You’ve probably heard by now about Google Glass, the wearable headed-mounted display, AR-enabling, hands-free, voice activated device that might revolutionize how we access the world’s information. Now that’s a mouthful. But what, I ask you, if it actually does just that?
Picture a world where surgeons’ prep routine includes getting Glass ready to snap photos hands-free and consult with other colleagues in a "hangout." Or a grade-school nature walk that features bespectacled tykes who can use their glasses to snap pictures, and analyze and discuss the plants and animals they see. Or what about a multiplayer real-time geolocation zombie gaming app?
The latter was one of many things suggested recently in Google’s "ifIHadGlass" campaign, which wrapped up in March 2013 and allowed select people to purchase and test Glass ahead of its 2014 commercial release. The #ifIHadGlass campaign ran on Twitter-and Google+, where participants were asked one simple question: What would you do if you could get your hands on Google Glass?
The company got responses like:
#ifihadglass I would create a realtime geo-location based multiplayer zombie game integrated w/MYO http://getmyo.com 4 gesture controls
With @Google Glass, I’d push learning beyond classroom walls to change education under the vision of the "world as a museum" #ifihadglass
#ifihadglass I’d help kids be scientists – to explore nature + find answers on their own, wherever they are. VIDEO http://bit.ly/YYxE5q
Armed with natural language voice recognition software, Glass can take basic commands from the wearer. Say "take a picture", "Google weather in San Francisco", "film a video" or "start a hangout", and it will do each of these things hands free, and effectively enough to put Siri to shame.
So what can Glass actually do? Here’s the full list of commands:
|To Record a Video||"OK Glass, record a video."|
|To Take a Picture||"OK Glass, take a picture."|
|To Start a Google+ Hangout||"OK Glass, hang out with [person/circle]."|
|To Search||"OK Glass, Google [search query]."|
|To Search Photos||"OK Glass, Google photos of [search query]."|
|Translate||"OK Glass, Google say [text] in [language]."|
|Give Directions||"OK Glass, give directions to [search query]."|
|Use Google Now||"OK Glass, [question]."|
|Give Flight Details||"OK Glass, when does flight [flight number] depart from [airport name]."|
"OK Glass, send a message to [name]."
Rather than being tethered to a smartphone for information, Google Glass aims to make it available right at the end of your nose. That kind of hands-free, instant access could shake things up in the mobile device world. But here’s the thing: When a supposedly revolutionary product comes out, it can be hard to tell whether it will actually catch on. (Remember the Segway and how it was supposed to "revolutionize" transportation?)
Will Glass end up in classrooms? In hospitals? Or just about everywhere? It’s impossible to say. After all, predictions in tech tend to be notoriously inaccurate. In 2009, Gartner predicted that Android operating systems would surpass Apple’s iOS by 2012 to become the second-largest mobile platform – after Nokia’s Symbian, RIM’s Blackberry and Microsoft Windows Mobile.
Yeah. Monkeys on typewriters could have done about as well on that one.
Walking on Broken Glass
There’s another thing that happens when any brand-new, "groundbreaking" technology is released, and that’s that we tend to overstate its benefits and overlook its flaws. So, despite all the good things we’ve been hearing about Glass, it’s also raised some serious concerns (although you’ll have to dig a little deeper to find them). From the bar in Seattle that has already banned the device, to the not-so-subtle Gawker op-ed entitled "If You Wear Google’s New Glasses, You Are an Asshole," Glass has managed to raise concerns about safety, privacy, usefulness and its effects on our social skills. And it hasn’t even been released yet.
The safety debate around Google has two sides. One is that as a heads-up display – something that the military has used since 2005 – it makes checking email and the like while driving safer because it allows the driver to keep at least some focus on the road. And yes, while texting and driving is illegal in some states, we all know people do it anyway. Even so, doing anything but focusing on driving while driving has proved to be dangerous, and critics argue that Glass will effectively promote that behavior and add yet another layer of distraction to our vehicles. (Learn more about this problem in Driving While ‘Intexticated’ (Infographic).)
One criticism mobile technology already faces is that it’s bad for our social skills. If you’ve ever had dinner with a friend and his or her iPhone, that criticism’s hard to disagree with. Charles Small, an electrical engineer who goes by the name "Technomasochist online," spoke to me at length about this problem.
"Devices like Google Glass will make the worst psychotic nightmares of author Phillip K. Dick come true. That is, instead of escaping from the Matrix, we will Google ourselves into it," Small said.
When you’re wearing a device on your face that has 720HD video-recording capabilities, privacy seems like an obvious issue. The proliferation of tiny cameras has already become a part of daily life, but at least with smartphones a person in the cross hairs of a lens has a chance to notice they’re being filmed. Glass can record and film all kinds of things much more discreetly than anything that’s come before it. Google co-founder Sergey Brin has even said that a future model of Glass will include a function that takes photos automatically at regular intervals. (Read more about privacy issues in Don’t Look Now, But Online Privacy May Be Gone for Good.)
If Big Brother surveillance is something you worry about, Glass definitely has the goods to up that anxiety. Plus, Louis Rosas-Guyon, the president of R-Squared Computing, reminds us that because Glass will sit right over the wearer’s eyes, it will have unprecedented access to spaces that, while public, are also considered private.
"There are huge questions about how Glass will impact society, especially for how it can effect schools, court rooms, bathrooms and other public/private areas," Rosas-Guyon said.
The last – and perhaps biggest – criticism about Glass is whether it offers anything truly new. It seems that the biggest thing this device has going for it is the promise of a practical way to use augmented reality. But no one knows for sure if this concept will catch on at all, let alone become a killer app. Glass enthusiasts have also presented the device as a solution to the anti-social behavior smartphones have engendered. In reality, it seems more like a substitute. Glass might make it possible to pretend that you’re engaged in a conversation with someone, but your on-another-planet, cross-eyed look might still give away the fact that you’re really checking email. (Learn more about the possibilities offered by AR in Augmented Reality 101.)
Through the Looking … Glass
Looking to the future, the easy question to ask is whether we need to be so connected to our technology as to walk through life with it just a few inches from our eyes. Not everyone feels so warm and fuzzy about that prospect. Small, I think, sums it up best.
"Google Glass will make connected people completely egocentric," he said. "That is, they will be able to go anywhere, any time, yet still be totally wrapped up in no one but themselves."
More egocentric? I guess anything’s possible. This is the future, after all.
OK Glass, please add ‘Brad Hines’ to my Google+ circle of cool people.