Reality and Glass

Reality and Glass

Article from Issue 154/2013

I’m thinking I won’t plan to drop $1,500 for Google Glass, the sleek augmented reality glasses that will officially go on sale around the end of 2013. By the time you read this, it will be about six months since Google co-founder Sergey Brin’s appearance on TED Talks to tell about a new device called Google Glass. What better time to reflect?

Dear Linux Magazine Reader,

I'm thinking I won't plan to drop $1,500 for Google Glass, the sleek augmented reality glasses that will officially go on sale around the end of 2013. By the time you read this, it will be about six months since Google co-founder Sergey Brin's appearance on TED Talks to tell about a new device called Google Glass. What better time to reflect?

The TED presentation began with a promotional video-within-a-video that Brin used to introduce Glass. As remarkable and futuristic as Google Glass is, the promo clip was pretty basic video advertising schmaltz – a litany of precious moments occurring within the watchful eye of a Google Glass unit, as if the presence of the product somehow created or inspired the events. Fluttering in the wind beneath a hang glider … watching your daughter run down the stairs in a prom dress … bringing your grandmother a birthday cake. These kinds of images have been exploited in the past by camera makers, beer vendors, insurance salesmen, and pitch men for hundreds of other products. If you're smart, a little warning light should turn on in your head whenever anyone who is selling something tries to get you to inhabit someone else's memories.

Google Glass, however, is not just here to let you live someone else's memories but to digitize your own memories – to have the option of documenting and archiving everything that happens around you (at least, as permitted by the battery life). Behind this desire is the assumption that watching your experiences play back from some external source is better than reliving them from within your own memories – or that using the power of language to tell your friends about your hang gliding experience is insufficient without footage from a camera mounted on your head.

Glass is also a personal assistant and web browser you can access without hands. Brin regards this as a big benefit – you can keep a web browser in front of your face at all times, without having to stop or take it out of your pocket. This actually seems really terrible to me – like the complete opposite of cultivating the kind of mindfulness that brings genuine clarity. Brin complains about the sight of people texting or slumped over a cell phone, but it is very unclear why someone's attention would be any less divided if their eyes were wandering up into their Google Glass spy scope every few seconds instead of down at the phone.

The other much-discussed role of Google Glass is as a communication tool. You can video chat with anyone else who is wearing a Google Glass unit, or possibly with others sitting before a tablet or desktop. Although video chat is nothing new, Google Glass will take it to new and exotic places. For instance, in another online promo, we see someone lacing up ski boots when a message comes into view saying, "I'll race you to the bottom." One gets the eerie impression that, before the invention of Google Glass, two skiers would not have been able to simply call out to each other across the expanse of snow, "Hey, I'll race you to the bottom," without the assistance of an intervening electronics infrastructure.

The overall impression I got from Google's own video is that the Glass user operates in a kind of bubble, as if they were flying in a spaceship, with navigation facts, weather information, and remote communication playing inside the cockpit and the natural world occurring somewhere beyond, in a separate sphere outside the inner sanctum.

Add to this the complications of Google Glass as a spying tool for Google. Anything you record with Glass will be available for Google's data-mining enterprise. In his blog post following Brin's TED talk, author Mark Hurst points out that every Google Glass unit will be like one of those camera cars that Google sent through your town a couple of years ago to photograph your house, except, it won't just take a picture of the outside. It will get inside your life: your furniture, your friends, your words  – not just if you own Google Glass, but even if you are simply in the presence of someone else who owns it.

The conventional wisdom is that when a breathtaking new technology appears in some kind of sleek consumer product, the public will simply swallow it instantly as if it is an enchanted gumdrop. The consumer press certainly will (because that is what it is designed to do), and plenty of blogs will light up with predictable wonder, but when the dust settles, I'm wondering if this weird tool will really be something the world wants to adopt on a massive scale.

Glass is only one of many wearable computing products that will appear in the coming years, and no doubt someone will eventually come up with a way to do it that will capture the public imagination. But for now, I'm not thinking it will be a huge improvement for the universe if everyone I know is wearing one of these. So you won't catch me with one – and if you want to bring one in my house, put a strip of duct tape over the lens.

Joe Casad, Editor in Chief

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