Two days ago, Google published a video on YouTube, called How it feels [through Glass]. At the end of the description for the video, there’s an interesting tag line: Welcome to a world through Glass. Though while Google gives this phrase a decidedly positive connotation, after watching the video I can’t help but think about it negatively.
Some people are excited by this project. Among them Owen Williams; in his brief piece, Wearable technology: the next big thing, he writes:
As with self-driving cars, there will be a period where the market will probably reject it saying that it will “never” happen, but it will. It’s obvious that our lives could be somewhat enhanced by peripheral devices that show us information without needing to pull a slab out of our pockets to catch up.
You know what’s great about smartphones? That they (and the information they provide) can stay in your pocket and out of the way if you want. Pulling them out of your pocket is an active decision on your part. Google Glass apparently aims to become a constant layer between you and the world around you. Wherever you go, there’s that little window in your peripheral vision, and try as I might, I can’t find it pleasant or unobtrusive. I certainly can’t see myself getting used to it. It feels like living with a digital co-pilot that follows you everywhere. I find that exhausting and even a little creepy.
But, but… it’s not true that one gets accustomed to everything, and that any technology feels somewhat awkward at first and then we just adopt it without raising a brow. The Google Glass headset is a bit like Bluetooth headsets: for their convenience and evolution they’re undoubtedly better than having to reach for your phone in your jeans’ pocket to answer calls, but despite their being around for years, we’re still not fully accustomed to seeing them in use. [They still feel somewhat weird.] Because they’re handier, sure, but not so much as to justify the intrusion. Because we see them as an exaggeration, an excess.
Google Glass has a future, but it’s not the future. It’s a product that will surely exist and be commercialised, but I don’t think it’s going to be as popular and widespread as smartphones are. It’s a device that may be useful in specific circumstances — and it will have its share of devoted users — but ultimately excessive in day-to-day life. Google’s video shows a lot of possible use cases for the device (I also think it could be a great augmented-reality game console) but as an everyday device, I just can’t imagine a world ten years from now where it’ll be normal to have a screen glued to the right side of our field of vision.
Yes, there are some interesting use cases where a hands-free device like Google Glass can indeed be useful. The still from Google’s video I chose to accompany this piece isn’t a random choice: having turn-by-turn map navigation display before your eyes this way is probably less distracting than diverting your gaze to look at the car’s sat-nav system, even momentarily. I also think that Google Glass could be a useful aid for reporters to quickly grab crucial footage in dangerous circumstances where they have to act fast and literally follow the events unfolding before them, and they surely can use a device that’s more inconspicuous than a camera (provided, of course, that the built-in camera has adequate specs for this kind of task).
But as a permanent everyday extension, Google Glass feels too close for comfort for my tastes. Socially, it’s a disaster in the making. Welcome to a world through Glass is like saying “Welcome to a world where everybody carries their personal bubble around and can be even more alone together”. A world through Glass is, in a way, a filtered, mediated world. Where the information is constantly with us, and no matter how unobtrusive the final user interface will be, it’s going to be always there in our face, too tempting not to become an addiction for some. If now you think it’s rude for people to glance at their smartphone when you’re trying to have a conversation with them, imagine when they’ll seem to look in your direction, listening to you, while they’re actually checking something in their tiny Google Glass screen. I would also feel uncomfortable around people wearing such a device, because I would ask myself what they’re doing, I would ask myself whether they’re recording what/who they’re looking at, and why. So it would be interesting to see how the Google Glass project plans to address privacy concerns of such kind.
And finally, I don’t know you, but I don’t like the idea of Google controlling all that amount of personal information. That feels almost more intrusive than the hardware itself.
- 1. The original article is in Italian. I’ve provided the English translation of the relevant excerpt. ↩