welcome to the very socially awkward future?

April 7, 2012

If we had all the things science fiction movies promised us we’d have by now, we’d be zooming to a four hour work day in flying cars, taking routine vacations to the Moon and Mars, installing artificial organs on a whim to rebuild our bodies into superhuman forms, and have constant, on-demand access to a suite of tools that will let us do anything from booking those flights to downloading entire libraries worth of books. Ok, so one out of is not that bad and we’re certainly enjoying the digital cloud thanks to our new generation of phones which are always connected to the web and can tell us where we are, where we need to go, and if we have e-mails we’d really need to read when we get a moment. But there has to be a way to get rid of that bulky phone thing we’re carrying around to do that, something a little more futuristic and keeping us in touch with everything that goes on without us having to stop and heck a device. Google certainly thinks so, which is why it’s working on a little augmented reality project called Google Glass which will basically put your smartphone into a pair of glasses which will probably make you look like a hipster until all the required technology really shrinks down…

So, in the words of someone who asked me about the feasibility of such a project, can this be a thing? Yes, it definitely can and it looks awesome as a concept, straight out of a Kurzweilian cyber-utopian fantasy. We have all of the technology to make it happen so all we need to do is put it together and make it look good enough to buy and easy enough to use. Unfortunately, I have trouble believing it would work nearly as smoothly as you’re seeing in the video without an interface with your brain. Since you probably don’t want to be wearing a band of electrodes around your head on a daily basis or have a microchip implanted into your skull, you’d have to use your eyes or voice commands to control it which will have the frustrating tendency to make the device do a lot of things it shouldn’t be doing at the moment. For example, if the movement of your eyes or blinking will scroll through your options or select a prompt, what happens if you just blink because that’s what your body does or look in the direction of the prompt to check out something that catches your interest? And voice commands on busy streets may not be the best for usability. The algorithm which will parse your command to figure out what you’re saying will have to struggle against a lot of background noise and consumer voice recognition systems aren’t really all that great in the first place which makes them a challenge to use even when it’s quiet.

When Siri was added to iPhones, I could hear growls of frustration coming from iPhone users in my office as they tried to get their devices to recognize fairly simple commands with cries like "weather, weather you idiot!" and "no, not Denver? how the hell did you get Denver?" True, it would get better with time but its going to be a very long road to get it work work as well as the human brain at recognizing natural speech and while that will be happening, you probably don’t want to be walking down the street sounding like you’re in an argument with yourself, especially without the obnoxious little Bluetooth ear bud that makes people wonder if you’re just on a call with your boss or just talking to the voices in your head. The fellow in the video seems to be rather happily chatting with his glasses but consider how he would look to others when suddenly asking where his friend is to no one in particular. Wouldn’t it be rather socially awkward to be in a coffee shop in which people talk into a void while drinking their coffee? It’s already awkward when they’re chatting away on their phones and our still evolving brain is trying to make out the other end of the conversation before simply ignoring it. There’s also the creepy factor of seeing people ten years into the future interfacing with their glasses via some sort of nanobot structure embedded into their white matter, sitting in silence, staring seemingly into space, but really working on a report for work or browsing e-mails from their friends. And yes, that’s also very technically plausible…

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  • Darwyn V. Norris

    And you know people will drive while wearing them too. Can’t wait.