Google Glasses, Anyone?

A video released by Google earlier this month serves as an introduction to their Project Glass, which aims at putting smartphone apps on a pair of voice controlled glasses.  You can watch the clip now or at the end of this post.  I suggest you invest the 2 1/2 minutes  upfront, since the clip is kind of wild and provides the context for the rest of the article.

I discovered Project Glass in a New York Times op ed piece, “The Man With the Google Glasses,” by Ross Douthat, published April 14. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/15/opinion/sunday/douthat-the-man-with-the-google-glasses.html?_r=4

Douthat says that regardless of whether the project comes to fruition, this video speaks volumes about our collective condition – a mix of unbelievable technical expertise and ever-deeper alienation.  As a writer, I couldn’t construct a better illustration of this than the final scene in the youTube clip.  Our protagonist can video chat and share a gorgeous sunset with his girlfriend, and he has to – she’s nowhere near the apartment where he lives.  In a digital world, “sharing a sunset” has more than one meaning!

Douthat quotes an NYU sociologist who says that more Americans now live alone than in nuclear families.  Similar stats tell us similar things that we already know or sense.  Douthat presents both optimistic and pessimistic assessments of the impact of online media on our social connections or lack thereof.

He also adds a note of caution about the political ramifications of the trend.  He quotes sociologist, Robert Nisbet who believed that “in eras of intense individualism and weak communal ties, the human need for belonging tends to empower central governments as never before.”  Douthat suggests that old time totalitarianism is not a likely prospect, but says that “what the blogger James Poulos has dubbed “the pink police state” which is officially tolerant while scrutinizing your every move — remains a live possibility.”  

This reminded me of a piece in February on MSNBC concerning Samsung’s new generation HDTV’s, with internally wired cameras, microphones, and options for 3d party apps, which could allow someone to peer into your living room.  “Samsung has not released a privacy policy clarifying what data it is collecting and sharing with regard to the new TV sets…Samsung has only stated that it “assumes no responsibility, and shall not be liable” in the event that a product or service is not “appropriate.” http://richardbrenneman.wordpress.com/2012/03/19/in-america-television-watches-you/

In truth, I’m not too paranoid on that score, since the average evening at our house is so quiet the spies would go to sleep.

What stays with me from the video is the sense that the Google glasses turn the entire world into a version of my computer screen, where the world “out there” is wallpaper for the applications I’m running.  The phrase these days is “virtualization,” though in one sense, it’s nothing new.

Various artists, philosophers, and spiritual masters have told us “reality” is more like a dream than we know.  Physicists teach nothing is really solid.  Biologists explains that we don’t see rocks or trees “out there.”  What we see are photons striking the rods and cones in our retinas.  Behavioral psychologists have established that at a certain level, our brains do not know the difference between  “real” and imagined events.  As James Hillman put it, “Every experience has to begin as a psychic event in order to happen at all.”  In this sense, the human mind and senses perform the fundamental act of virtualization and have done so for millennia.

Does this mean I’m going to sign up for a pair of smart glasses when they hit the market?  Nope.  They’re a bit far along the nerd scale, even for me, and actually, the prototype is more than a little creepy.  It’s not hard to imagine surreal scenes on the street with smart-glassed pedestrians trying to navigate around each other, and even worse, smart-glassed drivers reading and responding to their emails.

All kidding aside, once this idea hits the streets in some refined, future incarnation, it will likely be one more seductive technological tool/toy to learn to use in a way that serves us and not the other way around.

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6 Responses to Google Glasses, Anyone?

  1. Adam says:

    My first thought when I read about the TVs: “Big Brother is watching.” Is that a bad thing?

    I also have to ask when enough is enough. We’ve already got smartphones and plenty of other devices that can do everything the glasses can do. Technologically they’re really interesting, but are they functionally superior to what we already have? This is kind of a weird analogy, but look at this in comparison to motion control gaming (Nintendo Wii, Xbox Kinect, and Playstation Move). It’s a really cool technology, but there are very few examples of games that aren’t better and easier to play with a traditional controller.

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    • As far as the TV, I know what you mean: how bad is it? No one who spends any time online can expect full “privacy,” though there is certainly room for abuse, and in a rather dramatic form.

      Part of introducing technology is really good design that makes people want it. Case in point: in the tech industry, ca 1998, 1999, all the major companies were abuz with the certainty that the “next big thing” was going to be devices in between simple cellphones and computers. “Communicators that compute/computers that communicate.” That was the buzzword and everyone was talking about it.

      Netbooks came out of this but never took off. So did some early tablets, but it took Apple, under Steve Jobs, to create the iPhone and later the iPad, versions of this with designs that millions of people wanted.

      The other thing, of course, about any device that talks to you, is the reference to HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

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  2. This is an excellent post, Morgan. So much to think about. All the way back to Plato and the cave and what’s reality, etc. etc. As much as I love my technology (and I sure do), I am getting more cautious. Reflecting on how there is no trail of communication in families anymore, I recently started writing letters (pen on paper, stamps, and all) to each of my three adult kids who live out of state. The goal is one handwritten letter a month to each one. They loved it (it was great to get their phone calls after the first one arrived) and I can say that the experience for me has been significant.

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    • Your letters are a great idea. Yes, it’s necessary to counterbalance tech time with hands on time. I find that in personal journals, where I “think on the page,” it works much better if I write it out longhand.

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  3. Rosi says:

    Okay, I got queasy just watching the video. I can’t imagine using such a product, but I’ll bet my kids and grandkids would be perfectly comfortable. And the TV issue is pretty daunting as well. Dave and I haven’t even moved up to smartphones yet, and I don’t know when we will. Maybe you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.

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    • As I said to Adam, I think a critical element is missing from the glasses – that aesthetic excellence that makes you feel, “I want one of those.”

      Where I worked, they developed a prototype mp3 player before the iPod came out. The execs decided there wasn’t a future in the project, and when they discontinued it, they offered the prototypes to employees for about $20. And there was music available, via Yahoo – but I didn’t like it and gave it a pass. Later on, when I looked at the iPod, I had to have one…

      The same thing happened with tablet computers. There were prototypes on the market that didn’t go anywhere – until the iPad came out.

      All of this makes me wonder what Steve Jobs would say about the glasses. Frankly, I can’t see the “I gotta have one” potential there.

      I know full well you’ll be able to learn a smart phone when you decide you want one.

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