Google Glass

by Todd

We’ve been discussing Google Glass a lot here, and like many find it both interesting and conflicted. It’s technically remarkable, and Google is tackling it with an emphasis on industrial and interactive design we usually think of as coming from Apple.

Yet Glass is a decidedly un-Apple product, and just the mention of it prompts reactions about aesthetics, privacy, and social interaction. These discussions continue to be interesting, so it seems right to share them on the blog.

Bootstrapping Understanding

Glass struggles to find its lineage, the thing that explains ‘where does this come from’, ‘where does it fit in’?

To understand what that means, think about where the iPhone came from. Before it, cellphones and iPods were everywhere, but existing smartphones were in a funk of ramshackle interfaces and implementations. Working from the lineage of existing things (phone and iPod), the iPhone unified them and cracked barriers to mobile web use. It came from something people understood and made it better, which let consumers immediately understand why they would want it.

Glass lacks that bootstrap. We haven’t been looking for a way to live-cast our sky dives, go ‘head to head’ with the paparazzi at the Oscars, or play a conspicuous time-travelling anthropologist on the subway. Sergey Brin went so far as to say during his Glass TEDvertorial that smartphones are emasculating, as if the Chromebook weren’t the penned veal-calf of laptops. Smartphones opened up mobile computing to millions, so let’s be serious.

The use cases we get so far are banal: pictures and video; augmented reality directions, in an HUD. The responses to the #ifihadglass campaign revealed how people find it cool but struggle to find compelling uses. From the banal “I’d film myself playing hockey”; “I’d read the news in bed”; to the vague and totally unrealistic “I’d re-invent ecommerce”; to sci-fi cosplay “like Ironman, voice control and display in front of my eyes”. If you think this is just cherry picking, go look yourself.

Joshua Topolsky’s review noted that it wasn’t until he used Glass for a while that he started to understand why anyone would wear it. If it takes a gadget reviewer a ~month~ while to get used to them, there’s going to be a long road to winning enough adopters to make wearing Glass even remotely acceptable in public.

Update: @sciwizam offered a correction that Mr. Topolsky only wore Glass for a few hours, not a month. That changes the tenor of the previous point and suggests Glass can find easier adoption over a shoerter period of time.

A New Kind of Publicness

And yet the idea of Glass in public is where potential problems go way past marketing. The hallmark capabilities of Glass seem ripe for conflict with social interaction dynamics, both in crowds and between individuals.

Out on the street, you won’t know when Glass is being used on you, at least not in the same way you might notice someone taking a video. (Arguably, voice recording can work more stealthily, but the proximity constraints are so tight it’s pretty impractical). Glass, as Mark Hurst puts it so very well, creates an experience not just for the wearer, but everyone around the wearer, and there’s no way to opt out of that.

From now on, starting today, anywhere you go within range of a Google Glass device, everything you do could be recorded and uploaded to Google’s cloud, and stored there for the rest of your life. You won’t know if you’re being recorded or not; and even if you do, you’ll have no way to stop it.

And that, my friends, is the experience that Google Glass creates. That is the experience we should be thinking about. The most important Google Glass experience is not the user experience – it’s the experience of everyone else. The experience of being a citizen, in public, is about to change.

Up close, imagine talking to someone wearing Glass, which doesn’t seem to indicate when it’s working. Every time their eyes dart you’ll wonder whether it’s displaying what Google thinks are facts about you, but you can’t see or respond to them. Or if it’s recording you. That dynamic seems incompatible with socialization norms in ways I’m not sure we can just get used to.

And so, it’s not crazy to expect some bad reactions once Glass is in the hands of early adopters. Steve Mann’s fixed eyepiece prompted a violent reaction from restaurant staff in France because they didn’t know what it was doing. Mann has been living over a decade of Glass pre-history, and has an interview with IEEE’s Spectrum blog that is so worth reading.

We’ll hear about conflict when it happens, and hear a lot of promises about how good life will get once steeped in information and connectedness. We heard this at the dawn of the Internet, but we’ve since learned about another side of networked commons, how cruel people can be when technology obscures their actions while it amplifies their power. And that makes us wonder about the balance of Glass’s intended uses against the likely problems that Glass advocates don’t seem interested in discussing. Is it all worth not having to look at your phone?

