Google Glass is causing quite a stir, and rightly so. However, the search giant's networked specs are creating a buzz as much about the threat to privacy they pose as about the new era of wearable tech they look likely to usher in.
The specs are yet to be released, but Google promises they will let users browse a map, check their mail, record a video directly from the headset, without lifting a finger. But will Google Glass' ability to (almost) silently take photos or videos using the glasses make the general public uncomfortable? After all, there are some conversations or situations you'd rather not have a Google Glass wearer inadvertently record and upload to YouTube.
Think about it for a minute. These glasses can instantly capture and store every move of everyone around the person wearing them. Remember that drunken argument you had with your partner? Well, now Google Glass will mean you have no possibility of forgetting it. If it's entertaining enough, or you're well-known enough, the video of that argument could well be on YouTube before you get home. Do you do a lot of business on the phone while out and about or while sitting in coffee shops? Will you continue to, if you know that every call could be recorded by the stranger sitting at the table opposite, staring innocently at the picture on the wall behind your head?
Check out this video (warning: there may be some swearing) of 'surveillance camera man,' who goes around passively filming people in public places. These videos demonstrate exactly the problem Google Glass and other wearable tech presents: people don't like being filmed in public, regardless of what they're doing.
The issues of Google Glass, however, go one step further than this: instead a man holding a video camera that you can clearly see, with Glass you won't even know it's happening. What if when the seemingly inevitable happens and a security flaw is found that lets an intruder take control of Glass — in that situation, it's plausible that even the owner won't know what they're recording.
While wearable — or even embeddable — tech such as Google Glass is still in its infancy, will these privacy concerns impact its future prospects? Are the technological advances enough to outweigh any erosion of privacy?
Question over "whether it's intrusive or not is one of these things that feels more intrusive now than it actually is. It's not a giant leap, or a huge change from things you can do now with a phone or with other things, except it's a little bit more invasive and there all the time, potentially," Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, professor of business psychology at the University College London (UCL), told ZDNet.
While Google Glass replicates functionality already found in smartphones today, people are more wary specifically because it is glasses that are being used to augment reality, Chamorro-Premuzic said.
"Symbolically it feels a lot scarier than it actually is, because it's what you're seeing and glasses are meant to be there to enhance reality. But, instead of enhancing reality, it seems to enhance people's observational powers into worlds that we maybe think should remain private."
While Chamorro-Premuzic is largely at ease with the idea of Google Glass he also noted an interesting quirk in the British psyche that may help Google Glass to succeed.
"In Britain people have this really interesting ambivalence where on the one hand we like to be very private creatures and everybody minds their own business. We don't reveal much or ask much to others, but on the other it's also a very 'nosey neighbour' nation" he said.
"The Big Brother series were more successful here than anywhere else, but that's because we feel so repressed about being observed or observing others that when we can let go of our inhibitions a little bit we take it to the other extreme. I wouldn't be surprised if they [Google Glass] did quite well here."
While we are only at the emergence of devices such as Google Glass, the hardware is symbolic of the wider issue of trading our privacy and personal information for convenience. Every time someone signs up for a free email service or a social networking site, they are swapping convenience for privacy. With Facebook blasting through the billion user mark in the second half of 2012, the amount of people happy to make that trade shows no sign of slowing down anytime soon.
"People will tell you that they are a lot more worried about privacy than they actually are. Google Glasses are no different to someone who has dark shades and is looking at you and you can't see them [looking]. On the other hand, if a person jumps on a train or tube and stops making eye contact or looking at people around them but then goes on Facebook to check out other people and their profiles, that's kind of the same. This kind of intrusive element that technology has introduced occurs more online than offline," he said. "That might be the most progressive thing about Google Glasses — it's [this intrusive element] getting closer to the physical reality because it's out there, where our eyes are."
Ultimately, Google Glass will succeed: technology will win out over the potential privacy concerns in this case. The use of email, maps, cameras and everything else on smartphones is already far too engrained in our lives to stop that functionality being put in wearable tech, but when it does we'll collectively be agreeing that the possibility of being filmed in public without our knowledge is just fine.