A lot has been written about Google Glass in the past weeks. Now that the first devices are in the hands of eager technology enthusiasts, the internet is exploding with opinions on whether it is a powerful augmentation of our body or a non-starter. This article doesn’t take either side, it isn’t even about Google Glass specifically; it is about the future Glass hints at and its inevitability.
Will we become cyborgs …
… or have we already? This article was written on an iPhone in the palm of my hand, while calming down from a 6.05km run with an average pace of 4'40”/km. I collected 1329 fuel points with my Nike+ Fuelband. You can follow my run here. Meanwhile this text is stored in Apple’s iCloud service and probably being scanned, interpreted and indexed by algorithms as I type.
The point being: Technology is already around and with us at all times. Right here, right now we measure and augment our lives digitally. Be it in our pockets in the form of the smartphone, on our laps as a laptop or glimpsing at watches on our wrists. Our physical presence has already become inseparable from its digital counterpart – Google Glass, a piece of technology worn on your head, is just the latest advancement in form factors.
What is that thing?
Google Glass sits on top of your ears and nose, like glasses, and is equipped with a camera. Via speech recognition you can instruct it to take a photo or capture video clips and when doing so, it sees what you see. It also searches the web for you, fetches your email and can provide directions on how to get from A to B. The information is presented in a heads up display, a hologram-like screen floating right in front of your eye. Judging from the early reviews its overall performance is disappointing: weak battery life, the need for constant adjustment to fit comfortably and its dependence on a smartphone make it quite underwhelming.
Despite the many snarky reviews one should not forget though: In its current form Google Glass is a prototype, a proof of concept, clearly not ready for mass market release. And yet this piece of technology makes people unusually nervous, causing quite a stir before even being released to the public. People who have actually tried Glass say it makes others uncomfortable to be around you, because you could be filming them at any given time, without them knowing. But there’s more to that: Glass makes people nervous because it presents a leap into a post-privacy future. Judging from the current pace of tech evolution, this future suddenly came a lot closer and therefore appears more daunting. Also, we know we will be a part of this connected future, voluntarily or not.
Network is the new electricity
Google Glass in its current form admittedly seems to be pretty useless, even downright ridiculous: The battery lasts only a couple of hours, videos are short, audio is hard to understand and it relies on wifi or smartphone connectivity. As if this wasn’t enough it makes you look like a dork. One could argue these are striking points against its adoption, but these are technical, not conceptual issues and will be ironed out over time. In future iterations the hardware will become smaller, the battery will last longer, wireless internet will be faster, the camera will gain multiple megapixels and the voice recognition will eventually work flawlessly. It’s easy to imagine manufacturers like Ray Ban offering their products in a regular and a Glass-enabled version, similar to what Nike is doing with Nike+.
Fast forward a few years and a Glass successor will sit on your head, recording video and audio 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It will be unnoticeably small, uploading a live video stream of your everyday life to the cloud, where the data will be analyzed. Speech recognition technology (e.g. Siri is a public beta test in this regard) will index every word we hear and say, digging for meaning and relevance. In a web dashboard every reallife conversation we ever have will be searchable, just like your present-day email inbox. You will be able to rewind your life and re-live every minute. You won’t worry about when to pull out your smartphone to take a picture, because everything you see is already being captured automatically.
The upcoming Glass ecosystem
Today we have apps that plug into our Twitter, Facebook or Instagram feeds and extract information like discovering connections between our friends or where we like to take pictures. Glass apps will plug into our lives and analyze what we see, whom we talk to and what we pay attention to. What brands and products do I notice over the course of the day? Which one of my friends haven’t I seen in 10 days? How many words have I spoken today? How many have I read? When was the last time I ate an apple? What was I working on three days ago? Am I having enough sleep? What was the longest time I ever held eye-contact with someone? These are just some of the possible statistics that will be distilled from this data.
We’ll be able to see a digest of our day, including social interactions, time spent alone, with maps outlining where all these actions took place. We’ll have our eyesight augmented with additional information such as on-the-fly translation of text written in languages we couldn’t comprehend otherwise. All this data will be cross-matched with other Glass owners, tracking where we are, what we see and hear, essentially borrowing our eyes and ears to whoever has access to our data, similar to the cellphone grid pictured in the movie “The Dark Knight”. And there will be many with access to our data. No doubt Google will happily store our digital lives for free, indexed for free, browsable for free. Just as they do with Gmail. We shove in the data, they make sense of it – that’s the deal. Of course this is nothing new: Our digital lives already belong to global corporations, all the indexing and cross-referencing is already happening. Glass will be neither an exception nor a novelty in that regard.
Side note: I am by no means arguing that all this is a good thing. I am just observing that people usually choose convenience over privacy; right now millions of internet users happily feed their digital self into the cloud whenever they like something on Facebook, write an email in Gmail or upload an image to Instagram.
Oh my, this is scary!
In the beginning of the 20th century being photographed was scary. Photographs from that time rarely picture smiling, relaxed people, instead everyone looks serious, almost stressed by the camera freezing a moment in time on paper. Today, a hundred years later, being photographed has become completely normal, it happens to all of us dozens of times each day. Imagine Facebook figured out face detection reliably: You would suddenly pop up in tourist’s photographs from all over the world. Does that bother you? Probably not … most likely you are shrugging or laughing at that thought.
The same indifference will manifest itself towards Glass’ constant video capture – but this time it won’t take a 100 years.