One thing is for sure; Google Glass has prompted widespread reaction and comment from the media and not just the technical press but in mainstream news publications and on television. And while it is early days yet, and despite all the hyperbole from Google itself, the technology is already courting controversy about its potential use. Adding to this is the approach Google took in unveiling Glass, limiting initial availability of a beta version to key people in the tech community and a selection of so-called “Glass Explorers”. Arguably this is a clever marketing ploy designed to create demand for a hot new product, while using market feedback to refine the final specification.
But before we examine these reactions, let’s reset our understanding of what Google Glass is all about. Essentially this gadget is a miniature head-mounted display, camera and user interface that either forms a wearable computer through being tethered via Bluetooth to an Android device or iPhone or uses WiFi to communicate with a separate computing platform. This functionality, as Google’s own “what it does” webpage highlights, enables users to record and share what they see live, get directions and answers to questions, including language translation and travel information, and be connected all day, reading emails while walking down the street and simply speaking to send a message.
The most visible aspect of the physical design is the prism located just above the normal sight line of the wearer’s right eye – this provides a display akin to type of technology previously associated with virtual reality systems or military head-up displays. Almost as obvious is the camera built into the side frame of the glasses that also houses all the electronics and other controls. These include a touchpad module, a microphone and speaker for audio control and various sensors for things such as head proximity, ambient light and an inertial sensor. Individually none of this is breakthrough technology, it is simply the application of all these highly miniaturized elements that has created what many regard as a remarkable realization of science fiction.
So what are the issues and concerns? Primarily these relate to privacy, even legality, security and safety. The main controversy is the use of Glass in public to record people without their permission, perhaps using facial recognition to identify individuals and potentially broadcasting private conversations. Additionally, Glass is likely to be considered a spy gadget in countries where taking photographs in an inconspicuous manner is deemed illegal. Commercial firms may also feel that Glass poses a security threat while a Glass user’s own privacy could be threatened by a hacker taking control of the device, monitoring everything you do, seeing what you see and knowing where you are.
In all these regards though, Glass is not revolutionary; rather it is evolutionary, simply combining pre-existing capabilities into a more convenient form factor that makes its use in these ways less deliberately surreptitious, instead more likely to be inadvertent or accidental. However we have to return to a basic premise that is true for most technology, which is that these devices and systems are tools. As such we choose to use them but equally the technology can be refined to ensure we can only use them in situations where their use is allowed or deemed acceptable. So it’s back to the drawing board but only so that the engineers that created this technology can make it fit for what we, as a society, want it to do.