I got a little taste of the future. Google co-founder Sergey Brin placed a prototype pair of Google Glasses on my nose, and for a few minutes I watched a video of a fireworks display on a small, clear screen just above my right eye, and heard the audio in my right ear. This might be the future—a light, wearable, not-quite-imperceptible link to the Internet and to the breadth of human knowledge. It’s very cool. It is also in a variety of ways a little unsettling.
Brin and his cohorts updated journalists at the annual Google I/O conference Wednesday on the Google Glass project. The product, developed within the forward-looking Google X research lab, is due for release sometime in the next year. The company has not talked about a price but is releasing a developer version for $1,500 later this year. A more affordable consumer version would presumably follow.
The mission of Google Glass is to keep people in the moment and to move technology out of the way, Brin said. Steve Lee, Google’s director of product, said he boldly and somewhat improbably predicted that in three or four years, “watching people hold an object, and look down at it, will be unusual and awkward.” Staring ahead onto a Google Glass, which hovers just within your line of sight, will be normal, in his view.
My own Google Glass experience was rudimentary. Google had locked the device so all I could see was the fireworks video—perhaps they didn’t want reporters reading Brin’s e-mail. But I got a rough sense of what a new age of wearable computing might feel like. The device weighs less than a regular pair of glasses and you almost forget it’s on your face. The screen appears to hover in the air; it’s completely engrossing, but then, as with a pair of bifocals, you direct your eyes past it to look out at the world and the screen disappears.
The concept is extremely ambitious and challenges all sorts of technological limits, such as battery life, network capacity, and input methods (for now, wearers communicate with the prototype through voice commands). There’s also a significant safety question: Will wearers surf the Web and read e-mails while they drive a car or watch over their kids? Glass also stampedes over cultural norms—you can photograph anyone, at any time, without the person noticing. The privacy implications are huge: Wearers could conceivably identify someone by their face and quickly search their background, without anyone noticing. Brin claimed he didn’t find the facial recognition applications all that compelling. He sounded totally unconvincing.
Lee addressed some of these ramifications and said Google is still developing various policies around Glass. But he predicted society would adapt. “With any device, there is a social etiquette developed,” he says. “In many ways it’s not so different than me having a smartphone.”
But it is different. Smartphones don’t sit on your nose and pipe the future into your eyeball.