Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Through a (Google) Glass, Darkly

At the Tech@LEAD conference last week, Neal Stimler let me try his Google Glass.

I had been kicking myself for not applying to be an early adopter of Glass, so I was happy to draft off Neal’s successful bid, however briefly.

I’ve been monitoring the rise of “wearable tech” and “wearable computing”—including socks that act as personal trainers, biometric medical bracelets, jackets that can charge your smartphone, and high-fashion clothing that responds to sound, sunlight, water and movement. Google isn’t the only company racing to introduce a wearable, unobtrusive, functional computational interface—Telepathy is working on a unit that looks like something out of a Star Trek props box, Vuzix looks like a chunky Bluetooth headset.

The underlying appeal of wearable tech is the prospect of seamless integration of connectivity and data into everyday life. No more fumbling for your smart phone, no more juggling devices or pulling over to the side of the road to take a safe look at a screen. Wearable tech is one (significantly less creepy) step short of the Transhumanist’s vision of our cyborg future, in which technology is actually implanted in our bodies.  

This prospect of “seamless integration” has implications for culture in general and museums in particular:

Norms of Behavior. We are still working out the etiquette of using mainstream digital devices. In a recent “Dinner Party Download” podcast one listener asked Lizzie Post and Daniel Post-Senning (who are, yes, grandchildren of Emily Post) when it was ok for a passenger to watch a video on their PED, as opposed to conversing with the driver. A friend of mine pointed out a new custom at restaurants and bars: piling cellphones, screen down, in the middle of the table, with the understanding that anyone who break ranks and retrieve their phone during the meal has to pay more than their share of the tab. What happens when you can’t tell, for sure, whether someone is looking at their (teeny) screen or connecting to the web? Is pretending to listen when you are lost in your own thoughts any different than pretending to listen while secretly checking email? When it comes to museum norms, I’ve heard from cranky museum enthusiasts who are really irritated by other visitors using their hand held devices to take pictures, video, text or talk. They feel the presence of people waving their smart phones around detracts from the museum experience. (These may or may not be the same people who object to small children playing on the floor in art galleries, or teenagers flirting and chattering in groups.) When electronic interfaces become, in effect, invisible, does this irritation evaporate?

Privacy. Google Glass and its kin are triggering privacy concerns, since they make it harder to detect, and object, when users are taking a photo or video. One bar in Seattle has already made a big deal of proactively banning Glass, saying “Part of this is a joke, to be funny on Facebook and get a reaction, but part of it is serious because we don’t let people film other people or take photos unwanted of other people in the bar because it’s kind of a private place people go.” Neal pointed out that photographers have been sneaking photos for decades, sometimes with the help of low-tech covert gadgets, so this isn’t a new threat. As usual, technology just facilitates an underlying impulse.  Not everyone carries around a 90° lens on their cameras—but if we reach a point where as many people are wearing computing headsets as are currently carrying smartphones, there is a difference in scale. When WeeJee was taking his photos, ordinary citizens didn’t have YouTube and Instagram as platforms for sharing their own candid (and unauthorized) funny vids & pics.

Accessibility
Let’s not forget I was talking to Neal in the “Petting Zoo” (demo area) of the Tech@LEAD conference, where attendees explored how technology can facilitate the access people with disabilities have to arts & culture. A headset that lets you access digital content with voice commands could be a huge boon to users with disabilities wanting to make full use of a museum’s resources. (Though, as with most universal design, this access would probably be appreciated by people without disabilities as well.)

So back to my brief trial of Google Glass. It was a much more awkward interface than I expected. It was challenging to pronounce words clearly enough for its voice recognition software (Googling “Elizabeth Merritt” yielded Elizabeth II, married to Prince Philip). Non-voice commands are given by tapping or sliding your finger along the frame. Maybe this would become more natural with practice, but if felt a bit transgressive—like compulsively touching my nose. I could see the tiny projection screen quite clearly, and when I consciously looked “past” the screen, the display was relatively unobtrusive. Overall grade: useable but clunky for now, with clear potential for improvement.

Do I think Glass (or its competitors) are about to go mainstream? Not next year, maybe not the year after, but remember how hard it is to project the rate of adoption of new technology. We may be at the classic stage of mocking a new device that is suffering through an unattractive adolescence. (Ken Olsen, founder and CEO of Digital Equipment Corp., famously remarked in 1977 “There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home." Oops.) Who would have predicted, when the first smartphone was marketed in 2000, that 56% of Americans would own at least one of these devices today?  

So it’s not too early for museumers to start thinking about the rise of wearable tech, the implications for society and for museum practice.

Question of the day: if you had (or have) Google Glass or the equivalent, how would you use it in a museum? Do you think it would change the way you use digital resources and online social networks? Are there things you might do with Glass you wouldn't do with a hand held digital device?

You can follow Neal's adventures through the Google Glass via twitter or Google+

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