The Google Glass feature no one is talking about
By Mark Hurst • Feb 28, 2013
Google Glass might change your life, but not in the way you think. There's something else Google Glass makes possible that no one - no one - has talked about yet, and so today I'm writing this blog post to describe it.
To read the raving accounts of tech journalists who Google commissioned for demos, you'd think Glass was something between a jetpack and a magic wand: something so cool, so sleek, so irresistible that it must inevitably replace that fading, pitifully out-of-date device called the smartphone.
Sergey Brin himself said as much yesterday, observing that it is "emasculating" to use a smartphone, "rubbing this featureless piece of glass." His solution to that piece of glass, of course, is called Glass. And his solution to that emasculation is - well, as VentureBeat put it, "Sergey Brin calls smartphones 'emasculating' - but dorky Google Glass [is] A-OK."
Like every other shiny innovation these days, Google Glass will live or die solely on the experience it creates for people. The immediate, most visible problem in the Glass experience is how dorky the user looks while wearing it. No one wants to be the only person in the bar dressed like a cyborg from a 1992 virtual-reality movie. It's embarrassing. Early adopters will abandon Google Glass if they don't sense the social approval they seek while wearing it.
Google seems to have calculated this already and recently announced a partnership with Warby Parker, known for its designer glasses favored by the all-important younger demographic. (My own proposal, posted the day before, jokingly suggested that Google look into monocles.)
Except for the awkward physical design, the experience of using Google Glass has won high praise from reviewers. Seeing your bitstreams floating in the air in front of you, it would seem, is an ecstatic experience. Weather! Directions! Social network requests! Email overload! All floating in front of you, never out of your sight! For people who delight in a deluge of digital distractions, this is much more exciting than a smartphone, which forces you back to the boring offline world, every so often, when you put the phone away. Glass promises never to do that. In fact, in a feat of considerable chutzpah, Google is attempting to pitch Glass as an antidote to distraction, since users don't have to look down at a phone. Right, because now the distractions are all conveniently placed directly into your eyeball! (For a more accurate exploration of Glass-enabled distraction, see this darkly comic parody video. Even edgier is this parody - warning, some spicy language.)
As if all that wasn't enough, Google Glass comes with yet another, even more important feature: lifebits, the ability to record video of the people, places, and events around you, at all times. Veteran readers will remember that I predicted this six years ago in my book Bit Literacy. From Chapter 13:
The life bitstream will raise new and important issues. Should it be socially acceptable, for example, to record a private conversation with a friend? How will anyone be sure they're not being recorded, in public or private? ... Corporations, police, even friends with 'life recorders' will capture the actions and utterances of everyone in sight, whether they like it or not.
Today, finally, that future has arrived: a major company offering the ability to record your life, store it, and share it - all with a simple voice command.
And this is where our story takes a turn, toward a ramification that dwarfs every other issue raised so far on Google Glass. Yes, the glasses look dorky - Google will fix that. And sure, Glass forces users to be permanently plugged-in to Google's digital world - that's hardly a concern for the company or, for that matter, most users out there. No. The real issue raised by Google Glass, which will either cause the project to fail or create certain outcomes you may not want (which I'll describe), has to do with the lifebits. Once again, it's an issue of experience.
The Google Glass feature that (almost) no one is talking about is the experience - not of the user, but of everyone other than the user. A tweet by David Yee introduces it well:
There is a kid wearing Google Glasses at this restaurant which, until just now, used to be my favorite spot.
The key experiential question of Google Glass isn't what it's like to wear them, it's what it's like to be around someone else who's wearing them. I'll give an easy example. Your one-on-one conversation with someone wearing Google Glass is likely to be annoying, because you'll suspect that you don't have their undivided attention. And you can't comfortably ask them to take the glasses off (especially when, inevitably, the device is integrated into prescription lenses). Finally - here's where the problems really start - you don't know if they're taking a video of you.
