Technology moves at such a rapid pace nowadays it is often difficult to keep up. There are so many new items out on such a regular basis that we regularly see only a portion of these new items. But, every so often something new comes out that grabs the media’s attention and becomes the latest rave. And while a few of these “raves” are indeed impressive, most fade from public attention as quickly as they arrive. Google Glass is not one of those things, it has arrived and we will be seeing more of its kind (hereafter Google Glass will be referred to as Glass like most of its current users do). Though this is a new technology and much of the information on it remains hidden in the shadows, it is the precursor set to revolutionize the industry and might just change the world as we know it. Of course, this has been said of other tech gadgets in the past. Yet when you fully realize the potential Glass has on a level to communicate in such a manner it will become clear that it’s here to stay. This paper will give a brief introduction and a relevant history of Glass and will finish with the advantages and disadvantages of this arriving technology as well as a number of possible social and educational impacts.
So what is Glass? It could easily be mistaken as a glass blowing technique; it is truthfully, far from it. Glass is the next generation of communication, a pair of glasses containing a virtual computer seen through a glass eyepiece. This new technology is designed to be convenient like a smartphone but worn like a pair of glasses (Liedtke). With the exception of some hardware located on the right-hand side, one would never know the difference between someone wearing Glass and someone wearing a regular set of glasses. This virtual glassware can do almost anything a regular smartphone can, with the exception of typing, such as making a phone call, using Google Maps, taking a picture, taking a live video without having to hold a camera, checking the weather, translating a conversation, and all while walking down the street (Sarno). The device is mainly voice-activated but has a small physical control panel on the side to help functionality as well as with situations where voice activation would not be considered prudent. Glass hardware contains the fundamental parts of any normal handheld device. It contains a CPU, a GPS tracking device, speakers, microphone, random access memory (RAM) and a battery. It also has the added function of a tiny projector which redirects the image via a reflecting prism onto the user’s eye (Sarno). The entire device fits neatly onto the frames right-hand side and is designed for most processing to take place externally in the cloud much like Apple’s Siri currently does (Graham and Snider). To be expected a good mobile broadband signal is required for the device to function properly and timely. Google Glass is nothing more than a tiny projector displaying on the user's eye in combination with the hardware components that let it run.
With a basic understanding of how the device works a brief history might be in order. This type of head-worn display, used mainly for augmented reality, is nothing new in terms of technology development. Humans have been innovating and experimenting with this form of hands-free technology for over 3 decades now. At Harvard University in the late 19 60’s Ivan Sutherland demonstrated the first wave of computer graphics with optical manipulation capability (Rolland and Cakmacki). In the mid-1990s, Microvision developed retinal scanning displays, designed to draw a display directly onto the retina of the eye. And in the late 1990s, Canon pioneered free-form prisms for visualization applications (Rolland and Cakmacki). There are many other pioneers into the field of the head-worn display, some of this tech has been used and some has not. Glass is founded upon a good deal of this pioneering work and was first envisioned almost a decade ago. But like many visions, it often takes a good amount of time for an idea to go from the drawing board to the production line. Initial product testing began only in April of 2012 and has experienced a good deal of change as technology moves so fast (Rolland and Cakmacki). Yet Glass has certainly caught the spotlight recently with the media do to the fact that in as little as two years anyone will be able to use this technology. And the foundations of this new technology began only 30 years ago.
So with a brief history and a general understanding of how the device works, it would now be prudent to discuss some of the greater implications of Glass. As with any new technology, there is always the possibility of the unforeseen to deal with, in this case mainly social and educational concerns. The abilities that this device possesses to interact with one's environment could very well pose security issues, as well as issues with privacy in a number of settings, from schools to restaurants to walking down the street. This, of course, is not limited to personal privacy but also one of organizational security. As such it is necessary to discuss both the advantages and disadvantages of Glass.
