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The future risks of Google Glass: Why we should be scared

HardwareFeatures
by Sebastian Anthony, 24 Mar 2014Features
The future risks of Google Glass: Why we should be scared

Faced with a lot of recent backlash over its wearable Glass headset, last month Google published a list of dos and don'ts for its early Glass Explorers – also known as How To Not Be A Glasshole – and more recently, it has posted a list debunking the top 10 Google Glass myths. Both lists highlight one of the biggest issues facing technology at the moment: A growing resistance from the non-technologist public, who are rightfully a bit scared about how hyper-advanced, almost magical technology will impact their society.

Ever since the first round of Glass headsets made their way to Explorers in June 2012 over in the US, barely a week has gone by without the press reporting on some kind of "Glasshole" story. These stories nearly always follow the same kind of pattern: Explorer wears Glass while going about his or her everyday life, and then gets into some kind of altercation by going somewhere or doing something that someone else finds objectionable. It's usually pretty normal, obvious stuff: Wearing Glass while driving, wearing Glass in a locker room, wearing Glass in a counterculture punk bar, etc.

Given the media's infatuation with Google and contentious topics (like wearable computing), it's fairly difficult to work out whether these reports are just par for the course, or whether there really is sizable antipathy towards Glass. What we do know, though, is that it's pretty normal for new, wildly different technology to face excessive public scrutiny. As Google points out, when cameras first hit the market at the end of the 1800s, they were banned from national monuments, parks, and beaches. Camera phones faced the same kind of pushback. Technophobia, or at least techno-wariness, isn't a new concept, and Google and its Explorers really shouldn't be surprised.

Google's guide for Glass Explorers, published a month back, makes for interesting reading. Do ask for permission before taking photos of other people, but don't "Glass out" and spend hours looking off into the display prism, lost in your own little world. Do explore the world around you, but don't expect to be ignored while you do so – Glass sticks out like a sore thumb, and people are going to want to ask you about it (just like any new, exciting, unrecognisable gizmo). The guide ends with "Don't be creepy or rude (aka, a Glasshole)" – a general warning that wearing Glass doesn't somehow make you special or immune from rules, ethics, or societal norms. If there's a sign saying "no cameras" or "no recording equipment," then that applies to you too, Glasshole.

The freshly revealed Top 10 Google Glass Myths list is an attempt to debunk some lies spread by the media, and to battle some of the public's preconceptions about Glass (and wearable computing in general). Google Glass isn't always on (and it doesn't have the battery life to record more than a few minutes of video). Glass doesn't do facial recognition (and Google is manually approving Glassware apps to minimise dodgy usage). Glass doesn't cover your eyes – it has a small screen that sits above your right eye that you have to intentionally look up at.

Let's be brutally honest, though – these are just teething issues. Wearable computers and battery technology will eventually reach a level of maturity where they can record everything all the time. Even if Google doesn't allow facial recognition apps on Glass today, we'd be stupid to think that it will always be that way (and even if Google does hold out, Facebook or someone else will offer facial recognition, I guarantee it). I would be surprised if we don't see more wearable computers with displays that cover the eyes, too, and use a forward-facing camera to show an augmented view of reality.

In its current form, Glass isn't all that scary – but even I, a self-proclaimed lover of all things technological, can see the future risks and repercussions of advanced wearable computers. To think that having an advanced computer strapped to our heads at all times won't change the fabric of society is foolhardy at best, and criminally irresponsible at worst. Rather than downplaying the public's concerns over Glass, Google should be working to ensure that our hyperbolic fears of today don't become a reality tomorrow.

For more on Glass, see our thoughts on using Google Glass for almost a year, which considers whether the device is the future of wearables.

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