Saturday, August 31, 2013

Googling Yourself Takes on a Whole New Meaning

Grant Cornett for The New York TimesHere’s what you see if you look at my face: a skinny titanium headband stretched across my forehead. It looks like a futuristic pair of sunglasses, minus the lenses. On my right-hand side there’s a computer, a metal frame with a small, clear cube of plastic perched just over my eye. When I tilt my head upward a bit, or run my finger along the side of the frame, the cube lights up. What I see, floating six inches in front of me, is a pinkish, translucent computer screen. It gives me access to a few simple apps: Google search, text messaging, Twitter, a to-do list, some hourly news headlines from CNN (“See a Truck Go Airborne, Fly Over Median,” “Dolphin Deaths Alarm Biologists”). Beside the screen is a teensy camera built into the frame of the glasses, ready to record anything I’m looking at.

Google Glass is only the latest in a long line of wearable technology. Thad Starner and his wearable computer at the M.I.T. Media Lab in 1997.

Google Glass is the company’s attempt to mainstream what the tech industry calls wearable computing, to take the computer off your desk or out of your pocket and keep it in your field of view. In a world where we’re already peering at screens all day long, pecked at by alerts, the prospect of an eyeball computer can provoke a shudder. But over several weeks of using the device myself, I began to experience some of the intriguing — and occasionally delightful — aspects of this new machine. I got used to glancing up to start texting and e-mailing by addressing its surprisingly accurate voice-transcription capabilities. (I admit I once texted my wife while riding my bicycle.) I set up calendar reminders that dinged in my ear. I used an app that guided me back to my car in a parking lot. I sent pictures of magazine articles to Evernote, so I would have reminders of what I’d read. I had tweets from friends float across my gaze.

Despite my quick adoption, however, only rarely did I accomplish something with Glass that I couldn’t already do with, say, my mobile phone. When I first heard about the device, I envisioned using it as a next-level brain supplement, accessing brilliant trivia during conversations, making myself seem omniscient (or insufferable, or both). This happened only occasionally: I startled a friend with information about the author of a rare sci-fi book, for example. But generally I found that Googling was pretty hard; you mostly control Glass with voice commands, and speaking queries aloud in front of others was awkward.

The one thing I used regularly was its camera. I enjoyed taking hands-free shots while playing with my kids and street scenes for which I would probably not have bothered to pull out my phone. I streamed live point-of-view video with friends and family. But it also became clear that the camera is a social bomb. One friend I ran into on the street could focus only on the lens pointing at her. “Can it see into my soul?” she asked. Later, she wrote me an e-mail: “Nice to see you. Or spy you spying, I guess.”

Cameras are everywhere in public, but one fixed to your face sends a more menacing signal: I have the power to record you at a moment’s notice, it seems to declare — and maybe I already am. In the weeks before I got Glass this summer, at least one restaurant banned the device, articles fulminated against it and a parody of its use appeared on “Saturday Night Live.” In public, I sometimes found myself avoiding people’s eyes, as if trying to indicate that I wasn’t recording them. (Of course, if there’s one thing weirder than someone wearing a computer on his face, it’s someone wearing a computer on his face who also refuses to look you in the eye.)

As far as Google is concerned, any social quirks, tensions or paranoias Glass produces now are just temporary side effects — the kind of things we always confront before a new device becomes necessary, accepted, even beloved. Yet there’s always a gulf between how creators intend for their tools to be used and the way people actually use them. There can be a divide, too, between the experience of users and those they interact with. From my perspective, I was wearing a computer, a tool that gave me the constant, easy ability to access information quickly. To everyone else, I was just a guy with a camera on his head. With a technology this strange and new, it’s hard to tell just what it is: a bridge to the rest of the world — or just another screen blocking people out?

Clive Thompson is a contributing writer and author of “Smarter Than You Think: How Technology Is Changing Our Minds for the Better,” out Sept. 12.

Editor: Dean Robinson

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: August 30, 2013

An earlier version of this article misspelled part of the name of a venture capital firm. It is Andreessen Horowitz, not Andreesen Horowitz.

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