If you still think smartphones and tablets are amazing devices that represent a ‘new’ era of personal technology, you’ll be amazed to learn they could already be well on their way to becoming obsolete, just as they had started making the PC obsolete. In a couple of years, your iPhone 5 or Samsung Galaxy S4 could be viewed with condescension by a new generation of users wearing smart glasses, which can do most things a smartphone can plus a whole lot more.
If this disruptive smart glasses revolution comes to pass, the most popular smart glasses will undoubtedly be Google Glass, because the world’s leading search engine and smartphone software company is already so far ahead in this game that it’s hard to see anyone catching it. Google has already put hundreds of prototype Google Glasses devices in the hands of testers around the world, and other bits and pieces that will make up the Google Glass ecosystem are already out there in some form. For instance, if you want to get a sense of how Google Glasses will work, try using Google Now on the latest Android devices – it’s a voice-controlled search engine that’s aware of your surroundings and tries to figure out what you need before you actually ask for it.
Powered by voice control – so no keyboards – Google Glass overlay the world you see around you with related information beamed onto your retina by a prism that receives from a tiny projector inside the lens. You see both the physical world and all relevant data associated with it, the kind of data that right now – in the relative stone age of PCs, tablets and smartphones – sits on a separate database somewhere, waiting for you to connect the dots.
With Google Glasses, the technology disappears from in front of you and you get data and applications in the context of what you’re doing or what you’re looking at. Want to know the weather right now? You won’t have to find the weather app and click on it to get a report. Weather apps for Google Glass will know when you’re looking up at the clouds and provide you with an instant weather report. If you’re unsure of what’s at a particular street address, look at the premises and Google Glass will tell you who’s inside, and possibly even show you the indoor plans along with a 360° panorama view if it’s a business.
If all Google Glass did was bring you an overlay of information, they would be amazing enough. However, they’ll do a lot more than that. In fact, they change the game completely. At this stage, Google is expected to formally release Google Glass either later this year or in early 2014.
Using Google Glass
Google Glass introduces an entirely new way of computing, with a simple, voice-driven user interface that strips away complexity and makes a number of tasks much more intuitive. Below are some examples of these.
01 Start tap
To start using Google Glass, you tap the frame of the glasses and you’re taken to the home screen. You don’t see a bunch of icons like on smartphone home screen, just a simple overlay box that carries any information and the ‘wallpaper’ is actually the real-life scene you’re looking at. To issue a command, you tap the frame again and say “OK Glass”.
02 Take a picture
After you issue the order “OK Glass”, you can instruct the glasses to do something specific by saying something like “take a picture”. That’s it. There’s no fumbling around looking for the camera icon. We’re not sure at this point whether anything on the glasses frame lets the subject know they’re being photographed. Just be aware that if you’re chatting to someone wearing Google Glass, you’re right in their viewfinder.
03 Record video
Same goes with video. With Google Glass, you can record what you see without moving a finger. Already, several businesses in the US, ranging from strip clubs to casinos and even movie theatres, have announced that Google Glass will be banned from their premises. The porn industry is in a lather over the introduction of Google Glass, with many pornographers pointing to an inevitable increase in the popularity of POV (point of view) porn clips.
04 Share what you see
Now this is what we call serious sharing – actually sharing what you see with your friends (it’s not clear at this early stage whether Google Glass will be able to feed them a live video stream, but this is inevitable). The privacy ramifications of this kind of sharing are mind-boggling, but tech history tends to show that privacy concerns never ultimately get in the way of a cool new experience, such as when people agree to give the latest hot mobile app access to their location and address book data without much resistance.
05 Find your way
Lost? No problem, you have your very own super GPS navigating device to guide you along in the right direction. It’s perfect for the car, except that various road authorities have already said they’ll ban Google glasses in cars because of the possible other distractions the glasses can serve up while you’re driving.
Google Glass will able to read and translate any text you see, which makes them an absolute boon for travellers. For travellers, Google Glass will be a revolution, going a long way to removing language barriers and making travelling to far-flung places infinitely more convenient.
07 Your info butler
One of the key features of Google Glass is their awareness of where you are and what you’re looking at, at all times. It means they can anticipate your needs and flash up information that’s going to be relevant to you. This is what the Google Now search engine, available on the latest Android smartphones as well as on the iPhone, tries to do.
How it works
Google Glass contains the fundamental bits of any computer, including a CPU, sensors such as GPS, speakers, microphone and battery, to which are added a tiny projector and a prism that redirects the light onto your retina. Each component is neatly embedded in the frame. To keep the device as light as possible, most of the processing will actually take place in the cloud (like it does with Apple’s Siri), so a good mobile broadband signal is essential.
In this image below by artist Martin Missfeldt, you can see the projector and prism in the Google Glass working together. In essence, Google Glass is just a tiny projector embedded into a pair of glasses frames with some tiny computing components to drive the package.
What’s in it for Google?
Google Glasses are likely to be a revolution for consumers, but what does Google get out of them? The answer is it probably gets far more benefit from Google Glass than you do. Like Facebook, Google is fundamentally an advertising business that helps advertisers better target the customers they want to reach. The reason that Google and Facebook are valued in the billions of dollars is that through their existing products, from search engines and mobile OSes to social networks, they already know a lot about us (our likes and dislikes, friends and spending habits). They know more than any governmental spy agency, let alone traditional competitors such as newspapers and television.
But Google Glasses take the accuracy of this targeting to an entirely new level. When you use Google Glass, you make it possible for Google to build an infinitely more detailed profile of you. The search engine giant will not only know what you’ve been searching for, but where you’ve been and even what you’ve been looking at, and lots, lots more. It will be able to provide this to advertisers, regardless of whether you’re an unnamed user in the data. With Google Glass, the era of privacy is not only at an end, it’s about to be nuked. And it’s not just Google going this way. Facebook’s new Home application, which takes over your Android phone, aims to do exactly the same thing: give Facebook advertisers much better targeted customers.
Alternatives to Google Glass
Google Glass isn’t the only game in town. In fact, Apple and Microsoft are also rumoured to be working on smart glasses and several smaller niche players are already well down the track with more advanced technologies, some of which deliver information directly your eyes. There’s even a project at Monash University in Melbourne to develop a bionic eye in which some high-tech glasses link to a chip implanted in the brain, which directly stimulates the visual cortex.
Wareable transparent HUD
At the CES (Consumer Electronics Show) earlier this year, US company Innovega demonstrated what it calls a wearable transparent HUD (heads-up display). Plenty of high-tech glasses can do this already, but in this case, the HUD is produced by a contact lens filled with nanotech, delivering a picture to your eyeballs that’s equivalent to watching a 240in, Full HD, 3D giant TV set. So while it’s not a computer like Google Glass, Innovega’s HUD shows that information may eventually be delivered directly to your retina through something not much bigger than a contact lens.
These aren’t smart glasses, but they point to a trend that’s happening in parallel: the permanent recording of one’s environment. Clip on one of these Swedish-made Memoto wireless internet cameras and you have a permanent record of everything you’ve been looking at – just like a dashboard camera records everything on the road ahead. While in-car cameras are there to capture any car accidents or unruly behaviour by other drivers, cameras like the Memoto can record ordinary interactions with other people and provide the wearer with a visual diary of every minute of their lives. Get ready for a new era in which you can expect that anyone you meet will be recording you. Creepy.
If you had Google Glass, what would you use it for? And do you think it’s right to ban its use from certain circumstances? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.