Curiously, the best place for Glass so far seems to be decidedly out of public. In industry, medicine, and other specialized contexts it seems to have huge, desirable and unproblematic potential. It’s too bad we haven’t heard more about those uses as the reason why Glass should exist, and they’d dispel the lack of bootstrap and the lack of compelling use case at the same time.

Let’s Go! Cyborg Future

Thinking forward about Glass gets into the edges of science fiction really fast. Does Glass make you a cyborg? By most definitions, it actually does. But by the same definitions, so do regular eye glasses. Augmentation isn’t new. But let’s assume Glass represents the cyborg moment by popular definition, and ask what does that mean?

To people living this stuff, it means changing the social contract itself. Tylor brought up a short video about Neil Harbisson, who advocates for ‘cyborg rights’. Born unable to perceive colour, he wears a device that conveys colour as sound. He’s extended that beyond the normal range of colour perception, and wants a discussion around normalization what he’s calling cyborg rights.

Mr. Harbisson initially used his technology to achieve a level playing field with what we’d call normal human experience. His extension now takes his abilities beyond the norm. If his technology were enshrined in law as a cyborg right, are we creating scenarios where your place in the world is defined by who has most and best of that augmentation.

An arms race of bodily augmentation isn’t totally new. Fashion is a centuries-old way to express status and aesthetic, and is routinely used to exclude in subtle and overt ways. But fashion doesn’t amplify capabilities in ways that produce unexpected, and sometimes, harmful effects. Effects that we may want the law to curb. Whose rights win when a future someone acquires eyes that see through your clothes? Or silently record you having sex with them? Or that change the way certain skin colours are seen? Do you have the right to use any technology, so long as it’s part of you?

I know, folks just want to use some cool stuff without all this deep thinking. But we’ve seen enough new technology arrive with good intentions but end up with unexpected costs attached. With technology this intimate, we’re obliged to think ahead and take the possibilities seriously rather than just call them tomorrow’s problem. If we just accept it all, we might someday wonder why our childhood memories are held under DRM, or we’re unable to walk down certain streets without because our medical history isn’t compatible.

##The Perfect Google Product? But let’s get back to the present. So conflicted, Glass is kind of a perfect foil for Google.

When they improve on what we know we get hits like Search and GMail. When they try to create whole new paradigms, like how Wave was going to “fix” collaboration, they stumble. They inspire us with audacious scale and creep us out by assuming themselves saviours of a broken world. Their evangelists dismiss and even mock questions of privacy, not understanding that privacy isn’t about secrets as much as having some control of your public self.

You could think they’re evil until you see their naive surprise at how their ambitions make people so uncomfortable:

Can you blame @torrez for thinking it? Google can talk about saving the world, but their day to day funnels diverse online activity into profiles optimized to sell stuff. Can you blame anyone for not wanting to interact with someone wearing Glass when that interaction might turn into an ad that follows you around for days? Imagine Glass incentivizing a wearer in real time to mention a product name as they talk to you because your profile lines up with that ad. That would suck, and it’s not far-fetched.

And that’s what makes Glass and Google so frustrating, that people so smart with such interesting ideas can be so goddamn untrustworthy.

Inevitability

We’re hearing a lot that wearable (as if we don’t already wear phones inside our pockets), and even embodied computing, is inevitable. Maybe. Jetpacks and flying cars were inevitable. Moon colonies. An end to cancer. An end to war (predicted with every new communication technology). Free energy. Twenty, fifty and eighty years ago these were all inevitable.

There may be a future where we all wear some doodad like Glass and it doesn’t make us feel paranoid and hobbled by something we can’t give up. But I don’t think Google can pull that off. For that matter, I don’t think Apple can, either, or any other company that exists today.

It’ll take a generation of designers and engineers who think only about people instead of users, and of opening up a new world rather than injecting it into society under a business model. It’ll take a society able to question what we’re being offered, and being asked for in return. And for something that asks to be so intimately a part of our lives, it’ll take better than letting our literal view of the world be mediated by an ad company.

We’re ambivalent over whether Glass will take off, flop, or be a step towards more ubiquitous computing. Every technology changes us, and we have a choice and a say through both consumer choices and the law about what we’re willing to live with. Glass is weird and awkward, but however it turns out later it makes an important discussion about our future possible today. And in that, it’s incredibly interesting, and of tremendous value.