Credit: Reuters/Stephen Lam
Living and working at the edge of Silicon Valley (in San Francisco), I know I reside in an alternative universe populated by two parts culturally sensitive well-meaning people, one part mercenary libertarians, one part militant liberals, and three parts technology addicts. We're the region where Google tests out driverless cars on our everyday roads, where VCs strip-mine an army of highly paid entrepreneurs and technologists, where there are more Priuses and iPhones than Fords and watches, and where every other jacket, tote bag, or T-shirt has a tech company's brand emblazoned on it.
As you might imagine, a lot of people here -- and in our colonies throughout the world such as New York's Silicon Alley -- are enraptured with or enraged by Google Glass, the prototype pair of Internet-connected glasses that Google may release in a year or so to the general public but are currently in the possession of a lucky few developers. With Web connectivity, a verbal interface, and a screen image beamed directly into your eye, it's the ultimate mobile device. Look, ma -- no hands!
The geek community here is swooning over Google Glass, imagining a world where they can keep one eye on virtual reality rather than both eyes on the real world, all without the inconvenience of pulling their iPhone or Galaxy S III out of a pocket. Conversations -- not just at ultrageeky Google itself -- turn quickly to how cool it would be to get augmented reality descriptions and videos as you walk down a street, eat a meal, play a game, or any number of activities. Of course, geeks prove their manhood by talking about how they've already jailbroken or tweaked the Google Glass prototypes, so they can do even cooler things. Sadly, there's also a Neanderthal group of people that make fun of the objects of geeks' passion, reminiscent of those old Charles Atlas ads where the beach bully kicks sand in the face of the nerdy 98-pound weakling.
At the same time, the well-meaning worryworts are fretting over Google Glass. How many young geeks will meet their demise by walking in front of a Muni bus, distracted by the display on their Google Glasses? How many cars will plunge off the Bay Bridge, distracted from the treacherous S curve as their drivers read their tweets in one eye?
How many relationships will fade as people enmesh themselves in their Google Glass world, even while sitting across from each other at a table? If you think the depersonalization brought on by computers, smartphones, and tablets is bad, just wait until no one actually interacts with each other even when physically together. Are you looking at me or that samurai warrior beamed onto your retina?
Will Google Glass cause new eyestrain maladies to replace the thumbstrain maladies brought on by smartphones and the RSI maladies brought on by keyboards? Of course, data-mining Google will find ways to use it to strip-mine more of your personal data. I've heard one colleague suggest that Google Glass is designed for the era of the driverless car, when Google can finally take advantage of the time you spend behind the wheel, once you don't have to drive any more.
These are extremes, but also perfectly true reactions. The geek utopian vision and the worrywort dystopian vision have elements of truth, but they miss the real point of technologies like Google Glass that promise both highly mobile technology and intimate technology.
The reason that smartphones became the fastest-adopted consumer technology ever -- until the iPad came along -- is the combination of mobility, personal-ness, and utility. Google Glass will be even more mobile and more personal to the point I call it "intimate," as it becomes almost part of you.