Google has strategically leaked details on the Google Project Glass, an initiative of Google X Labs. For those of you not in the know, Google X Labs is a “top secret facility in the Bay Area” working on the most innovative and futuristic initiatives the company is developing. (So. James. Bond.) But what’s really interesting about the project is the terms the company is using to describe the impact of the technology: “putting you back in the moment.”
Project Glass is a pair of glasses that would allow technology to interact with wearer’s seen reality and integrate capabilities like voice recognition, Google maps, GPS location, and more to help interpret and react to what is being seen. The prototype revealed is a pair of stylish, relatively unobtrusive glasses that give you access to web data in your field of vision. A video released on YouTube has millions of views and that number is growing rapidly. The initiative is being presented as conceptual, and Google is looking for comments, input, and pushback to help refine the final product.
But I think it’s safe to say that we’ve arrived at a moment where full-on augmented reality is at most a few years away, rather than a science fiction construct or geek’s wet dream. So many aspects of our culture are influenced by and adapt to the development of particular technologies. What does Project Glass mean for us, and specifically for our psychological and cultural constructs associated with staying in the moment?
I was recently in a conversation discussing a loosely formed theory of the ever present Third Participant in every interaction. A conversation of two people over dinner is really an integration of three. It usually goes like this. “Hey, did you see that movie, the one where the kid overcomes cancer and the cute guy plays the teacher? Oh, what was that called? Wait a second, let me look it up.” Out comes the iPad or the smartphone, and the data is instantaneously retrieved. There’s no more racking your brain, no more banter to see if various conversational clues jog loose a name, a bit of trivia, a specific detail. Knowledge gaps, and our willingness to tolerate them, have declined.
Another thing that’s declined is an organic flow in conversation. Social interactions frequently involve not just the Third Participant specter of technology, but literally third, fourth, and fifth people as we text, share photos, and report funny events via social media to our friends in real time as they happen. These virtual communications often take priority over actually interacting with the people who are sharing the experience with you physically. Whether it irritates you or whether you’re just inured to it, it’s an aspect of the way that we communicate now.
It both takes us out of the moment, and pulls us into it. We lose the feeling of someone’s full focus, of eye contact, of the alchemy and brain share that happens when you put down the phone and fully engage. But at the same time, we don’t stumble over awkward bits of information that elude us. We can answer complex questions in the moment that allow us to then tackle bigger philosophical and conversational challenges. And we get a nuanced and enhanced interpretation of the world as it unfolds around us thanks to the running commentary of our entire network accessible via text messages and social platforms.
But what will a product like Project Glass mean for our ability to connect and stay in the moment? In the video, instead of having to pull out your various navigation devices, turn them on, wait for them to get a signal, and then awkwardly wander the streets of New York with a mechanical voice saying “Take a left on Varick St,” the whole thing just unfolds in real time. You’ll get there faster. GPS technology will allow you to locate your friend quickly in the restaurant where you’re set to meet.
But instead of cringing every time your lunch date reaches to check their iPhone for hilarious texts, will we now be setting ground rules about taking off glasses so we can make eye contact, interpret our own world, and achieve some new definition of staying in the moment?