Caught on glass, Times Square - @stribs

Google Glass: Promising Utility or Privacy Nightmare?

In all the talk about Glass’s Privacy Issues, Something’s Getting Ignored. Its incredible utility.

It’s a conversation I’ve had several times by now: Given the form factor of Google Glass and the fact that it contains a camera (which takes pretty decent pictures, by the way), doesn’t it present a privacy nightmare? A lot of good time has been spent detailing the ways in which Glass could invade people’s personal space, but people also seem to be grappling with what good is Glass for other than taking photos (surreptitiously or not) and getting updates from the New York Times and CNN.

A few thoughts. First, at one level, this isn’t that much different from an iPhone where privacy issues are concerned. That’s why they’ve been banned from locker rooms, for example. We had the same concerns when they arrived on the scene. Still have them. Still, we live in public now much more than we did before. Apparently, as a society, we’ve largely been willing to make this transaction: Easier access to … everything in exchange for diminished privacy.

That said, couple this technology with facial recognition and things get much more complicated. I see someone at a party, don’t remember their name, Glass tells me. That could be useful for some. Others may consider it creepy. Also, do we all want to be wired in like that, all the time? Probably not. Yet. I know I don’t.

Now, imagine a more disturbing scenario. A man walking through a crowd is videotaping everyone via Google Glass. Via facial recognition, every single face in the crowd is being documented, tagged and invariably identified against either 1) other photos online (public Facebook photos) or 2) photos already existing in a government database. All of this can be stored in databases. Forever. Oh, forgot to mention: That guy’s an NSA agent.

So, yes, it could get weird. But guess what? ALL of that could be done with an iPhone, too. Can already be done. Or with a bunch of other devices. Nonetheless, we’re going to need to have some serious conversations about this stuff in the next few years (months?). And societal expectations about privacy are going to shift, that’s for sure - one direction or another.

Well, it’s easier to tell when someone’s photographing you with an iPhone, some say. Really? Half the time when someone’s pointing an iPhone my way, I’m not sure whether they’re pointing it at me or squinting at it because they can’t read it properly. Furthermore, although you can’t tell when the Glass is recording, the screen does light up when it’s activated, and goes dark when it’s not. In order to avoid that tell-tale clue, you’d have to cover one side of the screen. Now, to salve privacy concerns, some people already developed 3D printable “privacy shields” to cover both Glass’s camera and the back of its screen. For those worried about their privacy, I’d simply avoid someone wearing Glass when it’s lit up for now. After all, photography is legally allowed in public spaces in the United States, so you could be getting photographed at any moment anyway. Nonetheless, I’m sure we’ll have many conversations around this issue collectively in the very near future. Also, I could add, I’m not an unapologetic fanboy of Glass as a product: Like many, I’m figuring it out and ruminating over what its possible effects for better or worse can be, too.

Another thing worth considering: We don’t keep our iPads or iPhones out all the time, so we needn’t feel like we have to wear Glass continually. Personally, I’ve decided I’ll wear Glass when I have a use case for doing so, then take it off when I’m done. It may feel less threatening to people if we’re not wearing them all the time. Leaving Glass on when you’re not actively using it could seem unnecessarily threatening - at least for now, as the ice breaks on the ubiquity of this sort of device.

But forget about the camera and those privacy issues for a moment: There are some other, excellent use cases for using a device like this. In fact, you could remove the camera altogether from Glass and still have plenty of use for this device. Though some use of the camera could be helpful, too, as I’ll illustrate below.

First off, remember that Glass is certainly not a detailed heads-up display like Tony Stark’s or something, but it does have a nice, small crisp screen, which could be very useful for displaying certain information in easily digestible bite sizes.

Consider some use cases I’ve thought of or seen already:

1. You traveling abroad and a Lonely Planet app for Glass recognizes and gives you additional information about every building or attraction you look at. It could even stream audio or video discussions of said attractions.

2. You’re cycling through a foreign country and Glass safely gives you directions, visually and/or via audio, without your stopping and pulling out a iPhone.

3. You stop to read a historic sign but it’s in Czech. Glass translates it visually into English - or reads it aloud to you.

4. You want to cook an exotic recipe you’ve never tried before. A recipe app on Glass takes you through each step in the cooking process, enabling you to cook like a pro. (BTW, such an app exists already. Also? No camera needed.)

5. You buy a motorcycle and you know nothing about the mechanics of it, but an app takes you through dismantling it one screen at a time, so you’re now able to take it apart and rebuild it from scratch. Have a specific problem with your motorcycle? Via the camera, it recognizes, what you’re looking at and tells you what to do. Hands-free. Imagine such an app coming with your car, of course, too.

6. You work on an assembly line — or as a surgeon, a fire fighter, a police officer — some sort of job where you need to keep your hands free at all times or for great lengths of time, but could benefit from a stream of updates or procedural information.

So those two were both teaching cases, but they differ hugely in complexity. You can imagine the innumerable learning opportunities. All of the applications don’t have to be instructional, of course. Fancy has already developed a shopping app, which depends on photo recognition to match real-world items you’ve seen with shopping opportunities online. Certainly something, which could be done with an iPhone, but still … utility.

We’ll need to have a long, complicated and ongoing conversation about the privacy issues that come with Google Glass and other wearable devices. Let’s be sure to have it. But in the meantime, let’s start thinking about some of the remarkable practical applications,too.