The world isn’t ready for Google Glass. Despite Google’s planned 2014 launch, its Android-powered spectacles face a multitude of problems.
The company has released prototypes of Glass to a small group of early adopters, and their negative experiences illustrate what awaits the company when it launches the consumer version this year.
Glass users have come up against discrimination from restaurants, governments, private businesses, and advocacy groups. Though all hold different concerns about the frames, none want Google Glass.
No glass allowed
A Seattle restaurant called The 5 Point Cafe made the news when it banned patrons from wearing Glass inside.
“For the record, The 5 Point is the first Seattle business to ban in advance Google Glasses,” the cafe’s owner wrote on Facebook. “And ass kickings will be encouraged for violators.”
He explained in a later interview that his restaurant is a “sometimes seedy” place and his customers would prefer not to be recorded while dining there.
AMC Theaters, an American cinema chain, announced it would not welcome Glass either.
“While we’re huge fans of technology and innovation, wearing a device that has the capability to record video is not appropriate at the movie theatre,” the company said in a statement.
This followed an incident where a cinema manager in Ohio 2 contacted the Motion Picture Association (MPAA) of America about a customer wearing Glass with prescription lenses. The MPAA called federal agents, who interrogated the man for several hours on suspicion of recording the film. They released him after finding 3 only pictures of his wife and dog stored on the headset.
Governments have reacted similarly. The UK’s Department for Transport banned wearing the frames while driving, fearing that they would prove too distracting.
With only 8,000 sets of Glass in the wild, it will take people some time to get used to the headsets.
“The basic concept of privacy is that you get to decide what you are comfortable with in terms of sharing data.”
“While we’re huge fans of technology and innovation, wearing a device that has the capability to record video is not appropriate” at the movie theatre,” the theater said. Glass makes people feel uncomfortable because it makes recording video (and uploading it to social networks) too easy. For example, it’s easy to tell when someone is recording you with a smartphone. They’re usually holding it steady with the camera pointed at you.
IT Pro visited Google’s London headquarters to try a pair of “sky blue” Glass spectacles, and they felt just as light and airy as its colour’s name.
Glass positions a clear prism display above your eye. Maintaining eye contact with conversation partners is easy.
This may be the bias of people who spend too much time around tech, but Glass surprised IT Pro with its comfort, and it was startling how fast it takes to get used to wearing them.
Admittedly, talking to someone else wearing Glass does feel strange. The eye is naturally drawn to the computer they’ve got strapped to their frames, and it is distracting.
Throughout the duration of the conversation, you can’t help but wonder if you’re being recorded, and therein lies the problem with Google Glass.
“[The] basic concept of privacy is that you get to decide what you are comfortable with in terms of sharing data,” Nick Pickles, director of privacy watchdog Big Brother Watch, told IT Pro.
“I think Glass reverses that. So rather than being in control of what information is disseminated around the web about you, it’s the person wearing Google Glass who makes the decision for you.”
When pressed on this point by IT Pro, a Google representative said people’s acceptance of the technology will increase over time as the mass market comes to adopt it.
To its credit, Google is trying to ease surveillance concerns by implementing a safe feature. Stand within a few feet of someone recording video on Glass and you can see the recorded image being reflected in the recording prism.
In theory, it could keep surreptitious spying under control. In practice, it’s inefficient and impractical. IT Pro was sat 45 degrees to the right of a Google rep while she took a sample video with Glass. Even though IT Pro was in the recording, it was impossible to spot the signal light.
Then there are the enthusiasts. They will definitely find a way to disable any security features. Glass is uniquely vulnerable because it runs a modified version of Android, an open source operating system known for its ease of modification. Disabling the recording image would be simple.
Hackers have already bypassed other Glass safeguards. Twenty three-year-old Stephen Balaban released an unauthorised Glass app that uses facial recognition to find a person’s identity, their personal information, and any interests or friends they share with you.
That’s in addition to Mike DiGiovanni’s Winky, the app that lets you take photos with Glass just by winking.
In one sense, these two modifications are harmless. Google blocks creepy surveillance apps from the official store. Only tech geeks will bother hacking Glass to install unapproved software, and only a small minority of those will bother installing stuff like this. You likely won’t see many similar apps used with Google Glass.
The real concern is with the second and third versions of Glass. What happens when it’s not just a couple geeks on a web forum pushing facial recognition apps? What happens when a major company gets behind it? Worst of all- what if we’re okay with that?
“I don’t imagine it’s a ‘must have’ item.”
People could grow accustomed to Glass. That kind of radical attitude change has happened before. The public never imagined sharing so much personal information online 15 years ago. Ten years of social networks changed that. What if Glass does the same for personal privacy?
The greatest danger behind Google Glass is that it will make wearing a camera on your face normal. That way when the next company comes along offering something similar, we will accept it.
“They’re going to get better, they’re going to become more stylish, they’re going to get integrated into glasses that look more like glasses,” Pickles warned.
There is a chance Glass could fail. Always-connected eyeglasses are a hard sell to a wary public, let alone security-aware businesses.
“If you’re a business and you’re working on sensitive IP, or working in a government department, I can’t see those are people being happy with people wearing Glass. It’s a huge threat to information security,” said Pickles.
Glass has other problems too.
Tuong H. Nguyen, principal research analyst for market watcher Gartner, cites fashion and price as potential obstacles for mainstream adoption.
“It could be an affordable device that does a great job of complementing and extending the functionality of the mobile hub (smartphone); while having solid stand-alone functionality,” Nguyen told IT Pro.
“As it stands, I expect Glass and similar HMDs and HUDs to have limited consumer impact over the next 12 months.”
Nguyen says he hasn’t made any specific predictions about Glass because it’s a niche product that’s still in its infancy.
The “fashion” problems Nguyen cites shouldn’t be underestimated. People won’t wear something others look down on.
“In its current version, it’s very sci-fi/geeky looking,” he said. “Unless it had some functionality that is so compelling (not so far)… people are [still] willing to wear them, I don’t imagine it’s a ‘must have’ item.
“At the moment, it’s a glanceable display which lets you do some things you normally do on the phone in a different way – not necessarily [an] overwhelmingly better way.
Maybe Glass won’t catch on. Maybe the public will decide that smartphones are far enough, and that wearing glasses made by a company renowned for its search capabilities is a step too far. Maybe they won’t.
Why it’s a highlight:
This is the longest and most in-depth piece I produced as an intern at IT Pro. While it’s not as good as some of my later work, it is an interesting and prescient investigation of Google Glass. The news that Glass was all but dead didn’t leak until a year later.