Don't miss the real point about Google Glass

Between the hipsters and the fearful, the meaningful implications of Google's supermobile tech are getting lost

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If it's also useful, watch out! You may never use a smartphone again, and your tablet and laptop will get relegated to "big" activities where you need an efficient input mechanism such as a keyboard and mouse. Keep in mind: A keyboard is often a much better data-entry tool than voice recognition, and for fine-detail manipulations, a mouse is better than a finger or even a pen.

Forget about the cool stuff that geeks salivate over. Google Glass could be useful for stuff that actually matters. For example, imagine you repair aircraft engines or photocopiers. In the old days (2009), you had a huge book of diagrams to pore through to understand how the parts fit and worked. Today, you may have that on an iPad, in PDF format at least and perhaps in iBooks Author format with interactivity features. Tomorrow, you may have the schematic overlay appear in your Google Glass oriented to match what you're actually looking at, with the ability to zoom in to a part, look up details, and rotate it in 3D. I'm not fantasizing: You can already do that on an iPad, as the construction industry knows.

Maybe even airline pilots and train operators will use Google Glass as a heads-up display for the key information they need, with the iPads now finding their way into cockpits going the way of paper manuals or serving as a backup medium. I bet you can imagine the military possibilities -- captains who monitor drones in Afghanistan won't need to worry about dropping their iPads and cracking their screens. Think of all the professions where ready access to data in nondesk situations would be invaluable: surgeons, miners, building and other safety inspectors, police, pharmaceutical sales reps (both the legal and illegal kind), and insurance adjusters -- assuming they're not surreptitiously watching TV or playing games while doing their work.

Where Google Glass's utility gets trickier is in situations that require human interaction some of the time. You can imagine the benefit of students and teachers being able to converse on a subject and access information at the same time. Or for a nurse assessing a patient in the ER while looking up health records and treatment availability. Or for workers being able to check facts and pull up context on the fly in a meeting, without having to pull out their tablets. Or travelers getting near-instantaneous translation of a language they don't understand.

But the simultaneity of meaningful dialog and information access will likely lead to one or both activities getting short shrift. It is very hard for people to process two streams at once -- to have their brains engaged in two conscious, involved activities at the same time. Yet thanks to the common occurrence of checking our smartphones while driving (hands-free or not), we all know how addictive always-available access can be. Just ask any parent trying to have a family dinner or watch a movie as a group; the kids eat and watch with one eye on the screen -- adults too.

We risk degraded interactions in the name of improved information access for those interactions. That won't kill you, as a speeding bus would a geek playing World of Warcraft while crossing the street. But it exacts a price.

I suspect we'll figure out new social cues -- a blinking light on the Google Glass face would help to know when it is in use and the wearer thus engaged -- for such intimate technology, as well as be permissive in the dual interactions that result, as we already are for other mobile devices and for screens (such as TVs in airport lounges and bars). A few spectacular deaths caused by virtually engrossed people will no doubt help us adjust our behaviors, and I won't be surprised to see government mandates that restrict mobile device usage in cars, perhaps with a technology assist -- say, an auto-disconnect feature when driving.

But don't let any of that blind you to the amazing but practical possibilities of Google Glass -- or a similar product developed by another company (you know Apple must be exploring the idea). Google Glass may come across as just another geek toy, but even though it will have its frivolous uses, it could also be as transformative as the computer, Internet, smartphone, and tablet have all been.

This article, "Don't miss the real point about Google Glass," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Galen Gruman's Mobile Edge blog and follow the latest developments in mobile technology at InfoWorld.com. Follow Galen's mobile musings on Twitter at MobileGalen. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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