As Computers Disappear, New Challenges Come Into View

Sometime this year Google will usher in a new technological era when the company releases its first “wearable computer,” called Glass.

Glass is basically half a pair of eyeglasses with a camera glued on. It’s connected wirelessly to the internet via a smartphone. And you’re supposed to wear it all the time.

It alters its wearer’s relationship to reality by augmenting – or *adding* – information overlays to the field of view.

Imagine you’re walking through a zoo. Glass could display information about the animals as you look at them.

It also enables voice-controlled video collection, social media publishing, and even real-time internet broadcasting.

It will work with Android devices and iPhones.

Now I’m not saying that Glass is going to be anything great in and of itself.

It’s not even anything new, really. Canadian computer scientist and University of Toronto professor Steven Mann invented and was wearing a near-identical device called the EyeTap over 20 years ago.

The important thing about Glass is simply that it will be sold commercially on the mass market.

So the breakthrough here is that Google is literally forcing the nascent technology of wearable computers into the mainstream.

And that’s huge, because wearable computers represent the next era of personal technology.

Computers and smartphones will literally disappear in coming years. They’ll still be there, but rather than carry them, we’ll wear them.

The concept of wearing technology is age old.

Wristwatches, for example, have adorned millions of arms since the first one was delivered to the Queen of Naples in 1810.

10 years ago Microsoft tried to improve on that time-honoured concept when it foisted the first internet-connected “smart” watch on the world (then forgot to market it).

Designers have built microphones into earrings and cameras into ties.

We’ve all seen those fancy dresses on TV that can display moving images.

Heck, there are little kids wearing Gangnam Style shirts with flashing disco lights sewn in.

But all these are really just technological parlour tricks with very niche appeal.

Google wants Glass to be common.

The company wants the Everyman to wear them and flood the internet with content from them.

After all, without mass adoption of Glass, how will the Master of Personal Data Mining collect enough valuable surveillance footage for profitable resale?

Which leads to the next major breakthrough that Google will make with Glass: a rat’s nest of new privacy, legal, ethical, moral, and health issues.

Maybe you think that smartphones already make it too quick and easy to publish material to Facebook and Twitter.

But it’s actually a fairly lengthy process. You have to pull the device out of your pocket, tap on an app, hold up the device to take a picture, and then do a bunch of thumb-tapping to fire the image off into the ether.

Imagine how much simpler that process will be for someone wearing a device with a camera strapped to their head that’s constantly connected to the internet.

Faster than discretion can kick in, and before a subject can figure out what’s going on, a shot will be snapped and posted to Facebook for all to see.

Our entire social contract will have to be redrafted.

On the plus side, at least Glass can be visually perceived and understood to be a computer.

Don’t expect that to last long, though. Google is already at work on ways to condense the technology into a contact lens.

Others are working at sewing it into the fabric of garments.

Technology is being rendered invisible.

The aforementioned Steve Mann, really the grandfather of and authority on wearable computing, has been studying, writing about and teaching these issues for decades.

He’s actually been wearing his EyeTap device in one form or another constantly for over 30 years.

On top of everything else, his experiences have led him to understand there are also major health issues to consider.

A key concern is the design of the eyepiece itself in terms of how it collects images and delivers them to the eye. If improperly engineered, as he suggests Glass is, it can lead to brain damage.

But there’s also the risk of an extreme interpersonal reaction. Mann himself learned this lesson the hard way last summer when staff at a Paris McDonald’s physically assaulted him because he was wearing his EyeTap in the restaurant.

The social and moral impacts of smartphones remain unresolved among people, and courts continue to struggle with their legal implications.

But the technology itself has grown stagnant. One smartphone is much like another now. As Gertrude Stein might say: “A smartphone is a smartphone is a smartphone.”

Glass is Google’s major disruptor, designed to shake up industry and society simultaneously.

It’s our first major step into becoming cyborgs, where technology in general becomes a part of us, rather than an accessory.

Neither you nor I is likely to ever own a Glass (especially not when you can expect its price tag to be somewhere north of $1,000).

But we all will be impacted by it in the coming years.