From the moment that Sergey Brin wandered by me in the lobby at TED this year, I found myself in love.
Not with him, of course, but with his glasses. They were so sexy, so exciting, with a tip of the hat to past eyewear—but a magical glimpse of the future as well.
So many things went through my mind. The first time I plugged in an early version of Steve Jobs's remarkable Apple IIe, I had that same burst of adrenaline that only a glimpse of the future can bring. And again, when I was forced to retire my trusty Palm Treo for the sparkling new iPhone 1. Adrenaline.
Already, the pundits are out in force. Some of the Glass fan boys are ready to declare it a massive hit. Others are just as quickly proclaiming its inevitable failure. Whichever side you are on, it's quickly become one of the central conversations in the tech community. Google Glass is the "it" product of 2013, and it's still in closed beta.
But fans and critics both get it all wrong.
We've seen a glimpse of the future, and it's about far more than a single device or a trendy piece of hardware.
Google Glass is hardly the question. Sure, it's a device. But the truth lurking behind Google Glass isn't a debate about whether it will succeed or fail. Google has had tough luck so far with hardware, as both Google TV and Google Nexus 1 were big bets that didn't quite meet up to the promise. But Google Glass is different. Because, if you look at the challenges and problems we face in our daily lives today, it's abundantly clear that we're moving rapidly toward A World Made of Glass, and the devices will hardly matter.
What does it mean to live in a World Made of Glass?
Glass is both transparent and fragile. That represents both the opportunity and the challenge of data moving seamlessly from our lives into the shared and public world.
Already we've crossed the line into a world of complete connectivity. We transmit our location with our cellular phones, we check in at various meals, museums, movies, and social events. We're still pushing the buttons to allow that information to be distributed, but the shift to automatic check-ins and live feeds of our public information is right around the corner.
A transparent world—a glass world—is a world without privacy. But the trade-off seems appealing, maybe even necessary, as the volume of information is coming at us without new filters, we're all being crushed by unfiltered information overload.
So what drives us into this World Made of Glass, and why does it matter?
Connected computing is here. Fitbit, the Jawbone Up, and the Nike FuelBand make the quantified self movement real and important. Will we trade privacy for health? For sure. Next around the corner is the connected web, and while Google Glass is out front, we're already hearing reports that Apple, Samsung, Microsoft and others are exploring wearable devices. Glass may be the first, but it won't be the last.
Now that always-on, wearable computing has arrived, what's about to change? Simply put, everything.
Government on Glass:
Progressive leaders have been pushing for our democratic institutions to share the one thing that they create that matters—information. New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg has been driving openness though the BigApps competition, giving developers access to real-time information about city services, institutions, and trends. But the disappointing outcome in this initiative is the way the data is presented. Apps, it turns out, are really only useful on a phone or an iPad that is connected to the web in real time, and those devices require you to stare down, disconnecting from the world around you. Glass changes all that instantly. Data about subways and buses is now visible when you look at them. Streets are alive with data. Dangerous intersections can inform you about previous pedestrian deaths. The bike-sharing program makes sense when you can ask your wearable device where to find one, or where to return one, as you peddle down 5th Avenue.
Sports and Entertainment on Glass:
For as long as anyone can remember, we've been on the verge of "interactive TV." But wearable computing makes all those ideas real. The current second screen environment, where people watch a program or event on TV and hold their tablet in their hand, will quickly be replaced by a second screen that is literally overlaid via Google Glass. Television shows will seamlessly invite voting, participating, and take cues from how the audience glances across the screen. You can already see the bones of participatory-audience TV in place. But that's just the beginning. As people enter a sports arena or concert venue, the idea that large portions of the audience will be broadcasting video will create complex issues for intellectual property rights. Can a movie theater ban Google Glass? What about the NBA or the Rolling Stones? How about casinos? Card counting is now as easy as turning on an app. Yet casinos want you to tell your friends you're at their resort, and having a good time. The double-edge sword of embracing social marketing and trying to limit free transmission won't end without a fight.
Privacy on Glass:
Until now, the lines between public and private were clear. But the arrival of always-on wearable computing clearly creates a whole new set of unanswered accusations. And while it's easy to simply say "consumers can turn it off," the real-world examples are far more complex. Face recognition is going to be very helpful in a large room with lots of vaguely familiar faces. Trade shows, social events, gatherings. No longer will you say—"where do I know that person from?"
But at the same time, the gaze of Google Glass may record the products you look at, the music you listen to, the food you eat, the brands you're attracted to. There's no simple on/off switch for the transparency that the Glass world provides.
We've arrived. The man/machine connection that has been on the horizon is now coming into view. And the current state of information overload that is overwhelming us all will have a new and more effective filter. But the trade-offs are real, and they aren't without consequences. Information isn't going to slow down, and the volume of data and content that is created will grow exponentially as more devices that gather images, video, check-ins, and votes come online.
The solution to information overload isn't narrowing the stream, it's improving the context and relevance of information. Rather than having to hand search though listings and databases, wearable computing should be able to give users the ability to get information they need, when they need it, where they are standing. But before you race off and trade in privacy for information relevance, keep this in mind: Without careful thinking and new rules and social behaviors, your every whim and glance could be recorded—and stored—forever.
A World Made of Glass will allow us to see like never before, just as long as we handle this new power with care and respect the fragility of the new world we've created.
[Image: Flickr user Jenny Hudson]