Now pretend you don't know a single person who wears Google Glass... and take a walk outside. Anywhere you go in public - any store, any sidewalk, any bus or subway - you're liable to be recorded: audio and video. Fifty people on the bus might be Glassless, but if a single person wearing Glass gets on, you - and all 49 other passengers - could be recorded. Not just for a temporary throwaway video buffer, like a security camera, but recorded, stored permanently, and shared to the world.
Now, I know the response: "I'm recorded by security cameras all day, it doesn't bother me, what's the difference?" Hear me out - I'm not done. What makes Glass so unique is that it's a Google project. And Google has the capacity to combine Glass with other technologies it owns.
First, take the video feeds from every Google Glass headset, worn by users worldwide. Regardless of whether video is only recorded temporarily, as in the first version of Glass, or always-on, as is certainly possible in future versions, the video all streams into Google's own cloud of servers. Now add in facial recognition and the identity database that Google is building within Google Plus (with an emphasis on people's accurate, real-world names): Google's servers can process video files, at their leisure, to attempt identification on every person appearing in every video. And if Google Plus doesn't sound like much, note that Mark Zuckerberg has already pledged that Facebook will develop apps for Glass.
Finally, consider the speech-to-text software that Google already employs, both in its servers and on the Glass devices themselves. Any audio in a video could, technically speaking, be converted to text, tagged to the individual who spoke it, and made fully searchable within Google's search index.
Now our stage is set: not for what will happen, necessarily, but what I just want to point out could technically happen, by combining tools already available within Google.
Let's return to the bus ride. It's not a stretch to imagine that you could immediately be identified by that Google Glass user who gets on the bus and turns the camera toward you. Anything you say within earshot could be recorded, associated with the text, and tagged to your online identity. And stored in Google's search index. Permanently.
I'm still not done.
The really interesting aspect is that all of the indexing, tagging, and storage could happen without the Google Glass user even requesting it. Any video taken by any Google Glass, anywhere, is likely to be stored on Google servers, where any post-processing (facial recognition, speech-to-text, etc.) could happen at the later request of Google, or any other corporate or governmental body, at any point in the future.
Remember when people were kind of creeped out by that car Google drove around to take pictures of your house? Most people got over it, because they got a nice StreetView feature in Google Maps as a result.
Google Glass is like one camera car for each of the thousands, possibly millions, of people who will wear the device - every single day, everywhere they go - on sidewalks, into restaurants, up elevators, around your office, into your home. From now on, starting today, anywhere you go within range of a Google Glass device, everything you do could be recorded and uploaded to Google's cloud, and stored there for the rest of your life. You won't know if you're being recorded or not; and even if you do, you'll have no way to stop it.
And that, my friends, is the experience that Google Glass creates. That is the experience we should be thinking about. The most important Google Glass experience is not the user experience - it's the experience of everyone else. The experience of being a citizen, in public, is about to change.
Just think: if a million Google Glasses go out into the world and start storing audio and video of the world around them, the scope of Google search suddenly gets much, much bigger, and that search index will include you. Let me paint a picture. Ten years from now, someone, some company, or some organization, takes an interest in you, wants to know if you've ever said anything they consider offensive, or threatening, or just includes a mention of a certain word or phrase they find interesting. A single search query within Google's cloud - whether initiated by a publicly available search, or a federal subpoena, or anything in between - will instantly bring up documentation of every word you've ever spoken within earshot of a Google Glass device.
This is the discussion we should have about Google Glass. The tech community, by all rights, should be leading this discussion. Yet most techies today are still chattering about whether they'll look cool wearing the device.
Oh, and as for that physical design problem. If Google Glass does well enough in its initial launch to survive to subsequent versions, forget Warby Parker. The next company Google will call is Bausch & Lomb. Why wear bulky glasses when the entire device fits into a contact lens? And that, of course, would be the ultimate expression of the Google Glass idea: a digital world that is even more difficult to turn off, once it's implanted directly into the user's body. At that point you'll not even know who might be recording you. There will be no opting out.