We first saw Google Glass in March at SXSW. It was in the men’s room of the main conference hall, between the Elon Musk keynote and Al Gore’s onstage pitch for his new book, and as we stood in line a guy in jeans walked toward the urinals wearing Google’s new high-tech headset. Men around him twitched uncomfortably, one whispering, “dude, is that camera on?”
Glass, the tiny eyeframe-computer-screen-with-Internet-access-and-videocam set to go on sale by Christmas (the guys you see wearing it are app developers who won rights for early purchases), has won acclaim and scorn for its potential to revolutionize wearable technology. The tech is certainly hot: Glass projects a virtual image of a computer screen before your right eye, allowing a heads up display of whatever you wish to pull in from the Internet. Speak “OK Glass” and you can pull up subway directions, film your buddies, or do anything that an army of thousands of Glass app developers are now working on. No less a tech dignitary than Robert Scoble broke down the components and suggested Google could eventually sell the headsets for a few hundred bucks, giving smartphones radical new competition. Some analysts forecast Glass will sell 6 million units by 2016. Apple sold 6 million iPhones in its first five quarters. You can see where this is going.
The obvious dings on the Google frames are (a) they look ridiculous and (b) whoa, these could invade privacy fast. The look is certainly an adoption barrier; consumers have already rebelled against smartphone earbuds, and websites such as White Men Wearing Google Glass poke fun at the narcissistic selfies of early adopters. (If you want to delve into the psychology of this aversion, simply Google “The Uncanny Valley” to see our history of avoiding things that make humans look nonhuman.) And the privacy debate is not to be ignored. In early July, filmmaker Chris Barrett was watching fireworks in Wildwood, N.J., when he caught a fight and arrest on Google Glass. NPR reported that event could change journalism forever … but what happens if you are wearing Glass while speeding in your car? What if everything you do is recorded by yourself, or worse, by someone else without your awareness? So yes, geekiness and privacy fears might slow sales.
But that is not our worry. The real threat from Google glass is it, for the first time, has morphed humans into cyborgs with an always-on artificial view of the world. And that view will change everything.
Humans have been cyborgs for a long time, of course. In 1,600 B.C. the Mesopotamians discovered they could run faster on rocky hills if they strapped leather to their feet; since then, people have interwoven technology into their bodies until today we are half robots and don’t even realize it. Cooking pre-digests food for your stomach. Cars create rolling extensions of your legs. Clothing is a warm addition to your skin. The Internet acts as an extension of your memory. TV enhances the visuals of your eyes. Like crabs in shells, we are ensconced in a hard layer of technology that makes us more than fleshy humans are.
But Glass will change our view of the world, putting a floating screen before the images before us. The danger is humans may not be able to resist this higher-contrast view of reality. Marc Andreesen, founder of Netscape, has said Glass could give EMTs a heads-up display of every possible medical procedure to help save lives after car accidents … all good. But we could also have heads-up displays of people at business meetings with cue sheets of their bios, salaries, rankings, and suggested talking points. We could visit with our spouses while watching video of lovers overlaid in virtual space. We could go for hikes in nature and boost the saturation so the leaves look more green. The future envisioned by novelist Gary Shteyngart in “Super Sad True Love Story,” where anyone who walks into a bar can immediately see someone’s credit score and “fuckability index,” may soon be reality.
Wearable video screens will shift our worldview to whatever we want.
ABI Research, which monitors new technology, suggests seven types of wearable computing are coming: glasses like Glass, cameras, clothing, healthcare tech, sports activity monitors, 3D motion trackers, and watches. The glass devices may win because consumers are immensely attracted to video already. U.S. consumers currently watch 4 hours and 38 minutes of television daily. Add up all the other “screen time” including DVDs and games, and we spend 223 hours a month — time equal to 5.5 workweeks — spellbound by artificial visuals. Glass and its competitors, such as Vuzix and Kopin, will now put all that before our walking eyes.
For the first time, cyborg visuals will become the default view of the universe. Perhaps this new color-saturated, information rich, immediately shareable vision will enhance our communities and personal relationships.
Or instead, we might turn up the visuals of Facebook posts and iPhone messaging so bright that the real world around us fades completely.
The reason we fear Google Glass is it’s unlikely anyone will quell that temptation.