What are some of the advantages of Glass? Already mentioned, this is a technology that virtually anyone will soon be able to afford. Though this almost goes without saying, nearly every new technology introduced to consumers has done so with highly inflated price tags. History has demonstrated that while affordability is the key to mass marketing success, it often just takes time to reach the point where manufacturing prices drop. If your product can be developed affordable to the average person, demand for that product skyrockets. With higher demand comes a greater number of manufacturers resulting in lower production costs and ultimately, higher profits. These higher profits stabilize the manufactured goods allowing for a greater likelihood of that product's long term market success. The introduction of glass at a relatively affordable price makes it highly advantageous from the start.
Glass also has the advantage of hands-off interaction. Josh Topolsky, editor in chief of The Verge got some hands-on time with Glass and mentioned that the device is "clean, elegant, and makes relative sense" (Yarow). He described the ability to read a text message or email while walking down the street without having to pull out your phone as a simple concept that feels powerful. This probably has the most potential to help Glass find success. David Pogue another Glass beta tester noted that the device is surprisingly unobtrusive. Initially judging that it would interfere with how one would drive or even hold a conversation with someone, after using the device he found that it was actually the opposite. Pogue noted in his article:
Those are misguided concerns. When I finally got to try Google Glass, I realized that they don't put anything in front of your eyes. You still make eye contact when you talk. You still see the road ahead. The screen is so tiny, it doesn't block your normal vision (Pogue).
Perhaps some of the devices most notable advantages are being realized in the field while being tested in a more practical way. The device was first used in surgery in 2013 by surgeon Dr. Harry van Goor to record exactly what he was seeing during an operation (Engelen). This type of recording is not only useful to patients and doctors alike but this recording was also broadcast live to his students at Radboud University Nijmegen Medical Centre. The ability to teach and talk to live to his students has changed how medical schools will learn in the future. This brings the educational advantages of Glass to the forefront. If Glass can be used to bring educational settings such as surgery to medical students, surely it stands to benefit others as well. Vanden Heuvel a high school science teacher used the glasses while on a trip to Geneva, Switzerland. While visiting the site of the 16.7mile-long Large Hadron Collider Heuvel used Glass to give a wireless physics lesson to a classroom of students 6,000 miles away. And the students at South Christina High School in Grand Rapids, Michigan couldn’t have been happier (Weiss). Heuvel took a tour of the collider using Glass so the students could see exactly what he was seeing at the moment. Afterward, Heuvel told reporters that this could very well be an incredible tool for teaching students about science from anywhere. With devices such as Glass one starts to paint a picture of the possibilities presented to education in general; the ability to teach any subject to anyone anywhere on the planet, live. The applications of Glass are virtually limitless, and yet these advantages might only be the tip of the iceberg.
This technology is not just limited to Glass but other researchers are using this type of equipment to benefit society as well. Researchers at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) are testing a similar device to help the deaf to see loud sounds in their environment (Hodson). The device utilizes microphones and a light-emitting diode (LED) to present visual cues that alert the user to the position of loud sounds. Pinpointing on a virtual map in the user’s eyepiece the wearer can immediately see where a potentially hazardous sound is located. This is also something that Google is awaiting patent for with a similar device in the United States (Hodson). There are many potential benefits to this new technology and much has yet to be discovered. But as Glass is developed and improved more possibilities with greater advantages will surface in time and to more than just the fields of medicine and education.
Glass has some disadvantages as well. Sarah Hill, a product tester for the piece, claims that the battery life is often extremely short. Depending on how she is using the product, such as recording video, the battery life is less than 2 hours (Liedtke). Many of those testing the device also claim that the Glass’ speaker, relying on conduction technology is fairly inadequate with a number of situations. The speaker, which is designed to transmit sound through the skull trimming excess ambient noise, can be difficult to hear in anything but a quiet room (Liedtke). Many users claim that using the device outside or in any noisy environment can often make it virtually impossible to hear. With no way to adjust or to turn up the sound, this issue remains problematic. One of the more notable hardware problems is the loss of internet connection. As Glass relies totally on the internet for communication losing one's data connection or WiFi anywhere renders Glass useless (Yarrow).
