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If, like me, you watched Google’s demonstration of Glass and Now, I have a humbling thought for you: You were watching the future of ubiquitous, omniscient, always-on, wearable computing; you were watching the future of Google; you were watching the future of mankind.
If you didn’t watch the Google I/O keynote presented by Vic Gundotra, Hugo Barra, and Sergey Brin, let me quickly bring you up to speed. Google Now is an Android app that uses your location, behavior history, and search history to display “just the right information at just the right time.” For example, if you regularly search for a certain sports team, Now will show you a card with the latest scores for that team. When Now predicts or detects that you’re leaving home in the morning, it will display a card with any relevant traffic information. If you have a lunch meeting in your Google Calendar, Now will show you the route you need to take to get there — and when you need to leave to get there on time. If you search Google for an airline flight, Now will show a card with the flight details (and any delays).
This is the beginning of the Google Oracle, a tool that knows you better than you know yourself; a tool that prompts you with information before you even know that you need it. In the not so distant future, I can almost guarantee that Now will become the default home page at www.google.com. You might occasionally drum up the self-determination to do some manual searches, but for the most part Google will have such an accurate model of your behavior and psyche that it will automatically show you what you want to see.
And then there’s Google Glass. Except for a few 1984ish, dystopian naysayers, most journalists can’t seem to form more than a half-baked opinion of Google’s Android-powered spectacles; “woah, awesome.” Let me just get this out of the way: If Google Glass turns out to be the first wearable computer — and with an expected release date around the end of 2013, it probably will be — then it will change everything.
Once you cut through the “woah, awesome” — such as yesterday’s utterly insane Google Glass Hangout skydiving spectacle (video above) — the single most important feature of Google Glass is that it’s non-blocking. Non-blocking means that you can use Google Glass while you do other things. Compare this to almost every other form of technology — tablets, smartphones, wrist watches — that demands a shift in attention and eye focus. Instead of reaching for your camera to take a photo of your kid successfully walking for the first time, Google Glass is already there and constantly taking photos — or shooting video. Instead of grabbing your phone to check your email or the time or directions to your destination, it’s already right there in front of you.
In short, Google Glass will finally give us the ability to meld technology with real life. Sergey Brin, speaking to our writer David Cardinal at Google I/O, said that one of the main goals of Google Glass is create a device that does not get in the way of living life. How many times have you been in the middle of a conversation or movie or book, and taken out your smartphone to check something? On the train, or walking the streets of your city, have you seen how many people spend the entire journey looking at their phone or tablet? Don’t get me wrong, smartphones are awesome, but really: Just think about how much time you spend looking down — and all of that time could be reclaimed with Google Glass.
The best way to think of Google Glass is a smartphone glued to your temple. Glass has a forward-facing camera that sees what you see; an earbud so you can listen to music or a phone call; and a microphone, touchpad (the strip along the side), and gyroscope awaiting your input. The head-up display is small, but large enough to display full-color videos with surprising sharpness — you’re not going to edit photos using Google Glass, but the screen should be big enough for games, TV shows, web surfing, and so on. Cementing this concept of a smartphone strapped to your head is the fact that Google Glass reportedly runs Android.
Imagine what real life would be like if, while walking along, augmented reality overlaid your vision with interesting factoids. Over there, Google Glass identifies a historic building and begins to tell you about it — and there, on the other side of the street, Google Glass picks out an old school friend by matching their face against their Google+ profile. Imagine if, instead of forking out thousands of dollars for an in-car navigation system with a head-up display, or perilously looking down at your smartphone or in-dash display, you simply wear Google Glass. Imagine if you’re at the cinema or theater: Google Glass allows you to receive important messages without running the risk of fellow audience members putting your head on a pike.
But then, of course, we must remember that these are Google glasses, and 95% of Google’s annual multi-billion-dollar haul stems from advertising. There are immense privacy concerns involved with an always-on computer that knows where you are and records whatever you’re looking at. Brin and co have promised lots of privacy controls to ensure that only the right people can see your photos and videos — it would be a fate worse than death if your POV porn landed in the wrong hands, after all — but Google itself, as an advertising broker, will almost certainly have complete access to all of the data accrued by Glass.
The term “tracking cookie” will take on a whole new meaning. Google will know that you like to take long bicycle rides on the weekend, and will show you ads for mountain bikes. Google will know that you’re standing outside Subway, and show you a special offer for McDonalds. Google will know that you’ve just had a baby, and will show you ads for baby clothes.
And all of this feeds back into the oracle, Google Now. At the moment, Now only really has access to your search behavior and limited location data (smartphone GPS isn’t always-on). As it stands, Now is simply a helpful assistant — it just reduces the number of searches you need to do. With behavioral data from Glass, though, Google Now will be able to display scarily prescient cards — “don’t forget to use a condom,” “remember: tonight is pizza night” — or worse.
With full knowledge of where you go, what you look at, and what you get up to, Google Now could be programmed to gently alter your behavior. This could be something obvious — Now could show you a card that says “There are 5 bike stores nearby. Isn’t it time you bought a new bike?” — or it could be a whole lot more sinister. For example, if you’ve been eating at McDonalds a lot, Google might start directing you towards healthier eateries. Or, if your Google+ relationship status has been “single” for a while, Now might point you towards a bar with lots of other singles. And, of course, with no advertising in sight, I wouldn’t be surprised if Now has paid listings in the future; suddenly, after months of going to Burger King for lunch, your Google device will only give you directions to Taco Bell.
Utopia or dystopia, what will it be? Here’s hoping Google’s “don’t be evil” mantra holds out just a little bit longer.
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