Though society has never had less of a need for furtively-jerking, schizophrenically-talking strangers walking down the street with surveillance equipment, Google is nonetheless working hard to release their highly-publicized Google Glass in 2014. The device is essentially a lightweight titanium frame suspending a small computer display in the upper-right field of the wearer’s vision. It is controlled by touching the frame and by spoken and gyroscopic commands. Early reviews by tech bloggers have been glowing, many eagerly anticipating the product’s revolutionary potential. Despite the industry’s enthusiasm, though, questions remain about how readily the public will embrace it.
I predict that the splash among us laypeople will be noticeable enough to be irritating, but specialized enough to avoid being commonplace. On a tech-adoption scale from Zune to iPhone, the Glass will most likely end up smack in the middle — a dangerous area we might term “Bluetooth country.” In this hellish zone, a perfectly useful piece of personal technology is kept from fully capturing the market because of its considerable aesthetic shortcomings.
From one perspective, the Google Glass is overdue. From the first ring-mounted abacus in Qing Dynasty China to Dick Tracy’s watch, wearable technology has always been an appealing next step for technology that has arrived. But in today’s digital age, in which “disruptive” anti-traditionalism is a virtue, it’s possible that this association with old possibilities is precisely the quality that makes the concept of wearable technology feel tacky and dated. And though they’re not attached to our bodies, smartphones already fulfill the promise of wearable technology. These little boxes we carry in our pockets hold many times the computing power of NASA’s control room during Apollo 11 and are rarely further away than arm’s reach. Is there room for an even more integrative device?
Probably not immediately, if we acknowledge that a chief driver of smartphone adoption was that they looked cool. It’s not that phones are ubiquitous because we’re all fashion plates, but rather that the most successful technology is generally associated with desirable style. The strongest testament to consumers’ preference for design over computational power or novelty has been the success of Apple’s line of “i-” personal devices. The genius of Steve Jobs was to take technology that had been refined elsewhere – the MP3 player, the tablet, even his OS platforms – and put it in a “beautiful box.” The Google Glasses are not beautiful. They look like laser-tag goggles.
Techies might call it shallow, but ultimately tastemakers will never accept something that broadcasts that they’ve chosen function over form. Know what’s more efficient than the messenger back slung low across that hipster’s chest? A f*cking backpack. A big, foam-strapped, cavernously-pocketed JanSport backpack. There’s a reason that what is potentially the most functional personal-storage device ever invented — the fanny pack — has from the day of its invention been reviled as a clothing accessory. It’s because the wearer has chosen to bulge a vulnerable section of their abdomen in order to reach a disposable camera easier. It’s the same style awareness that condemns cargo pants and those retractable ID badge holders, and it will afflict Google Glass.
Moreover, there’s something particularly unseemly about the radical devotion to efficiency that head-mounted gear represents. It’s why you don’t see a lot of Foam Domes atop even the hardiest of ragers. Bluetooth headsets combine this unattractive efficiency with a timbre of obliviousness and self-importance into the pathetic sight of adults shouting themselves down the street. This dismal collage of impressions is another mountain Glass must climb.
Smartphones at least occupy your hand. Doing something with one’s hands has a hallowed place in the annals of looking cool; today’s phones are the umbrellas, clutches, and especially, cigarettes, of yesteryear. Somehow the completed circuit between one’s eye and what’s in his hand evokes a competent self-containment that will not easily be replaced by a glazed stare into space from someone who’s wearing this. It’s bad enough that bored people in bars check Twitter and scroll through old texts to look occupied; imagine seeing someone sigh and fire up their Google Glass in the corner.
I admit that part of my impulsive dislike for Glass is rooted in the potential deep-water reserves of narcissism that it may tap. Had you asked Ansel Adams in the 19th century what would be the most selfish thing he could do with his camera, he would surely say, ‘Why, to point the device’s eye away from God’s creation and t’ward your own visage, course.’ Well, we got tired of doing that. One of Google Glass’ selling points is that it offers a camera with which you can hands-free photograph and record what you’re currently looking at. There was a time when humans were interested in the visual perspectives of other creatures, like eagles and worms. Do we really want to breach this final frontier of narcissism and fully submerge into a world of the “myself-eye view?” The choice isn’t mine.
Google Glass is the first whiff of B.O. to come from what seems to be personal technology finally hitting puberty. Over time, the functions of our products will streamline and the software will evolve, and our aesthetic sensibilities will evolve along with them. Though GPS and teleprompter-like applications no doubt await to transform the Glass into a required purchase for certain uses, its debut will probably be met by a harsh world. I hope so, at least.