Every new technology causes initial public discomfort. It took society a long time to accept cell phones as commonplace. Before that, television. And before that, tractors.
So when people scoffed at Google Glass, I rolled my eyes. “Here we go again,” I thought. “Knee-jerk objection to new technology.”
The biggest concern seems to be distraction. Google Glass looks like a pair of glasses, minus the lenses; it's just a band across your forehead, with a tiny screen mounted at the upper-right side. By tapping the earpiece and using spoken commands, you direct it to do smartphone-ish tasks, such as fielding a calendar alert and finding a nearby sushi restaurant.
Just what we need, right? People reading texts and watching movies while they drive and attaining new heights of rudeness by scanning their e-mail during face-to-face conversation.
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.
Hilarious parody videos show people undergoing all kinds of injury while peering at the world through a screen cluttered with alerts and ads. But that's not quite how it works. You glance up now and then, exactly as you would check your phone. But because you don't have to look down and dig around in your pocket, you could argue that there's less distraction. By being so hands-free, it should be incredibly handy.
Even so, Google Glass might have a tough slog ahead for social acceptance. Not just because of the price ($1,500 to developers, perhaps $750 when it becomes publicly available in 2014). Not just because it's another gadget you have to charge every night.
No, the biggest obstacle is the smugness of people who wear Glass—and the deep discomfort of everyone who doesn't.
For a year now Google employees and celebrities have been allowed to wear Glass. But when I ran into a Google employee wearing it in public and had a conversation with her, the interaction was screamingly uncomfortable.
There she was, wearing this creepy-looking, faux-futuristic forehead band—with a built-in video camera pointed at my face. For all I knew, it was recording me. (A little “recording” light is supposed to come on when Glass is recording. But this Googler was wearing an engineering sample, not the finished product. Besides, it'll probably take about a day for someone to come up with a recording app that doesn't activate the light.)
This puts Glass wearers in a position of control. They can take pictures and videos, post things online and even possibly use face-recognition apps to identify strangers in a crowd.
Months before Glass's public launch, one Seattle bar has already banned them. The patrons “definitely don't want to be secretly filmed or videotaped and immediately put on the Internet,” the bar's owner told a local radio station.
Maybe you like being on camera, maybe you don't. But either way, the assumption nowadays is that you know you're on camera. With Google Glass, nobody's pointing a camera, camcorder or phone. You no longer know if you're being filmed by your conversation partner. An unspoken social rule is being violated. I didn't like it. I wanted her to take the damn thing off.
All these factors explain why Internet wags have already come up with a nickname for people who wear these special glasses: Glassholes. If Google's not careful, Glass will go the way of the Segway. It will be another stunning technology achievement, ultimately doomed to nichehood by the pure awkwardness, the attention-grubbing self-centeredness, of using it in public.[break]
SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN ONLINE
Rules for wearing Glass with class: ScientificAmerican.com/jun2013/pogue