Google Glass: The Changing Face of Technology

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With the story of Cecelia Abadie, the California motorist who faced a citation for wearing Google Glass while driving, the emerging technology has been in the forefront of news stories, Facebook feeds, and Reddit discussions for the last week.

The crux of Abadie’s story is whether or not wearing the device impeded her ability to drive.  Her defense was simple:
it wasn’t turned on, so it doesn’t matter.  And the court accepted that.

However, this speaks to a deeper issue: distracted driving and augmented reality devices.  Google is not the only company producing devices like Glass: Samsung has a patent for a similar device that appears to project information to both eyes, and several companies known more for glasses than technology are supposedly working on similar devices.  They are coming, whether we like them or not.

Most people who have concerns with Google Glass base them on one of two things (or both): distraction while driving, or privacy issues.  To understand these concerns, we need to understand what Google Glass is.

Glass is an Android-based device the user wears like glasses.  Above the right eye is a small prism that reflects a screen, equivalent to watching a twenty-five inch high definition television from about eight feet away, according to Google.  However, the reflection is superimposed over the user’s normal vision much like a Heads-Up Display (HUD) – so it is somewhat translucent.

Glass can be controlled by voice and a touchpad built along the side of the device.  The user simply swipes to cycle through menus, and talks to make selections.

Glass has a built-in five megapixel camera capable of taking pictures or recording 720p video.  It also uses bone vibrations to transmit sound to the user.

Glass can be used standalone, but it is intended to be paired via bluetooth with other Android-based mobile devices.  The idea is the user will make use of Glass as a combination bluetooth headset/user interface for their phone.

These features have caused concern.  Businesses have pre-emptively banned Glass due to privacy concerns.  These businesses fear people will somehow be able to take pictures without anyone knowing – something which can already be done with real “spy glasses” or even your cellphone.  In fact, it is far more difficult to take a picture with Glass without someone knowing than it is with your phone,  You can simply hold your phone up as if you were checking a text or browsing and snap a photo.  If the flash is off, nobody will know.  With Glass you have to tap the side or say, “Ok, Glass, take a picture.”  Most of these privacy concerns are rooted in ignorance of the device more than anything else, in my opinion.

The subject of distracted driving is also rooted much in ignorance.  I was fortunate to be able to try Google Glass once for a few minutes and was immediately amazed at how it wasn’t intrusive or distracting.  Most people picture a screen filling your view, or even a portion of it, but that isn’t how it works at all.  The prism sits above your eye – it is just on the edge of your view like the brim of a hat.  To see what it is displaying you must look up and to the right to focus on it.  The equivalent, when it comes to driving, of glancing at your radio or in your rearview mirror.

User ph0n3Ix on Reddit gives the best description I have read so far as to what it is like to have Glass active:

The best way I can describe it is:

Imagine you had a iPhone or other similarly large screen phone glued to the palm of your hand. Now do a Hitler salute like the woman on the left in this picture , turn the palm in towards you by bending at the wrist so that the screen faces you. You should now have an un-obstructed view directly in front of you, but near the edge of your peripheral vision on the right, there should be a glowing square that you can quickly glance at.

To say Glass can cause accidents or distracted driving is as accurate as anything else that removes your focus from the road.  Glass has the same potential as the radio, the dashboard controls, a touchscreen console, your phone, the rearview mirror, a passenger, the sun, something interesting on the sidewalk…you get my point.  By itself, even worn and turned on, Glass is not distracting.  It is only if the user allows themselves to be distracted by it that it becomes dangerous.  In my opinion, driving with Glass would be safer than driving with a regular smartphone and bluetooth headset.  To answer, or make, a call with Glass you simply tap the side of your head and tell it what to do.  A phone often requires more steps.

And the possibilities for things like GPS navigation are immediately apparent: imagine the map with directions is something you can quickly glance at out of the corner of your eye.  You don’t need to reach over to the phone or GPS device and adjust it, you can do that with voice commands.  You don’t need to look away from the road to see the navigation screen, you just flick your focus up and to the right.  And the screen fades after a few seconds – it only pops up when important turns and such are coming up.

You notice in the video his eyes flick up and to the right when he is actually paying attention to Glass.  You will also notice early on he gestures to where he can see the screen: above his rearview mirror, to the right of his visor – well out of the way when it comes to blocking his view.

Now, to play Devil’s Advocate: can people use this for nefarious purposes?  Sure. The same way anything can be used for nefarious purposes.  People could set it up to stream Netflix to their Glass while they are driving.  The same kind of people who put on their makeup, read books (yes – this happens), or text while driving.  You cannot legislate common sense, nor can you engineer to account for all types of idiocy.

Someone developed an app to allow you to take a picture simply by blinking – which Google immediately squashed.  It is possible to make Glass into something other than what it is intended.

Ultimately, augmented reality devices like Glass will become as standard as tablets (which just a few years ago people thought were nothing more than toys) and smartphones.  Apple is probably producing one, so is Microsoft, Samsung, and others.  Eventually devices like these will be common – especially in cars and out in public places.  And then those businesses that have pre-emptively banned them will lift their bans, legislators will write up legislation with little thought to practical application, people will get used to them, and ultimately it will be no different than the world we are in today – it will just look a little different.

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