Aside from hardware as being a potential drawback of the device there is also the human psychological element to contend with. In David Pogue’s article “Google’s Creep Factor” one person he interviewed was quoted as saying “No, the biggest obstacle is the smugness of people who wear Glass -- and the deep discomfort of everyone who doesn't.” He went on to mention that having a conversation with someone wearing Glass was somewhat unsettling, and you never really knew if you were being videoed or not. This comes back to the idea of personal privacy as well as personal space. We as people are uneasy when we feel our personal space and privacy are invaded. Summarily this puts those wearing Glass in a position of power. They have the ability to take pictures and videos without the viewer ever knowing. Think to the future when facial recognition software becomes not just an expensive tool the FBI uses but anyone wearing devices like Glass can have access to. Anonymity is lost with the ability to recognize obscure faces in a crowd. But this problem is relatively small and like any emergent technology with time comes greater stability.
Perhaps the most serious problems are not related to hardware or psychology at all. Many different arguments and indeed laws are already being pursued and passed to deal with potential privacy and distraction issues involving Glass. However, the most debated problem involves privacy, in both personal and social contexts. David Streitfeld sums up the argument quite accurately when he wrote “As personal technology becomes increasingly nimble and invisible, Glass is prompting questions of whether it will distract drivers, upend relationships and strip people of what little privacy they still have in public.” and there are many more to agree with his sentiment. Google Glass will have the power to capture any chance encounter, from celebrity sightings to a chance fight at the local dive bar to a hit and run, and broadcast it to millions of people in seconds (Streitfeld). This has some serious implications when considering personal privacy and anonymity. While Google posits that Glass is indeed a work in progress, it takes privacy as well as the development of this technology very seriously. A few of the implemented safeguards are the need to speak or touch Glass to activate it, and if you want to take a picture of someone you have to look directly at them. But some might argue that this is not enough and that pictures can still be taken and send out over the internet almost immediately.
With these issues at the forefront of the argument, many private organizations, as well as lawmakers, are enacting policy now in the hope to avoid problems later. Among those, the 5 Point Café in Seattle has been the first to officially ban Glass (Streitfeld). Though in part a publicity stunt, the bar’s owner Dave Meinert admits the ban has a legitimate cause, claiming the bar is “kind of a private place” (Streitfeld). A Caesars spokesman in Las Vegas told reporters that recording devices and personal computers are not allowed in casinos. This is to provide anonymity and secure the privacy of patrons choosing to frequent the casino or to see a show. Summarily Glass has been banned in most casinos as it goes against the recording device policy and threatens the anonymity of patrons. While various other businesses are posing similar bans we start to see how this could be a tool used to infringe on the privacy and rights of others.
However, it’s not all about privacy; many are concerned with the implications of distractibility. As with any electronic device on the market today, whether handheld or voice-controlled there is an element of distraction involved. Humans can only tend to so many tasks at one time, the more effort we excerpt focusing on one task raises the likelihood we will drop the ball in another; the very reason texting and driving can be so hazardous. One cannot pay attention to the road and type a text message at the same time without foregoing attention to the road. Legislators in West Virginia have begun pursuing state laws aimed to keep potential driving distractions from becoming roadway hazards. The state has officially banned texting while driving, though it left a loophole for the use of hands-free devices such as Glass (Streitfeld). This leaves Glass on the list of devices that drivers are free to use while operating a motor vehicle. As the new legislation was passed to late in the state session to potentially outlaw Glass while driving, legislative sponsors say they will pursue laws in the next session prohibiting devices such as Glass while driving. This fight regarding whether the device truly is a distraction will undoubtedly continue for some time into the future, just as it has with the cell phone and texting.
This paper has discussed what Glass is and how it works. It has also touched on some history of the technology as it has developed over the last 30 plus years. By far the most important aspect has been the social implications that Glass represents. With both sides possessing sturdy positive and negative qualities it is difficult to simply choose only one side or the other. The one-hand holds a surplus of benefits we can surely use to better education, medicine, science, and communication. The other hand holds just as many potential disadvantages, and these disadvantages, if not dealt with from the start, could very well snowball. And yet Glass has too many potential benefits to let these negatives obscure the power it possesses to help us accomplish wonders. Even with the potential threats, we have discussed with both privacy and personal safety we will surely find a suitable compromise and middle ground, just as we have with the cell phone and the automobile.
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