Thursday, April 12, 2012

To See the World Through Google-Colored Glasses

If you've never heard of Google's Project Glass before, well... now you've heard of Google's Project Glass! It's something that's been in the science fiction pipeline for more than a decade, and its imminent emergence is just another data point confirming that we now live in the future. Project Glass is a wearable augmented reality interface; present prototypes look like ordinary glasses frames with the lenses removed and replaced by a small screen; once this technology matures, it will probably be integrated into more ordinary-looking designs. This idea is nothing new to me - I've been using it in the stories I've been writing for a few years now, but it's something else entirely to see it leaking out into reality.

If you're not up on augmented reality, it's a process that adds computer-generated input to your view of the world. Right now, it's only available via smartphone - if you have the right app, you can hold your iPhone up to the street and it can splash information from, say, Google Maps on top of the "real" layer. It echoes some of the things that were being predicted about VR back in the mid-90s, but is distinct in that while virtual reality systems are difficult to find outside of amusement park arcades, augmented reality has been hitting the streets for a while now.

Google is aiming to take Project Glass as far beyond the modern state of the AR art as the SkyTrain is beyond Catch Me Who Can, likely attempting to beat Apple at its own game. At this point, I don't think that simple descriptions really work best - check out the promotional video Google made for Project Glass, aking us through a day in the life of a New York City hipster dude whose life has been immeasurably improved by augmented reality and demonstrating a product that will blur the lines between the artificial and the real to a degree that I don't think anyone is really prepared for.

On the face of it, it's all techno-wonder. Look how easy it makes things! They prompt you when you've got appointments to go to, give your friends a seamless way to get in touch with you no matter what you're doing, lets you adjust your plans on the fly without you having to lift a finger, simplifies meetups and removes that "just hanging around" time by allowing you to broadcast your location, and even lets someone else see through your own eyes, practically. It's vastly beyond what smartphones are capable of, at least in terms of the relative cumbersome nature of smartphones; I mean, you have to hold them up, you have to press buttons, you have to get your digits involved. With augmented reality glasses, it seems, all you really need to do is talk, blink, and move your head.

Part of me can't help but feel that it makes things too easy - that the sort of AR implicit in Project Glass will undercut the formation or practice of certain skills because it's easier to have the glasses handle them. Take, for example, the map issue; wayfinding is not going to become any less important in the future. I was raised in a way that made me want to pay attention, to understand where I was going even though it was my mom behind the wheel and to know the many ways I could get from point A to point B. Today, when I find myself in a strange city, my first order of business is to wander around downtown until I've seen enough that I can make connections and carry a map around in my head.

Some people didn't have those advantages growing up - some people were just driven around by their parents and didn't have any say in what route they took to get where they were going, some people weren't able to wander around and explore, and as a result some people end up with poor wayfinding ability, unable to conceptualize the street grid and easily able to lose their way. The active maps that Project Glass makes available would be a boon to people like this, sure - but I can't help but think that those maps would also guarantee more generations of people who are severely lacking in the internal wayfinding department. I can imagine kids only being let out of the house with their augmented reality glasses on, ordered by their parents not to deviate from the route they suggest or else. Not every kid would be capable of cracking the parental controls, either.

Likewise, it suggests possibilities for abuse, if people come to rely on those active maps. Imagine a situation like Toronto's G20 - remember the kettling at Queen and Spadina, and how plenty of the people caught up in it were just folks going about their business until police are everywhere and they're not letting them go? In an AR future, the police wouldn't need to kettle; they'd just need to pull a "public safety necessity" thing and see to it that the active maps, when prompted for some kind of escape route, lead straight to a police checkpoint and processing zone.

What these glasses really connote to me is the further commodification of our time, of our existence. Watch the video carefully - except for a brief moment looking out the window, from the instant the glasses boot up at the beginning, Hipster Dude is always doing something. Realistically, it's because we're watching a video and we want to see the interesting bits, but art - if this can be called "art" - does influence life. I know that waiting around for something to happen can be boring, but that sort of boredom has been with humans since we've been human. Sure, it was probably exciting for our ancient hunter forebears to chase down a deer with lots of meat, but waiting for that deer to show up? Less so, I would imagine. Useful things can be extracted from quiet times; by putting your circle of friends perpetually in your face, innovations like these threaten to drown out that quiet.

I can't imagine that that would be good for everyone.

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