Through the looking glass
A STYLISH eight-minute film entitled “Sight” by Israeli art school students gives us a glimpse of our digital future that is at once funny and frightening.
The video starts out innocently enough with a man “skydiving” in his living room with the aid of virtual reality lenses but we soon realize that the system can do much more than play games.
As he opens his fridge, a heads-up display that should look familiar to video game enthusiasts and Terminator fans pops up and video overlays tell him what’s in the containers inside. Another overlay shows him where to bring his knife down on a cucumber, and even keeps score of how well he slices it.
This vision of the future turns sinister, however, when he uses the augmented reality lenses on a date, who is also equipped with the same kind of system. As he talks to her, she instantly posts a message to her friends that she’s on “another bad date,” while he calls up her online profile to see how best to “score” – on a program appropriately called “Wingman.”
Sounds like science fiction? Those who have followed a program called Google Glass won’t think so.
At the Google I/O developer conference in San Francisco last month, company co-founder Sergey Brin conducted a spectacular live demonstration of Google Glass, an augmented reality system that can be worn on a pair of glasses that can be operated hands-free using voice commands. With a built-in camera, the glasses can capture live video and images and transmit them over the Internet, allowing users to share instantaneously what they see and experience with others.
In Brin’s demonstration, skydivers flying overhead in a blimp streamed live audio and video of what they saw onto a Google+ Web page as they jumped out of the plane and made their way onto the roof of the Moscone convention center, sharing their view with the audience in the auditorium using Google Glass. The live video stream also showed first-person views of mountain bikers who took the glasses from the skydivers to the edge of the roof, and a climber rappelling down to the building, and more bikers navigating through the crowded convention floor to deliver the glasses to Brin.
Watching that happen makes you think the digital future portrayed in Sight isn’t that far away.
Of course, the idea of a wearable computer has been around for quite a while, with IBM building one as early as 1998. Two things, however, make a project like Google Glass less like kludgy science fiction and more likely to succeed in 2012: ubiquitous wireless networks and better electronics.
Comments on the YouTube page of the Google Glass demo was the usual combination of remarks from naysayers and enthusiasts but some seemed prophetic.
“I can’t wait till Apple copies the glasses for the iPhone 10, [and] claim they came up with the idea first!” said 1corgan.
As if on cue, news reports said Apple had indeed filed patents for technologies that could be used to build a lightweight heads-mounted display to compete with Google Glass.
Another YouTube viewer raised concerns about privacy.
“This is just more intrusion into people’s personal lives,” said xmaxmurphyx. “Can you imagine how this is going to piss people off in the workplace? I thought Facebook was bad, but this just takes it to a whole new level. Should be banned if you ask me.”
Certainly, the idea that anyone can take a picture or video of you and then share it on the Internet just by looking your way is disconcerting – which is probably why a University of Toronto professor, Steve Mann, said he was assaulted in a Paris McDonald’s for wearing Google Glass-like glasses. (Mann’s blog even reproduces images from the incident, including photos of the McDonald’s employees who allegedly mauled him.)
Not all of us would protect our privacy with such drastic action, but the objections are no less real.
“I’m concerned that, more and more, we… are starting to share without asking why we’re sharing in the first place. Everything from our food to our kids to our locations gets plastered onto the Web, even though there’s very little impetus to do so aside from vanity,” writes Jolie O’Dell in an insightful piece on VentureBeat.com.
She also warns that the “all-social always-on web of connectivity” could easily result in mob mentality and the loss of independent thought.
“After watching many of my peers over the years become more and more attached to their smart phones, to their services, to the thoughts and opinions of others, I’m concerned that we techsters are becoming so social that we’re starting to lose our sense of individuality and ability to think and function independently,” she writes.
That’s a legitimate concern—what do you all think?