Google Glass: Obnoxious and invasive at any price

Products like Google Glass will face numerous adoption challenges because they present issues in any number of social situations where privacy or desire to be "off the record" is most cherished.

Wearable computing has long been part of the holy grail of the pursuit towards integration of information science with human interface devices.

We've seen its use described in popular science-fiction novels and shown in movies and television (like "Star Wars" and "Star Trek") and has been the fodder of futurists for longer than I can possibly remember.

Image: Robert Scoble

There's no question that these devices will be used extensively, particularly in vertical markets for specific types of applications where hands-free computing has distinct advantages, such in the medical and military fields, as well as in breaking news reporting.

But products like Google Glass will face numerous adoption challenges because they present issues in any number of social situations where privacy or desire to be "off the record" is most cherished.

One might ask, why are privacy issues with Glass any different than any other device that can record, such as a smartphone or a miniature tablet?

They are absolutely different. Today, even with cameras on smartphone handsets, recording in certain areas is frowned upon, but at least there is time for the object of the recording to raise an objection and ask for the device to be put away. 

Because Glass is being worn, and might eventually be integrated into prescription eyewear, it's a "stealth" recording device. The object of the recording may not know they've been captured on video until it is too late. And, the device's ability to transmit that footage to the public-viewable cloud nearly instantaneously with a 4G or Wi-Fi connection will make it much more feared than a simple camera with localized storage.

In the "Explorer" edition of Google Glass that has now shipped to celebrity early adopters and developers, there is no indication whatsoever that the subject is being recorded.

Contrary to early reports, there is no LED or light or anything of the sort to alert that a video or a picture is being taken. This might be changed in mass-market versions of the device produced by licensing OEMs, but for now, one should assume that if Glass' 720p 5-megapixel CMOS sensor is pointed at you, you're on Candid Camera.

Glass and similar products that enter the market because of their potential for recording images and video in a stealthy fashion will be unwelcome in any place that people gather and expect some degree of privacy, and new social norms will have to be developed for their use as well as establishment of etiquette for obtaining the consent of those being recorded.

What about prescription versions of Glass? Won't it make it harder to remove them from people in social situations?

First, we're making a very big assumption that Google can get the eyewear industry to cooperate by licensing this technology. Google is probably not going to want to get into the eyewear business because there are too many styles, and people view their eyewear styles as being a very personal fashion choice. 

That being said, the balance of the designer eyeglass frame as well as the prescription eyeglass retail business, as well as the distribution channels for prescription eyewear — with the exception of Costco and Wal-Mart, which are loss leaders in this area — is effectively a monopoly controlled by the Luxottica Group S.p.A, based in Milan, Italy, which generates over €7 billion in net sales annually, based on their last financial statement.

Virtually every design patent for every licensed eyeglass brand you can think of is controlled by this firm. If Google even wants to play in this arena, it will be on Luxottica's terms. If you think Apple is litigious with protecting design patents, just imagine what Luxottica will do if it suspects Google is attempting to intrude on its business.

More than likely, I think that anyone who is serious about using these sort of devices will opt to use contact lenses or elect for corrective laser surgery, and they can simply just remove the device if someone takes offense to it being used.

And again, if Luxottica feels its long-term business is threatened by the device in any way that could potentially lead toward a downward trend in the use of prescription eyewear, God help Google.

For those too squeamish for corrective surgery or contact lenses, a "clip-on" version of Glass is likely to enter the market.

And the potential for backlash?

Well, there's already backlash to Google Glass. The fact that terms like "Glasshole" and "Doucheglass" are being bandied about already means that the general public finds the product and their users to be obnoxious.

There will be Glass-free signs posted in businesses of all kinds. I can certainly see them being banned from any number of public spaces under local ordinances passed which may govern when and where they cannot be used.

They will be prohibited from being used in schools due to concerns over student distraction and possible cheating. Government buildings will almost certainly prohibit them, as will airport security. There will be incidents of "Glass Rage" where people will get into fights over their use.

And there are probably scenarios for backlash we haven't even thought of yet.

Despite the clear privacy issues and challenges that Google will face with the eyewear industry, I do think that these devices will inevitably enter the mainstream, despite restrictions that will be imposed on their use.

If Luxottica feels its long-term business is threatened by the device in any way potentially that could lead toward a downward trend in the use of prescription eyewear, God help Google.

I think there will be an initial surge for prosumers/professionals and verticals at $800 with a mass adoption price point at about $500, with universal adoption at about $250.

That Android runs at the core of Glass is probably a good thing, at least for Google's device. Android is a known quantity when it comes to software development.

However, the type of apps we will see for augmented reality use are likely to be very different than what is used on a smartphone. I expect these to be more of the "telemetry" type apps that are simply extensions of things running remotely on a Bluetooth-connected smartphone, not unlike how current smart watches work.

I believe augmented reality wearable computers are likely to enter the industry by more than just Google, and there will be different ways to market the geotargeting aspects of the technology.

