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Why virtual assistants are the ‘killer app’ for wearables

Mike Elgan | Nov. 20, 2017
‘Hearables’ and smart glasses will keep us in range of our virtual assistants everywhere, all the time.


Star Trek got it right.

In the future, we’ll interact with computers mostly by talking.

But for those computers to be available for instant interaction, they’ll have to be attached to our physical persons. I’m talking about virtual assistants on wearable devices.

Technologists are ambivalent about both virtual assistants and wearables. Some love and rely upon them. Others are indifferent.

That’s why it may seem unlikely that these two technologies, used together, are the future of computing. Still, it’s going to happen.

Stay with me here, because by the end of this column I think you’ll see clearly how inevitable this scenario is.


Wearables as mobile smart speakers

The way to think of wearables is as the mobile versions of smart speakers, such as the Amazon Echo, Google Home and Apple HomePod. (Apple announced this week that it’s HomePod product release has been delayed from this year to “early next year.”)

This month marks the three-year anniversary of the launch of Amazon’s Echo smart speaker. When it first emerged, the media labeled it “crazy,” “weird,” “not very useful” and “nothing new.”

Tech fans took to message boards and social media to express disdain, calling it “pointless” because virtual assistants already existed on the phone. The phone-based assistants were and are pretty easy to use, so the additional “convenience” of just talking to the room seemed frivolous. Many still feel this way. This perspective is based on the false assumption that new technologies go mainstream because they’re “necessary,” “practical” or even “useful.”

The same week the Echo launched, however, I argued for its importance and predicted in this space how popular it would become.

The critics were right about one thing: Nobody “needs” a smart speaker.

But it’s also true that nobody “needs” smartphones, 4K TVs or drones. “Need” has almost nothing to do why culture-changing technologies go mainstream.

Tech products go mainstream because they feel good to use.

And that’s why the Amazon Echo is a runaway hit, now emulated by the industry’s biggest technology companies. Because it feels good to use.

Instead of thinking about smart speakers as devices, products or technologies, think of them as enablers of specific human behaviors.

With a smart speaker in the home, you just talk and get an audible answer or result (like turning on the lights). It’s gratifying. And gratification is what drives end-user technologies.

Over the next few years, the following four things will happen:


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