The Internet of Things: A Look Into The Social Implications of Google Glass

By Kelly N. Widerschein
2016, Vol. 8 No. 11 | pg. 1/2 |

In its beta release, Google Glass was positioned as a groundbreaking technology - a glimpse into a future that has long been promised in science fiction. It was met with media fanfare and consumer interest, despite costing more than most PCs on the market and significantly more than even the most capable smart phones. While now widely seen as an expensive flop, the introduction of Google Glass generated crucial research for a future, successful rollout. Due to privacy concerns, widely publicized engineering flaws, and high cost, the general public rejected the beta version of Google Glass. However, positive developments in wearable technology, along with demonstrated interest in augmented reality and public health applications, could be the launching pad to successful future versions of the Glass.

Google Glass Origins and Functionality

The project was imagined and developed at Google X, a secretive branch of the company where the wildest digital projects get created - a civilian version of the famous military skunk-works (Strickland, 2014). Project Glass was released to the public via Google Plus in April of 2012, and a demonstration of the product was given in June of the same year (Strickland, 2014). The beta program was called the “Google Explorers Program,” and the glass was released on April 15th to the volunteer beta testers who were willing to pay $1500 to participate. The release was a big and extravagant show, which drew a lot of attention to the product (Strickland, 2014). Yet within two years of its release, Google Glass was discontinued. It is expected for re-release, but first Google needs to address the major issues of real-world usability and privacy concerns.

Google Glass

Physically, Google Glass is, as the name suggests, a pair of glasses with a smart screen linked to an embedded computer (Strickland, 2014). It is designed to stay in the user’s peripheral vision at all times. With the use of a thin swipe-pad and a glass screen that presents transparent data, users can be digitally connected in a hands-free manner (Burrow, 2014). Unlike a laptop or smartphone, Google Glass is designed to provide information in the moment without having to interrupt daily life by looking down at a device. It also provides a new take on photography and video recording, with the ability to capture exactly what the user is viewing (Burrow, 2014). Google’s stated mission is providing users with instant information, and technology like Glass makes the future of knowledge visualization possible (Burrow, 2014). Reminiscent of spy films, this type of wearable technology could allow users to gain information about anything, just by glancing at it. The goals for the technology remain relatively fluid, but the possibilities are vast: a user could look around at a building and find out what it is, or view a restaurant and review the menu (Strickland, 2014). In brief, the idea intrinsic to Glass is opening up the user’s world to massive amounts of information, tailored to the moment (Strickland, 2014).

Google Glass is controlled in a manner similar to a smartphone. The small glass screen has a menu and a home page, with two ways to navigate (Strickland, 2014). The first option is to navigate through voice recognition. When the user says, “OK, glass,” followed by a command, the device recognizes the request and takes action (Strickland, 2014). Glass is capable of understanding limited commands on its own, but additional applications add to that capability. Navigation and information applications, such as Wikipedia, were expected to be the most popular for Google Glass (Mok, 2014). This makes sense considering the user-interface. For example, the convenience of having directions shown without having to stop and view a smartphone is significant (Mok, 2014). The second way to navigate through the device is the swipe-pad on the side of the device. Swiping switches screens, and tapping will select an option or take a photo. Swiping downward puts the device to sleep, which is useful due to the limited battery power (Strickland, 2014).

Developments in Wearable Technology

Wearable technology has been around for years, in the form of items like MP3 players or fitness trackers. More recently popular forms of wearable technology include fitness trackers like the FitBit, smart watches, and even smart clothing (Wright, 2014). Most wearable technology has been designed for a specific use, like fitness (Wright, 2014). Google Glass was, ideally, a dramatic step forward, promising vast functionality and a place in the daily life of ordinary people.

While Google Glass made large strides in the field of wearable technology, it also has a few predecessors. Earlier, less functional versions of wearable technology have some similarities to Google Glass, such as the SenseCam, a wearable camera that essentially records a user’s day by taking photos at pre-recorded time intervals (Alcorn, 2013). The SenseCam, created by Gordon Bell, came along about a decade ago, long before video sharing evolved into what it is today (Alcorn, 2013). The SenseCam helped introduce society to the concept of digital life-documentation, which has been expanded upon with the smartphone (Alcorn, 2013).

