Martin walked out into the streets of New York, carrying with him a small electronic box of tricks. Dialing a number on its keypad, he raised it to his ear, waited for the call to connect and started chatting to someone else, far away. No big news here, you're thinking as you caress the slab of glass, metal, and plastic of your smartphone in your pocket—jammed with so many thousand advances in physics, chemistry, and engineering that you're totally unaware of. But Martin Cooper was making his call almost exactly 39 years ago, and it was the very first handheld cell phone call. It was so weird, new, and even alien that "sophisticated New Yorkers gaped at the sight of someone actually moving around while making a phone call," Cooper once said.
Something as shocking as this might be about to happen again. This time we're slightly more prepared, but when Google's freshly revealed Glass augmented reality system hits the streets people will perhaps be just as suprised. Glass, you see, is pretty likely to be what cell phones—or more particularly, smartphones—evolve into in a handful of years, in exactly the same way the rare, bulky carphone evolved into Martin's Motorola handset. We've never looked back from that April 3rd, 1973.
Imagine how that first cell phone call must've looked to folks passing Cooper on the street. Now remember that where we once gawked at the crazy people yapping into Bluetooth headsets, or the microphone-equipped headphone cable of their iPhone, we now accept it without a second glance. Similarly you will one day be able to overlook the unfamiliar way Glass looks. Sure, there's a barrier to widespread adoption in actually getting folks to don a pair of digital eyeglasses, but that's a barrier Sony's Walkman and Motorola's early cell phones leaped because the innovative, strange devices were so darn useful.
Glass's secret is that it may be among the single most useful gadgets you've ever encountered. Watch Google's promo video for a moment:
Did you see the trick? Glass is a seamless stitching-together of our increasingly online, remote-shared digital lives and everyday "real" life.
At its heart all it is is a smartphone with superior voice control and an entirely alternative display system—think of it as the hybrid offspring of Apple's "zero interface" Siri, the iPhone's effortless UI, and Google's Android and search expertise and integration. But where you gaze into the screen of your current smartphone for just a few moments when you use it, for minutes at a time when you play a game or update Twitter or browse Instagram, or for considerable periods when you're on the phone to someone...you ultimately click the screen off and slide it back into a purse or pocket. Your digital life is still going on, of course, and your friends are chatting on Facebook, emailing you, checking into places, sharing photos and videos, and the digital news cycle keeps churning on news sites and news aggregators. But you're not tapped into it, unless an alert on your phone summons you back into its interface with a buzz or a bleep. That's an issue Microsoft is trying to tackle with its live-updating tiled homescreen on Windows Phone 7 devices, although you still have to pick the phone up.
With Glass, it's all there right in front of you, whenever you're sporting the specs.
As the video demonstrates, this sort of AR tech really is revolutionary. You can switch between real-world actions like sitting on the train, or standing in a store, to digital actions like requesting interactive maps, searching for information, and even calling someone up to chat at will—flitting between them as you feel like.
Forget how weird it sounds, and think how useful this is. Getting lost will be harder. Finding the right goods in a store will be easier (how about object-recognition that raises an allergy alert if an item you've taken from a shelf contains gluten?). Sending short digital text messages will be easier. Social sharing will be easier. Banking will be easier. If the goggles also incorporate optical and wireless tech to enable touch-free payments, then paying for stuff will be even easier...just as we've been suggesting. Because you're wired into the system for longer than you are with a traditional phone, then things like hyperlocal coupons and offers will be more common—with Starbuck's popping a $2 off voucher into view (if you've enabled permissions) when you're strolling near the coffee store. (And really, when aren't you?)
And the best uses, the weird, arty, flash-mobby, perhaps even medical ones, we probably can't conceive now in the same way we didn't dream up Instagram the moment the iPhone arrived in 2007. The best uses will emerge, things as odd as this AR "cinema" idea, that in a Glass-style implementation would blur reality and film:
But this story is not all about breathless, dreamy praise; there are issues. Smartphone distraction is a serious matter when you're driving, and there are ever-more smartphone-related accidents as folk engrossed in their phone's display thoughtlessly step in front of traffic or off a pier. And voice control is annoying in crowded but quiet urban spaces. Privacy abuses and erosion are serious matters. Theft of a Glass device will be hugely inconvenient to the user, and could expose them to all sorts of identity and banking fraud issues. Plus pop-up advertising that's integrated into our vision of our daily lives may be something that society could do without. As we've often noted, Google is an ad-display company in the main, and this has even prompted digital artist Jonathan McIntosh to remix Google's promo vid with ads:
AR systems do have one benefit over texting-while-walking with current smartphones because you do still see the world ahead while you're busy. Yet there are enough pieces of scientific research to say that even phone calling while driving can be dangerously distracting, so it's still going to be a problem. But, if Glass and its peers (ultimately they'll arrive, as we know Apple's looking at this tech too) do become successful, then Google and others will come up with technical solutions to protect user safety and privacy.
Ultimately, it will likely be younger generations who adopt this tech first (think of the options for gaming...Warcraft on the streets!). Right now, after all, about one third of U.S. high school kids have an iPhone, and you know they're texting, IM-ing, Facebooking, and gaming pretty much all the time.