Every major tech company is working on computer glasses. None of them really want to go first.
They all remember how Google Glass and the “Glassholes” who wore them in public became the laughing stock of the world. So they’ve been waiting, waiting their time, improving their prototypes, and oftentimes making sure that investors know, no, they’re not going to let the first iPhone-sized potential opportunity since the iPhone.
But now, Google itself is taking the next step. And whether you’re dreading the moment Big Tech’s all-out eyes pop into people’s heads or just counting the days until you can own a hands-free PC, you should know that we’re about to compete with them once again.
Last Tuesday, Google revealed that it will begin testing camera-equipped augmented reality glasses in public places, and the company’s blog post contains several statements designed to assure you that this will never be the age of Glassholes again. Google claims that it started with “a few dozen” test devices, and that the cameras and microphones on its glasses “do not support photography and video”. They collect visual data, but Google wants you to imagine use cases like “translate the menu in front of you” – not to sign someone in front of you at a bar.
The company’s support page also has a full list of frequently asked questions such as “What is the image data used for?” ; “How long will it be stored?” ; and “How will I know if I am too close to the products being tested?” Turns out there’s an LED that lights up if Google decides to save the photos for analysis, and promises to delete them after 30 days.
For now, Google says its testers won’t use it in schools, hospitals, churches, stadiums and the like — though it doesn’t say anything about restaurants and bars, where wearers have been notoriously problematic for years.
If you hate this idea, there is probably nothing I can say to convince you otherwise, and I wouldn’t necessarily want to; I won’t pretend to know if this tool is should exist in the world. I just think you should realize that if the Google test doesn’t end in utter disgust, it won’t be long before Apple, Microsoft and others throw their long-awaited glasses into the ring as well.
And in 2022, I wouldn’t actually bet on disgust, mainly because we’ve spent a decade pointing phones at things in public, documenting every element of our lives, preparing us for what’s to come.
Since the day a team of Google skydivers landed at the Moscone Center with the first public prototypes of Google Glass, the use of a portable camera has proliferated. Not only have phone cameras completely destroyed the orientation and image-taking system, but they have also changed social norms. In 2012, it was a little strange to take out a camera in a bar or restaurant; Now, it’s going to be weird note For a selfie with friends or a few snapshots of an especially delicious looking meal. And the fear of accidentally picking up a stranger in the shot? It’s a regular occurrence every day that Google uses a person’s “magic” background eraser as a selling point for Pixel phones.
Moreover, mobile cameras not only shoot when someone thinks of taking their smartphone out of their pocket; They are flying in the air. Now anyone can buy Snap’s self-flying camera for $230 to robotically photograph public places, and we’ve spent more than a decade getting used to the idea that someone else’s camera might be looking at you from above. The vast majority of the consumer drone revolution occurred after, after Google Glass – The DJI Phantom wasn’t released until 2013.
Google Glass also preceded the widespread adoption of 4G LTE, which brought live broadcasting and instant video publishing to the masses. This is why you can register the police and possibly hold them responsible. (Remember when Google Glass critics wrote about the concept of “surveillance,” a form of reverse surveillance where people use their own cameras to watch monitors? Phones have already taken us in part.)
Public places are full of cameras pointing in every direction now, and there are very few expectations for privacy outside your home. The community also did not face many successful challenges to the proliferation of cameras. And even if photography is illegal, how do you keep an eye on it? It’s not easy to tell if someone is actually signing up, checking out TikTok, or even just getting work done on the go.
As my former colleague Ellis Hamburger said in 2014, we’re all glass holes now. And I feel this has only gotten healthier through the pandemic, as even the tech sanctuaries have started to rely on pocket computers for necessities like socializing and food. In the past couple of years, I’ve seen people who swear not to use technology for things they can do in person reluctantly turn to Amazon, DoorDash, Facebook, Instacart, and more. And I suspect some of them will be more open about the benefits of technology now.
Even headphones may not carry the stigma they had due to the pandemic. VR use has exploded during the lockdowns of 2020, even if overall sales numbers are still relatively small. The modern rise and fall of virtual reality is, once again, something that has happened after, after The fateful 2012 launch of Google Glass.
The pandemic may also end up resetting some of our social mores like hiding, which has the beneficial side effect of masking your identity from cameras while also reducing the spread of germs. It’s not too hard to imagine countries that would tolerate citizens wearing Bane-like masks and other head-wearing paraphernalia as well. You may remember a time when Bluetooth headphones were considered too filthy and impolite to wear in public, and now they are completely normalized.
In addition, Google is not the first to dip a toe in these waters. Snapchat is now on its fourth-generation Spectacles camera, the Meta has Ray-Ban Stories, and you could argue that the Meta Project Aria test is very similar to what Google is doing now. None of it generated the kind of stench that Google Glass has experienced in a decade.
Sure, that might change if a pair of glasses of the future proves to be more intrusive than the phones and drones we have. There will certainly be serious questions about data collection and privacy, especially given the proven track record of some of the companies building it.
But in 2022, I think the biggest challenge for Apple, Google, Meta, Microsoft, and Snap is figuring out how to build the augmented reality experiences we actually pay for — experiences that are more compelling and relevant than what phones already offer. As we wrote in May when Google teased some real-time language translation glasses, the company has a fancy idea there:
It’s very hard to watch this video and see the Glasshole. But vaporware is also very easy to detect.