Augmented Reality Justifies Google Glass

Another pioneering facet of wearable technology is augmented reality, an immersive digital environment - a digital layer over the physical world (Strickland, 2014). Experiments with augmented reality have been occurring for decades, but they became more plausible with the release of the smartphone (Wagner, 2013). According to Pew Research, 64% of American adults own a smartphone, meaning that the majority of Americans have consistent access to a camera and Internet - two components that play a large role in augmented reality (Smith, 2015). Augmented reality is ready to be implemented in society, but it has not yet become integrated (Wagner, 2013). However, that is not to say that augmented reality has not been put to use. Many retailers use augmented reality as a way to draw customers; for example, certain technologies allow users to virtually try-on clothing (Huang, 2014).

A study was conducted to uncover what sustains usability for augmented reality. In one study, participants were sent to a regular, online shopping website (Huang, 2014). The participants were provided with an online fitting and took a survey about their experience. The survey questions covered usability, aesthetics, sustainability, and cognitive innovativeness (Huang, 2014). This study provides important information about the user relationship with augmented reality and how this relationship can be sustained. Not surprisingly, the results found that the success of augmented reality is driven by how useful the product is (Huang, 2014). In online shopping, augmented reality can result in more successful purchases; saving time, effort and the expense of returns. It also must be easy to use and meet the expectations of the user, with aesthetics and playfulness playing large roles in those perceptions (Huang, 2014). In the end, the benefits must significantly outweigh the costs, and this study uncovered critical success factors that are relevant to all wearable technology (Huang, 2014).

Google Glass provided a new interface for augmented reality, one that could potentially initiate the integration of this technology into our everyday lives. According to Strickland, a smartphone is clunky and provides a limited view of what is supposed to be an immersive environment. As eyeglasses, Google Glass would allow the user to access information with no barriers. Just by looking around, information would be presented directly in the user’s line of vision (Wagner, 2013). Google Glass design allows an augmented reality experience while still remaining involved in the natural surroundings. However, as we saw in the specific research on augmented reality, benefit has to exceed cost. Google Glass failed to state the value in terms of specific benefits that would justify its high initial price, and thus failed to catch on in a competitive market (Hong, 2013).

Privacy Concerns with Google Glass

Privacy quickly emerged as a concern, as with almost all preceding technological advances. Since the release of cameras that could take instantaneous pictures, there have been societal concerns about maintaining privacy (Hong, 2013). Kodak cameras were initially banned from beaches and museums until people adapted to the technology by seeing the benefits of the product (Hong, 2013). The same initial panic arose with the release of mobile phones, which are now considered a staple item for most people after experiencing the benefits of having a communication device always at hand (Hong, 2013). Societal norms and expectations have to be adjusted for a complete acceptance of a new technology, and this adjustment will only happen when the value of the device becomes more important than potential threats or issues (Hong, 2013). Loss of privacy has been a lurking downside to many new digital technologies for years, but curiosity and the instinctual need for advancement and progression have created dissonance (Wagner, 2013).

Google Glass is an example of the Internet of Things, a device that allows the user to be digitally connected at all times (Lemos, 2013). This constant digital presence is not exactly new, as the smartphone is a common and heavily used piece of technology. However, Google Glass is always on, and with its position on the users face, privacy is of large concern to potential users (Lemos, 2013). The Google Explorers program produced a tremendous amount of information relating to privacy implications (Lemos, 2013). One explorer noted that, although similar to a smartphone, Google Glass makes taking and sharing videos and photos much more accessible (Lemos, 2013). Glass does not clearly show when the device is recording, which is a big point of fear. If a user walks into a business wearing Glass, a picture of sensitive information could be taken without anyone knowing, whereas when a smartphone is pulled out, there is room for suspicion (Lemos, 2013). There will no longer be a bright light giving a user away who is trying to illegally record in a movie theatre, or the blatant scene of someone pointing a phone at an object (Lemos, 2013).

There are also more subtle privacy implications, such as how people will react around users. People tend to put their guard up in the presence of recording, as a form of self-protection (Newman, 2013). With an ever-present device that may or may not be recording someone, Google Glass has the power to make that guarded behavior a societal norm. For the most part, there is currently a separation between real life and computer-mediated communication (Newman, 2013). Computer-mediated communication allows users online to have some control over their image, only putting out what the user wants others to see (Newman, 2013). Google Glass, with its recording and sharing, may bring that guarded approach to even private settings (Newman, 2013). This issue could potentially be fixed with a notification system that allows people to see when the device is recording. Not only would that protect third parties, but it may also prevent the Glass user from recording people in private situations.

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