Sunday, May 19, 2013

Google Glass: Course Set for Failure

I wish I didn’t believe in this blog. Like many people, I’m intrigued by the potential of Google Glass, and would like to see it succeed. But so far, I haven’t seen evidence that anybody working with Glass really understands what it is or how to use it.

In many ways, Google Glass is simply a continuation of a long trend in making computing power more accessible.  We started with mainframes, then evolved to minis, desktops, laptops, and smart phones.  Mainframes could not be moved without a small team equipped with a truck or two, and could only be accessed by a small number of highly trained individuals employed by an institution large enough to spend millions of dollars.  Each successive phase of computing evolution reduced the barriers for accessing computing power, and in the process, opened up new possibilities of what you could use that computing power for.  Using a mainframe for word processing made no sense, but it’s a great use for a desktop computer.  It would be technically feasible to log your location in Foursquare using a laptop, but it only took off once we had smartphones.

Viewed simplistically, Google Glass is simply the next phase in making computing power smaller and more accessible.  Its only modestly smaller and more mobile than a smart phone, so on the surface, it might seem to occupy a similar niche in terms of applications.  However, in terms of its usage, its much more akin to the difference between a mainframe and a laptop.  Every previous phase of technology had an interface which the user interacted with to the exclusion of doing anything else.  You could run programs on a mainframe, or you could go sightseeing in town, but you couldn't do both at the same time.  Smartphones come close to crossing this line, as you can shift your gaze quickly from phone to your surroundings, but its still an either/or proposition, as many people learn to their dismay after unsuccessfully attempting to drive while texting.


Google glass, on the other hand, offers a unique opportunity to integrate computing power with your everyday interactions with the worldThis opens up an entirely new world of computing applications.  This is why I was so disappointed when the New York Times recently reported on the latest Google Glass developments from Google's I/O developers conference.

Apps under construction include
·         Twitter
·         Facebook
·         CNN news alerts
·         Elle fashion features

In short, these are simply repackaging existing applications and data feeds onto the new device.  All of them buttress the worst arguments that Google Glass's critics make, which is that people are going to be distracted (with potentially fatal results) from whatever they need to be really focused on.  None of these apps enhance the user's existing visual experience.

What should developers be working on instead?  Here's a few initial ideas:

·         The personal database.  A lifesaver for those of us who have difficulty remembering peoples names, but also useful for anybody without a perfect memory.  Whenever the camera focuses squarely on somebodys face, it uses facial recognition to compare that person to the people in your database and reminds you of that persons name.  It would also quickly pop up any timely facts such as if that person's birthday or anniversary was coming up.  A quick input from the user (perhaps a nod or a tap on the side of the glasses) would produce a quick summary of facts you had previously stored, either displayed on screen or recited to a bluetooth earphone.
·         The tour guide.  Travel through any location, and have great attractions, good restaurants, and other points of interest presented to you in real time.  Focus and tap again, and get detailed reviews for that restaurant or historical information on the cathedral.  Ideally, this application would be an API, rather than being a single vendor's perspective, so you could subscribe to whatever perspective you liked.  Imagine legions of bloggers, each with their own unique voice, annotating the landscape with a variety of viewpoints.  Anything from the Hipster's Guide to San Francisco to the Italian Gourmet's Guide to Topeka Kansas.
·         The training assistant.  Need to change the oil on your car, or install a video card in your computer, but not quite sure how to do it?  Youtube has thousands of great videos instructing people how to do all sorts of things, but they are limited by the context of the film-makers environment.  Imagine getting step by step instructions, and when you got stuck, the glasses would highlight the component you're looking for via pattern recognition.

Google Glass has the potential to be the indispensable tool for tomorrow.  It's a pity that  the developers working on it seem to be thoroughly fixated on yesterday.