Posted by David Price 01 April 2014
How long will it take advertisers to ruin wearable tech?
The advertising industry has a long tradition of co-opting any cultural trend or technical innovation that attracts a significant following, and along the way draining whatever made it good in the first place.
Long before a middle-aged Johnny Rotten accepted Country Life's lovely, buttery dollars, the punk look and sound had been deployed wherever a commercial needed a 15-second shorthand for teenage rebellion. And devotees of skating, surfing, gaming, hacking and even videos of musicians dancing on treadmills will be familiar with the same awful feeling - that the thing you love has just been systematically ruined in order to get someone else to buy car insurance.
There's quite a good chance that the next target is wearable tech, which stands for nearly everything that advertising agencies most admire: wealth; status; youth and innovation; exclusivity (at least in the case of Google Glass, which remains available to members of the pilot programme only); and, most importantly of all, the capacity to capture vast quantities of consumer data.
Google Glass itself, and all the headset tech that will accompany it on to the market in the months and years to come, offers perhaps the most thrilling (to advertisers) and ominous (to the rest of us) possibilities in this area. Its ability to sense not only where you are, but what you're looking at, combined with knowledge of your buying habits and control of a screen you carry around on your face all day long, makes it pretty much the technology that an advertiser would build if given unlimited resources and time.
An early example of the way Google Glass could host advertising has been offered by Blippar, a clever image-recognition app that spots coded pictures - on billboards or newspapers, for instance - and turns them into augmented reality video, adverts or whatever the original coder wishes. Look at a film poster with your Glass headset on, for instance, and it might automatically play you the trailer.
But smartwatches aren't far behind, as Todd Wasserman warns in Mashable. Smartwatches - watches generally - are much more intimate than phones, and actually more integrated into our lives; they're literally on our bodies at all times. Which makes advertising on this format far harder to ignore. Passed a branch of Banana Republic? Perhaps Banana Republic would like to remind you about a sale they're running. Oh, did you post about your running times on Twitter earlier? Perhaps the Banana Republic have some nice running gear you might be interested in.
(Tech Advisor is not receiving a stipend from Banana Republic. We just enjoy typing and saying the words 'Banana Republic'.)
As often with technological advances, sci-fi got there first; the film usually referenced in these discussions is Minority Report, with its unctuous virtual shop assistants that pop up when you walk into the Gap and offer items similar to previous purchases. (On the other hand, an acquaintance suggests to me that a closer analogue may be found in Terry Gilliam's far more recent Zero Theorem, which depicts hypertargeted advertising as the unreliable mess we all secretly suspect it may become.)
Could we end up in a world like Minority Report? The thing is that, unlike in most of cinema's dystopias, it's up to us - the market will go where users lead. If nobody uses Blippar, Blippar will die out. But the evidence suggests, sadly, that most of us would happily sign up to the most intrusive of advertising targeting if it's presented to us as a way to get something for free, as my colleague Matt discusses in another article.
The key thing for tomorrow's wearable-tech advertisers to consider is intrusiveness. Wearable tech is personal, intimate; anything that is overtly advertising intruding into the user's relationship with the device runs the risk of appearing crass.
As Wasserman observes, smartwatch notifications need to be trimmed back to the bare minimum; it's not like smartphone alerts, which are relatively easy to ignore. If you keep tapping your users on the wrist, asking for their attention, you're headed for trouble.