App
  • Well Georgia it makes you look smart!! LOL :) I think stick to the Apple Watch!!
  • Why thank you :)
  • This comparison doesn't make sense and you and you prove that when you say one was an experiment. The uses for both are completely different as are their interfaces, and for good reason. I like the idea of Google Glass for specific use cases and hope it develops further without anyone e being worried that the original EXPERIMENT may have been less than well received.
  • I think experiment or not we have lessons to be learnt and those who don't learn from mistakes will live to repeat them. I don't think we will be seeing another GG for a while but I do think Google will take these lessons and make a better products. Do you have Google Glass yourself? If so what was people's reaction to it? I think the biggest issue is ensuring those who wear your products don't experience social exclusion because of it.
  • Glass was still on beta at it's end (at least that version) and not a full on retail product. I can't wait to see what you guys have to say about Apple Watch (an easy way to get quick notifications from your iPhone) vs Holo Lens when that launches...
  • Great article written from a different perspective on tech. You rock, Ms. Dow!
  • It's just Google being 10 years ahead of the industry as usual. The world is just not yet ready for Google Glass. Maybe in 5 to 10 years it'll be culturally acceptable. I would have bought one if it was retailed. I wasn't willing to pay $1500 for it though.
  • Or, more accurately, ahead of the rest IN PUBLIC. We literally have no idea what other companies are testing in labs. Sent from the iMore App
  • Very good point. However, I don't think Google is given enough credit for their willingness to push boundaries and fail spectacularly in public. It's fun to mock Google Glass as a failure, but without Google Glass, we probably wouldn't have Android Wear.
  • I agree with you there. They can afford to push things forward, and I want them to challenge the status quo. I think the article points out that you need to be careful what you actually put out there, though, because you risk killing your attempts before you've begun. Not sure your age, but take Hyundai as an example. They came to the U.S. in late 80's/early 90's and their cars were junk. They were a joke. Today, they are pretty well made, but still have that stigma Sent from the iMore App
  • Yes I do love how Google is willing to take large risks and innovate. Sometimes it's hit sometimes it's win, in the end the consumer gets cool new products. Though we do need to know why things hit and miss :)
  • Georgia: Bright, beautiful and believable... not necessarily in that order...