Katy Perry looks cute in the video for Last Friday Night, no? Glad you agree--glasses, despite their bum rap, can be sexy. But even Katy's orbular charms can't stop 'em going by the wayside as fashion, contact lens science, and laser surgery all evolve. Yet Google may have a way to get us all wearing glasses in the near future: Not to help us see better, necessarily, but to see "extra." The tech behemoth is now throwing considerable, hefty resources behind creating augmented-reality glasses--and they may be ready rather soon.
The New York Times spurred lots of debate this week with inside information from both Google and Apple, indicating that the firms were working on wearable technology. The story got more interesting when 9to5Google learned from sources that Google is building technology that's not the wristwatch-style device people had imagined, but rather goggles. Further information suggests that Google's in late prototype stages and the device resembles traditional eyeglasses just with slightly thicker rims, and with limited button controls on the arms. It's likely running an Android OS inside, and logic would suggest it has a wireless connection to a device like an Android phone--possibly something like Bluetooth 4.0. Google's Sergey Brin is closely involved with the project, which will be Google-branded, and it's also noted that back in June Dr. Richard DuVaul, an expert in wearable heads-up displays, moved from Apple to Google. (DuVaul's dissertation was about something he called "The Memory Glasses," which are apparently very much like what Google now has in mind.)
So what we're looking at is a genuine piece of Google high-tech goggle trickery that may be getting close to real production levels. It's probably based on existing technology, but knowing how much money Google has available to spend on R&D, as well as its powerful connections and Google's habit of pushing novel tech into its flagship Android phones--like NFC--it's likely that Google may have achieved some very clever things with the display technology in the goggles.
And what they'll be used for is pretty evident: Augmented Reality. This is a technology that's been bubbling along for ages, and has exploded thanks to the current smartphone revolution. It's being championed by bespoke uses inside some apps--where holding your phone up to view the world around you adds in extra information to the scene as seen on the screen, with historical data or imagery--as well as by novel "reality browser" systems like Layar and Metaio, which give third-party developers the opportunity to write apps within the browser for a host of uses, from gaming to fact discovery to education to navigation. The technology has virtually limitless uses, the most interesting of which probably won't be dreamed up until it's ubiquitous. For a sci-fi sample, check out the multispectral, data-rich view of the world James Cameron imagined the Terminator would have--its eye-replacing cameras "see" the world more richly than we do:
That's where Google's technology stable comes in incredibly handy. Existing AR applications need specially populated databases, or access to them, in order to deliver additional location-aware information to the smartphone user. Google, on the other hand, has untold terabytes of information about practically everything on Earth already indexed by its search engines--as well as highly specific location-tagged imagery and wireless data acquired as part of its Street View service. It's also been buying other companies recently at the rate of roughly one per month, and this has recently included gems like Zagat--essentially a rich a source of location-tagged, curated reviews of services. Imagine you're wearing Google's goggles and they pop up a review of the restaurant you're looking at in the field of view--that would definitely change how you visit a new city.
Mapping and navigation while a tourist would change too--all Google has to do is project a red line on your field of view that tells you which road to walk down. The application of Google augmented goggles even extends to shopping--presumably the high-tech eyewear would know where you are when you're using them, and could tell you've stepped into Macy's, for example. Imagine that Google has an offer-based deal with Macy's that day for a particular clothing item, and the goggles would instantly alert you and probably even help you walk to where the display stand is. Google also knows a wealth of data about you, and we seem happy to surrender more: So we can forsee AR goggle applications like a virtual running coach, where your last timed-and-GPS'd run is represented as a virtual character jogging alongside--or ahead of--you.
Perhaps the most worrying, but powerful, part of this kind of tech is the ability it would give to Google to get advertising plastered over the whole world--essentially inserting an ad display layer between your eyes and the world. Who would need postered ad hoardings when everyone's Google goggles would be showing them highly tailored AR ads superimposed on a blank whiteboard at an ad location...or on a cup of coffee, or on someone's T-shirt (students renting out space on it for a small fee?). And since the ads wouldn't have to be traditional static imagery, there's all sorts of crazy possibilities for 3-D augmented reality object ads: Characters from the next war movie strolling down the street next to you, passersby wearing dramatic spiky red AR hairdos graphically hijacked over their own to promote a local avant-garde hair salon. The kind of ad revenues one could command from ads that're so intertwined with your daily life probably haven't been calculated...except at Google.
There're a couple of things to think about here. AR technology may seem like a gimmick or a flash in the pan to you, but that's because of existing technical and fiscal limitations. Holding your phone up at arm's length for any period of time is a pain, and a mugging invitation in some places, and it means your experience of AR has never been "immersive" for longer than a handful of seconds. That's limited how innovative people can get with current AR applications. Head-mounted displays, goggles, are a solution to this but the current players in the game don't have the big name social influence nor the raw cash to develop tech that's both clever, good-looking and that the average Joe--by the million--would be persuaded to wear.
Google can do this. With its Android tech and its ecosystem, it's also got access to data that other AR firms can't compete with and it has the globe-spanning clout to actually change habits. And don't worry that AR goggles would suffer the same user resistance as 3-D TV goggles--the experience delivered by AR is way more sci-fi than the slightly unsatisfying home 3-D experience: The information we've covered here simply assumes the goggles would overlay extra info, but what if they also let you see in the dark via IR, or spot the UV colors in flowers? Would you be more interested then? We're not imagining a near future where we all stroll around 24/7 with digital display goggles strapped to our faces--a fashion as ubiquitous as hats were in the early part of the 20th century. But if any firm has the power to make it a habit to slip on a pair to aid with work, navigation or shopping, it's Google.
[Image: Flickr user breatheindigital]