Friday 12 July 2013

A tryst with Google Glass

It's all very well to call Google Glass a piece of wearable computing.

It is, of course. But it is also a behavioural change agent – both when it comes to the wearer and to people in the company of a wearer (Jan Chipchase's views on the latter are well worth reading).

I got the chance to try on a pair of Google Glasses during a trip to Cannes recently. I went in without too many preconceptions and a large dose of curiosity, and was rewarded with a peep into the future.


I'd seen the introductory YouTube video a few times by then; as a passive internet user the technology seemed like a bit of magic, not entirely in the realm of possibility. When I got to experience it, it was more straightforward. The device itself is very light, in fact lighter than a regular set of glasses because the side rims are made of bone so as to be able to function as a mouse of sorts – when you swipe down for example, you get to the Main Menu. It is initially a bit disconcerting to see a tiny screen hovering above your right eye, but you forget it in a matter of moments as you start focusing on the information bubbling up as Glass responds to the commands you can choose from on-screen. "OK Glass (the Home command), what is the temperature in New York today?" I asked, and Glass answered me promptly, with the weather widget I was so familiar with thanks to my Nexus 4 popping up above my eye. I even dictated a two-line email and sent it to a contact without using anything more than my voice. The voice experience is continuously being updated; last week, Google announced a few more ways you can navigate through Glass functions through voice.

But back to Glass being an agent of behaviour change. When I wore Glass, I didn't feel powerful, or even like a nerd or geek, as most naysayers have been warning a Glass wearer (user?) might. Instead, I felt empowered.

Google is pitching Glass, among other things, as an alternative to nomophobes (basically any digital native) who feels they absolutely have to check email 10 times an hour when only 1 of those 10 emails might be important; they opine that instead of looking down at their mobiles, people can reintegrate with society by briefly uttering a few words, getting a quick preview of their inbox and moving on to what they were doing. To the doubters out there, plenty of people I know, including myself, talk/insult/scream/laugh at their screen now and then anyway so it isn't going to be that much of a departure for heaven's sake. One would assume a sensible person would send an email in that manner from a reasonably private location – ambient noise can be a problem with Glass at the moment anyway. So in general, there's no need for anyone to look like a total douchebag. For me, Glass felt like it might allow me to do something bigger than those simple but useful tasks. If I wore it for a longer period of time, I'm pretty sure checking email wouldn't be a priority anymore, I'd refocus my energy on things I really wanted to do.

I was reminded of cognitive surplus, the term coined by Clay Shirky to describe the freedom afforded by the internet to humans to indulge in creative rather than practical pursuits by taking a lot of the legwork off them. I think Google Glass will similarly give the wearer the ability to experiment with the world around them, minimize the amount of time spent in engaging with what we think is normal behaviour today - fiddling with our phones at all times of day and night for starters - and start creating new behaviours and ideas that today's desk-and-mobile-chained individual often doesn't seem to find the time or inclination to indulge in.

While Glass will change how you feel and behave, how will others react, and will their behaviour change as a result of you wearing it? Two things here: first, one of the key privacy concerns so far is about how Glass might be able to take secret pictures and apply facial recognition technology to make you a first class spy. Google has officially banned facial recognition apps from Glassware, but let's take that with a pinch of salt. Assuming 90% of people are not devious masterminds hatching illegal plots, even if facial recognition does make it to Glass at some point, I think it's a long way off from being an accessory for the Joker in a Batman movie set in the future (it might get close if Glassware developers are given free rein, so that's one to watch, but I'm not losing sleep over it for now). Second, I don't know how different it will be from now, when we use mobile phones in a social setting. Teenage kids in a group all on their phones, one half (or both people!) of a couple in a restaurant on their phone – I find it immensely irritating when I see these real-life situations, but I don't see how Glass will be too different from that. I'd expect the same sort of questions I get from my non-techy friends when they see my Fuelband or Pebble.

Maybe it was just Cannes and the fact that it was probably a Google employee – but I did see a Glass wearer walking along the Croisette chatting to a non-Glass wearing friend who was as engaged in their conversation as any of us non-wearers (yes, I'm aware that phrase is making me sound like a douchebag, sorry...) would be in conversations with our friends when we get together. That was a very specific circumstance and obviously it won't be the case when we start seeing more Glasses out in the wild, but what I often think about now is not how people might behave when Glass becomes common; it's something else.

I feel that Glass as it exists now is like a bridge between the present and the future; this experiment in a limbo state where it is going to help us understand what behaviours we should keep and what we can discard as we move towards the next level of human interaction. Glass, to me, is in principle a prototype rather than a finished product.

At the end of the day, it's about people interacting with people ('don't get in the way' is in fact one of Google's Developer Guidelines for Glassware). It is a machine as much as your mobile phone is, a wearable piece of technology as much as a Nike Fuelband is. But more than that, I think it will help us understand, should we choose to, how we can be better people, create behaviours that are better than those we exhibit now. If it can change my behaviour to help me become more of the person I want to be, I'll wear it any day.

In 1947 when India gained independence, her first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru made a famous speech that started thus:

"Long years ago we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially."

Google Glass is a substantial tryst with the future that we are moving towards every single day.

Anjali Ramachandran

Anjali Ramachandran is Head of Innovation at PHD UK.


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