Assuring that trust wears well

Peter Coffee Profile picture for user Peter Coffee June 11, 2014
Iron Man's suit is a “wearable,” a piece of equipment whose user can almost forget that it’s there. The wearer doesn’t fly an airplane, or even fly the suit. The wearer just…flies. Isn’t that what we want from all of our tools?

In the first of the “Iron Man” movies, playboy genius Tony Stark asks “What about the pilot…without the plane?” The Iron Man suit is a “wearable,” a piece of equipment whose user can almost forget that it’s there. The wearer doesn’t fly an airplane, or even fly the suit. The wearer just…flies.

Isn’t that what we want from all of our tools? And isn’t the combination of shrinking hardware, pervasive wireless connection, and immense resources for cloud-based storage and analysis on the verge of giving it to us in many aspects of daily life – at a price that almost anyone can afford?

This is no longer comic-book fantasy, but increasingly a real-world conversation about workplace productivity and lifestyle convenience. It’s about context awareness, giving us information we can use in the moment we’re in – without wasting time entering data that’s more accurately captured by sensors. It’s about immediacy, so we can make simple decisions to do inexpensive things in a non-crisis mode – before a little symptom matures into a big, messy problem. It’s about augmenting reality, complementing (or perhaps correcting) what our own senses tell us with additional information – intuitively merged and overlaid.

It’s not about lighter weight, better keyboards, brighter and clearer displays, longer battery life, or any of the other figures of archaic merit that have long dominated our discussions of portable technology. We may safely assume that weight will become almost negligible, that keyboards will become almost irrelevant, that displays will be minimalist and that batteries will last all day. The relentless pressures of the consumer electronics market, not to mention the demands of healthcare and industry and military/public safety agencies, will take care of that.

We’re even making significant progress on giving our devices the intelligence to know what options are available, and to offer us multiple-choice rather than free-response questions to answer: a good thing, given that many of us still seem to need dramatic demonstrations of the need to pay attention to what’s happening right in front of us. Wearables need to be conceived as remedies for distraction, not as compounders of the problem.

Making sense

The questions of greatest interest are not what to sense, because sensors are microscopic and multi-spectral; not even how to wear things, because that answer is becoming “wear whatever you prefer.” If glasses or a wristwatch are too bulky, what about a patch on your arm or something embedded in your shirt cuff?

The questions that matter now, as stated by Jawbone platform manager Andrew Rosenthal in a March 2014 interview, are how to make sense of the data; to put it in context; and to help people act on it and change their behavior. It’s not about lists of data, but about the stories in the data.

When we think about the stories that data can tell, we quickly realize the need to rise above Stupid Technology Tricks: to meet high expectations for reliability of data flow, accuracy of data values, and control of data visibility. In a word, trust.

This is not the world of merely financial data flows, where any interruption or inaccuracy—or even breach of confidence—can be remedied, at some level, with an offsetting credit or penalty. This is a world in which loss of connection could threaten either personal or public safety; where inaccurate readings could cause fatal accidents; and where breach of confidentiality is essentially irreversible. The reason that “Streisand Effect” has a name is because it’s a thing: attempts to contain an error, today, may often result in “the unintended consequence of publicizing the information more widely.”

Wearable technology is a special case of the Internet of Things in which data flows are intrinsically personal, and that’s why it’s essential for us to support tomorrow’s wearables with robustly trustworthy platforms. It’s difficult enough to devise attractive, convenient devices and to envision genuinely valuable ways of analyzing and presenting their data; it’s too much to expect that every team entering this space will employ its own dedicated team of world-class security specialists.

Indeed, it’s already clear that our ability to connect devices is already outpacing the ability (and/or the inclination) of device builders to deep-dye their security, whether the consequence is home appliances being suborned as spambots or medical devices subject to remote manipulation. In this supersonic market, it’s time (as pilots say) to make sure we’re “ahead of the airplane”: to engage trustworthy platforms as reliable substrates, into which these data-collecting and function-enabling devices will integrate in ways that respect and protect identity and other key attributes.

Among the multi-vendor initiatives emerging to meet this need are the Salesforce Wear initiative, announced this month, with participants including ARM, Fitbit, Google Glass, Pebble, Philips and Samsung. The number of major brands included in this one announcement highlights another key point: that scaling this vision is not possible if every vendor, let alone every device, attempts to be its own center of the universe of applications and user experiences.

Developer experience, not merely device connectivity, is the heart of the Salesforce Wear offering – because developer leverage is what’s needed to elevate us, quickly, above technologies and products, so that people and teams can focus on their stories.

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