Google Glass is in the wild and reviews are beginning to flow in. They range from blogger Robert Scoble’s claim that “I will never live a day of my life from now on without it (or a competitor)” to some pundits already describing it as a failure. Truth be told, I don’t care about Google Glass.
Why not? This used to be what we called a portable computer.
I carried one of these things. It weighed about 26 pounds. It’s one reason I needed rotator cuff surgery on my shoulder a few years ago. Or this.
That’s then-Apple CEO John Sculley proudly holding up a Newton 20 years ago.
If we judged the future of laptops on the basis of this Compaq or the future smartphones and tablets on the basis of the Newton, how stupid would we be looking today? The original Compaq and the Newton could charitably be called “proofs of concept.” Less charitably, they were devices that appealed to the (very) early adopter. (Does it surprise you that I had both of these devices, and even the Compaq’s spiritual predecessor, the Osborne 1. I once got out of jury duty because I had one of these with me in the jury box when it was time to be interviewed.)
This is how I view Google Glass, no pun intended. Note, I have not tried Google Glass and I’ve only talked to one person who has actually used the glasses. (He was underwhelmed.) But I don’t need to. Google Glass is not the present, it’s the future. That future, more broadly, is something called “augmented reality.” Broadly speaking, I think of augmented reality as the blurring of the lines between the physical and the digital. This is already more prevalent than you think. If you’re a sports fan, you’re probably already familiar with the first down line superimposed on the football field. You’re smart enough to know that one isn’t real. But watch a Fox baseball broadcast. That advertising signage behind home plate? The people in the stadium don’t see that one.
Already there are smartphone apps that will display on screen images mixed from the camera and sources on the Internet. For instance, apps I have will point you to the nearest subway stop or will identify restaurants and other points of interest where you’re looking. Six years before introducing the Newton, Apple produced a video called the Knowledge Navigator. It’s a 5:46 tour de force of where technology would head, and still is headed. If you’ve never watched the video, watch it now. Go ahead. I’ll wait.
Now let your imagination run wild. Imagine that kind of software solution with a video projection system that presented relevant information to you in a heads-up display kind of fashion or on your glasses. Or, if we’re looking 20 years out, integrated into your retina or optic nerve. I kid you not. Think of the use cases. You don’t remember a person’s name? That’s a thing of the past. I now have plug-ins for my email that show me the recent tweets or Facebook posts from the mail’s sender. I’d love to have that displayed when I’m actually talking to you. How many times have you been talking about something and gone “what’s the name of that movie?” or “when did Apple introduce that Newton?” Pilots already use heads-up displays so they can get critical information without taking their eyes away from what’s outside. Already there are games for your smartphone that insert geo-located objects into your phone display. And looking at your cell phone while walking is such a risky behavior that there are a variety of solutions to help you do that more safely, from the serious to the frivolous.
So let’s not judge Google Glass as a serious product. I’m not saying I wouldn’t try it. Maybe even like Scoble, I’d never go another day without wearing this. Keep in mind, I’m the guy who five years ago used to wear “projector glasses” on airplanes so I could watch my own movies. Unlike Google Glass, these were big, heavy, wrap around glasses that contained VGA screens. You’d hook it up to your portable media player and watch movies that way. The glasses were sufficiently heavy that if you wanted to watch anything longer than a YouTube video, you basically had to tilt your head backwards at an angle so the glasses wouldn’t slide down. By the end of a movie, I’d be reclined around 45 degrees. Here we are five years after that watching movies on tablets and, very soon, on flexible portable screens.
The use cases for augmented reality are myriad, and compelling. Google Glass won’t be the product that gets us to realize that potential. It may even prove to be the product that gets us to laugh at the potential. But 20 years from now, we’ll laugh at the quaintness of that early effort, 10 years from now we’ll wonder how anyone could ever doubt the category and five years from now, we early adopters will all be embracing various forms of augmented reality. If Apple had done this (and they will some day), people would be tripping over themselves to laud their vision. Google’s track record of “the next big thing” is slightly more tarnished (to say the least), so it’s much easier to ridicule them and dismiss Glass. Don’t. This is our future, and the future is nearer than you think.
I attended an Augmented Reality meetup in New York last week and the line of the night was that augmented reality makes reality a read/write medium. Think about that one.