Feb. 26, 2013 at 9:50 AM ET
You may have recently spotted some goofy-looking headgear gracing the brows of the Google founders — and a few supermodels, too. While it may seem like a cyberpunk fashion statement that just got too literal, Google's Project Glass, a wearable camera/display combo, may well be the future of human-machine interaction.
"One thing that we're really excited about and working hard on is transforming the way that people interact with Google," said Scott Huffman, Google's vice president of engineering for Search, showing off a video demonstrating the search engine giant's new sensation. "From the stilted one-keyword-at-a-time conversation, to more of a natural conversation … like a human assistant."
Make no mistake, Huffman isn't talking about a virtual assistant along the lines of Apple's Siri, which responds to your questions. He's talking about a way to interact with a search engine — and all its associated products — that includes it gathering so much data about your life and habits, it will start anticipating your needs. Cool? Yes. Creepy? Maybe that, too.
"If you think about a good assistant," Huffman told me, pausing to correct himself, "a great assistant … they don't interrupt you every few minutes." He described his own assistant, someone who doesn't interrupt him often, but certainly knows when she should give him a gentle reminder or a sharp kick.
"It's the opposite of the experience on your phone today," Huffman pointed out, referencing how disruptive our smartphones can be. Not only are they not capable of prioritizing our notifications, but they're mostly incapable of anticipating how the priorities themselves change depending on where we are — or what time it is.
Though Google's improved experience will span all manner of devices — "We're trying to think of it as ... your assistant is ubiquitously with you," said Huffman — it's Google Glass that has everyone talking.
Under development in the Google X Lab — that mysterious skunkworks where self-driving cars, neural networks, and other quirky yet ambitious projects are being dreamed up — Glass is the most provocative way in which this assistant, your main touchpoint with Google, might interact with you.
A small display lives on a frame that resembles eyeglasses. It is connected to a camera, microphone, bone-conducting speaker, and more. Thanks to Wi-Fi and Bluetooth support, the device communicates with other gadgets, such as your smartphone, as well as the good ol' Web.
"OK, Glass!" — with a command like that, you can prompt the device to take pictures, record video, initiate video chats, provide directions, send messages, search, translate and more. Cards resembling those seen in Google Now — Google's response to Apple's Siri — may occasionally appear in the tiny display, meant to remind you of a dentist appointment, provide updates on an upcoming flight, and so on.
A concept video released by Google about a year ago left some people under the misconception that Glass provides an augmented reality experience, where information is overlaid across a field of vision. Instead, as a new demo video confirms, Glass is significantly less disruptive. You actually have to glance up at the display.
Google's intent with Glass is to provide you with all the information you need, before you even think of a question, but without being a nag. Sound too crazy? Not for Google, says ... Google.
What people want ... and what they don't know they want
"Our role is to understand user needs in terms of our search products and make sure that we're developing a search experience that meets and exceeds expectations," Jon Wiley, Google's lead user experience designer for Search, told me in mid-December. To get a sense of how that was going, Wiley said, the company conducted a little human-nature study.
Wiley's team gathered up a group of folks "from all walks of life" and installed specialized software on their mobile devices. Throughout the day, this software prompted the study participants with a very open-ended question: "What was the last bit of information you needed?" The point of the study wasn't to trace the flow of data through the participants' handsets. Wiley's team just wanted to know what sort of information — simple or complicated, mundane or exciting — people were hunting for at any given moment.
The study not only allowed Wiley's team to better capture the sorts of queries that people don't ask a search engine — "Why is my daughter being mean to me?" — but also the context in which all these questions arose. Where were people when they needed to know these things? What time was it? What were they doing? By gathering these details, the team could attempt to understand the contexts of searches (even the helpless ones) in our day-to-day, human trudge.
One day, Google could perhaps provide all that information without prompting. After all, a diligent user of Google Now already gets flight information, traffic alerts, and other details automatically — just based on itineraries, daily travel patterns, etc. But with Glass that information could always be front-and-center at the very moment it's needed. What if you're late for a flight? Checking for its gate information by reaching for a boarding pass, pulling your phone out of your pocket, or finding an airport information board wastes precious seconds. Glass could put the information right in front of you without delay.
The more information we share with Google, even just so that Google can better understand our data needs, the more privacy concerns will be raised. Google is already no stranger to privacy lawsuits and legislation, so how much more heated will things get when the company introduces eyeglasses that know as much — or more — about you than you know yourself?
Perhaps even more importantly, Google Glass is one of the first digital technologies capable of recording the world around you constantly: Will that cause discomfort for others? Will they start to avoid you once you're wearing a device that allows you to take photos or record video without even the slightest warning? And when will Google Glass data be brought into the courtroom for a divorce case, a robbery, or worse?
Despite its magical promises (and ominous portents), Google's creation may remain out of reach for a while — until late 2013, at the very earliest. Google's currently only allowing select individuals to participate in the Google Glass Explorer program. This first publicly available Glass edition costs $1,500, and comes with an invite to a special pick-up event and more. In order to be part of the Glass Explorer program, you had to pre-order during Google I/O 2012 conference last June or make it through the recently announced #IfIHadGlass application process.
While the general public waits for the latest Google gadget to become available though, there's been plenty of criticism of Glass' appearance — "these specs look like the freaky science fiction concept they are," Gizmodo's Mario Aguilar declared.
And the behoodied Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, not exactly a fashion icon himself, is among those concerned about how he'll look wearing Glass on his face, reports Ryan Mac. The Forbes' writer witnessed an exchange between Zuckerberg and Google co-founder Sergey Brin after an event at the University of California on Wednesday.
"How do you look out from this without looking awkward?" Zuckerberg reportedly asked. "You know, how are you supposed to use these this without breaking eye contact?" (Neither Facebook nor Google chose to confirm that this conversation occurred.)
Still, Google seems to be working hard to ditch the belief that only the nerdiest of nerds will don Glass. The New York Times' Claire Cain Miller reports that Google may be in negotiations with eyewear seller Warby Parker "to help it design more fashionable frames" for Glass.
The company also collaborated with designer Diane von Furstenberg during last year's New York Fashion Week and brought Glass onto the runway.
“I am so excited to introduce Glass to the fashion world and use this revolutionary technology to give everyone a unique perspective into fashion," von Furstenberg was quoted as remarking, while Google co-founder Sergey Brin added that "beauty, style and comfort are as important to Glass as the latest technology."
Until Glass is publicly available — and until we discover whether this groundbreaking virtual personal assistant is worth bending a fashion rule or two — the last words on the subject go to actor LeVar Burton. Speaking for Geordi La Forge, a character he played in "Star Trek: The Next Generation," Burton tweets: "#ifihadglass It would be a downgrade."
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