The obvious one will be augmented reality superimposed advertisements that hook directly into Google Ads, but there's huge potential for noise here. 

Google has stated that no advertisements will be allowed in third-party apps on Glass. I think it is highly unlikely that Google is going to make Glass an advert-free zone. It is far more likely that it intends to reserve ad network promotion for basic device functionality so that app developers cannot abuse the system. 

More likely the advertising on the device will have to be targeted according to the user's Google+ profile and to search context, through queries such as "Okay Glass, show me pizzerias in a one mile radius."

Based on my "+1" of pizza restaurants on Google+, I could see the device popping up overlays if I'm near a particularly good one, such as a place with a particularly high Zagat rating. And it might even show me pizza restaurants that have paid for particularly high AdWords placement as well.

What we think of "advertisement" will be defined entirely by how much Google "juice" an AdWords customer is willing to pay for in order to get in front of literally as many eyeballs as possible. These will not be "pitches" for product as such, but jostling for position on an augmented overlay.

Geotargeted and context and query-based visual augmentation will almost certainly make up the bulk of the revenue model, at least initially.

But I also see Glass as a supplemental ecosystem for the existing Google Play application store, particularly for Android smartphone apps that have the ability to extend their reach into the new device through "telemetry" or Glass-optimized user interfaces.

There may be other types of Glass-oriented content that Google is looking for developers to produce that the wearers can consume and can be monetized. Perhaps industry or interest-specific augmentation overlays, much like the way dictionary add-ons for word processing packages were sold to the medical and legal industry in the 1980s.

In terms of enhancing our overall communications and collaboration experience, I'm not yet convinced it is going to raise the bar. We already have the capability to do pretty sophisticated video chat and video conferencing with smartphones and PCs and it still only has limited use.

Where I do see this making some impact is in social networking. Clearly this would be a win for Google+ and a blow to Facebook. "Liking" and "friending" people could be an act of simply pointing at an icon floating in space over somebody's head, as opposed to having to look up their profile.

The adult film industry will certainly use this device with consent, but imagine what unscrupulous, ethically-challenged sociopaths might do with Glass. 

Status updates could be dictated and photo-sharing services like Instagram could be made obsolete. So it might add some transparency to Social Networking as opposed to it being the chore that it is today.

Still, I think the technology platform has to prove itself before it becomes more than just a more sophisticated replacement to existing Bluetooth headsets. 

At the moment Glass uses very commodity system-on-a-chip (SoC) with fairly off the shelf display, camera and battery tech. Google will need to develop the technology a little further if wants to put devices on the market that are usable for more than just a few hours at a time and can really make use of the life-logging capabilities as opposed to running out of gas after 20 minutes of video recording.

They will need much lower-power SoCs and more sophisticated battery chemistry, so that the majority of the heavy lifting is done by a wireless tethered smartphone instead. Google can certainly get millions of Glass devices pumped out with the current reference design, but it may not be palatable in its current form due to short battery life.

Social and technology limitations aside, there is a significant vertical pivot in all of this. Medical, law enforcement, private security, scientific research, pharmaceutical, and aerospace. Any profession where hands-free device operation is an asset.

Even if Google Glass flops in terms of mass-market adoption, the vertical applications are tremendous, and on that alone the technology should be considered successful if it gets penetration into those industries.

There's another industry that Glass is going to get penetration, and it should be obvious to everyone — pornography.

Google may not intend the product to be used in that fashion, but let's face it, first-person, close-up perspective views of sex acts are as much the holy grail of the adult industry as wearable computing and life logging is in the collective consciousness of science fiction. In fact, the two have often come hand and hand with each other. 

Natalie Wood with the "Brainstorm" lifelogging headset, 1983.

For example, the production-cursed 1983 Douglas Trumbull film "Brainstrom" starring Natalie Wood and Christoper Walken depicts a lifelogging technology similar to Glass — which also has the ability to record sensation and emotion — that is misused and is exploited by one of its inventors to chronicle his bedroom exploits with women, and then share it with his colleagues.

The adult film industry will certainly use this device with consent, but imagine what unscrupulous, ethically-challenged sociopaths might do with Glass. 

If you think "sexting" is something to be wary of, and you're concerned about having your children exposed to it, that's nothing compared to what Glass has the potential to be misused for.

Google Glass will make some sort of industry impact in 2014. Whether that is strictly with early adopters, "prosumers" or use in vertical markets, this is difficult to say. It's also hard to tell this early on whether or not the product is acceptable in its current form given the limitations it has in terms of battery life and just how exactly it might be monetized by third-party developers.  

What is certain, however, is that there is a nearly universal negative reaction to the life-logging and stealth recording capabilities of the device. Regardless of how cheap Google Glass eventually becomes due to efficiencies in mass production, it's obnoxious and invasive at any price and its potential for abuse by the ethically challenged and sociopaths among us is virtually unlimited.

Is Google Glass an obnoxious technology at any price? Talk Back and Let Me Know.


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