Saturday, April 27, 2013

Google Glass, Augmented Reality, & Wearable Computing

The concept of “augmented reality,” in which digital information overlays the natural sensory experience of the user, seems to be gaining traction in Silicon Valley as a driving force behind a new breed of personal electronic devices.
Photo credit: Antonio Zugaldia     (CC BY 2.0)
Andy Clark explores the potential for this technology in his 2003 book Natural-Born Cyborgs: Minds, Technologies, and the Future of Human Intelligence, writing that the use of these “digital resources to enhance our ordinary daily experience of the world and to provide new means of physical-virtual interaction is likely to play a major role in the next decade” (53). Whether such products end up being as game changing—or as commercially viable—as the corporate execs and tech gurus behind them hope they will remains to be seen.

Nevertheless, a decade after Clark’s words were published, the tech giant Google is among the first major companies eager to validate his claim by introducing an augmented reality device to the public. Google Glass, a wearable computer device and head-mounted display, is slated to be made available for beta testing not only to software developers but also to a select number of “bold, creative individuals” who applied for the opportunity to become early adopters of the technology and to provide valuable feedback to the company as it continues to improve the product before a wider public release.

Programmers were able to sign up for the initial version of Glass, dubbed the Explorer edition, at last year’s Google I/O conference; the first devices started rolling off the production line this month and are being currently being distributed in batches as they are manufactured. In February, the company unveiled its #ifihadglass campaign; members of the general public were able to apply for the chance to purchase their own souped-up specs via Twitter and Google+ by posting brief descriptions of how they would use the device, designating their entries as such by using the #ifihadglass hashtag. The 8,000 successful applicants are presently awaiting details about when a special pick-up event—to be held in New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco—will take place.

I submitted my own hastily-prepared 50-word application in February after learning about the opportunity only days before the deadline. My cousin alerted me about the promotion shortly before I and my family traveled to Arizona for a family event; I was not at all confident in my application, a last-minute submission thrown together in my aunt and uncle’s house in the hours before the application window closed.

My wife was probably surprised that I wanted to apply at all; although my scholarly interest is the intersection of culture and technology, I am not what most would consider an early adopter. I am no Luddite*, but I typically prefer to wait through the first few expensive, limited models of a new device and purchase one of my own only after the consumer market has vetted the contenders and manufacturers have perfected their designs. However, despite Glass’s steep price tag (somewhere between $1,200 and $1,500) and the knowledge that this version is essentially a public prototype of what will next year be a much improved (and more affordable) commercial device, I was intrigued by the concept and waited eagerly for the results of the competition to be released.

After a long month of silence from the Project Glass team, I received a congratulatory message on Google+ notifying me that I was selected to participate in their “Glass Explorers” program. In my application, I had claimed that I would develop a blog to chronicle my experiences with the nascent technology; you are reading the first entry in my fulfillment of that promise. Among topics that will be addressed in future posts are the following:

  • Fashion and social acceptance—will such devices be welcomed or mocked by the public at large? Will Glass gain social cachet and the “cool factor” like the iPhone did, or will it be stigmatized in the way that Bluetooth headsets have been?
  • The digital divide—some social commentators argue that there is a growing gulf between those with and without access to digital technologies. With its hefty initial cost making it unaffordable for many, will Glass contribute to the problem?
  • Neuroplasticity—in what ways do such interactive technologies influence the ways in which our minds function? How quickly can users adapt to an interface that is designed not to be at the center of their field of vision?
  • Technophilia—does our gadget-obsessed culture need another whiz-bang gizmo? Is our technolust strong enough to enable this platform to endure, or is it destined to be a mere fad?
  • Convergence—how does this device represent the merger of disparate technologies, and what is gained (or lost) in doing so?

Although the #ifihadglass campaign was the impetus behind the creation of this site, my goal is not simply to focus on the Google Glass product itself, but rather to use it as a starting point for a more in-depth investigation of other similar technologies (a half dozen companies are working on Dick Tracy-style wristwatches, for instance, another example of wearable computing) and the ways in which they will potentially impact our social interactions in the near future.  Just as the cell phone has, in four decades, revolutionized our culture, so, too, might augmented reality and wearable computing gear radically shape interpersonal interaction in the next few dozen years.

Then again, this niche tech might very well fail to capture the interest of a public that has been saturated in the last five years with a host of mobile computing devices. Google Glass represents a new form factor—a new style and arrangement of various computing elements and other electronic components—that may signal either an exciting shift in the ways in which people interact with technology (like the smartphone or iPad) or a disastrous public flop (like the Segway personal transport system,** which failed to live up to its hype and is now more likely to be the subject of a punchline than serious praise). Whether any of these individual augmented reality and/or wearable computing products takes off, the concept itself is sure to have an influence not only on the future of the tech market but on our broader culture as well.

In the mean time, I am excited about becoming a Glass Explorer and eager to blog about its promise and pitfalls. I invite you to join me in this journey; follow my Twitter account to be informed about new blog posts and to receive updates on Project Glass as well as news items about cyberculture. Let’s have an adventure!

*The historical Luddites were actually neither anti-technology nor mechanically inept, points addressed by both an excellent Smithsonian piece and a discussion on the Singularity episode of my favorite podcast, Stuff You Should Know (start at the 2:49 mark). I think it’s fascinating how the cultural meaning of a phrase can evolve and become divorced from its historical reality.

** They have been widely viewed as impractical and a commercial disappointment. I admit, however, that I'd still love to have one--what a great geek toy!

1 comment :

Augmented Me is a blog about cyberculture written by a Google Glass Explorer.

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