We’re in the era of wearable computing, when high-tech wizardry is both productivity tool and fashion statement. Market researcher IDC just announced that smartphones are out-shipping their less powerful mobile cousins for the first time, while Apple is said to be readying a “smart” watch. And Google is now distributing prototypes of its Google Glass computerized eyewear.
Google Glass is a headset that looks more or less like a conventional pair of glasses except a touchpad extends part way around one side. The spoken command “OK Glass” alerts the device to perform functions like taking a photo or even a video, or letting you participate in social gatherings online through Google+ and its Hangouts feature. Audio output feeds to the right ear and you can read email and other text by glancing up at the message display.
It’s going to be a while before Google Glass is available for the rest of us, for the Google Glass Explorer Edition is so far circulating only among developers and costs a cool $1,500. But just wait. If you’ve ever been startled by someone walking down the street talking into space while conversing over a Bluetooth-enabled headset, be aware that you’re soon going to be seeing even stranger things when bespectacled Glass users walk by talking to their eyeglasses and, for all we know, snapping a photo or video of whatever’s in front of them, perhaps you.
Already making the rounds on the Internet are questions about where you can and cannot wear your Google Glass equipment, as there are some settings where privacy is, let’s hope, assumed. Google itself is aware of this issue, with the company’s Eric Schmidt saying there are places where usage would be inappropriate. On a broader front, the company is being cautious about ‘apps’ that may be made for the device. While The New York Times has already released an app that does breaking news updates, apps will all have to be pre-approved by Google.
I can see why because the company is playing with dynamite. Yes, it would be absurdly useful to have quick access to a search engine or a display of maps just by giving a voice command. But let’s assume we don’t want an app to appear that allows people to send and receive text messages through their eyeglasses while they’re driving. The state of West Virginia has gotten ahead of the curve on this issue by debating a bill that prohibits driving while wearing a wearable computer with head-mounted display. Not all concerns about Glass are based on privacy.
We’ve been facing many of the issues Glass raises as computers have continued to get smaller and become extensions of our network-based lives, but Glass produces a display that only you can see and can be considered in some ways an amplification of your senses. And I think a GPS app, for example, that produced a visual display superimposed upon the actual roads I was driving on would be a useful thing indeed, an instance of the so-called “augmented reality” which allows our devices to tap into knowledge of our location to extract the information we need.
So Glass offers outrageous promise at the same time it poses real questions about safety and privacy that we’ll only have begun to address before the product is released to the public next year. I’m going to want to try out the product to see whether the ease of Net access it implies can be delivered without causing me to walk into buildings while I’m searching Google for new column topics. And those etiquette questions? A person born in 1900 would think people walking around talking into thin air were lunatics. We’re now going to learn whether we can distinguish between true lunacy and the inspired creativity of Google’s designers.
Paul A. Gilster is the author of several books on technology. Reach him at email@example.com.