Up until now I've pretty much scoffed at augmented reality. While there have been some pretty novel apps — hey, look, Subway circles overlaid on my live camera view! — they haven't moved beyond the gimmicky stage. But what Google is reportedly working on at its top-secret Google X offices will literally change the way we see the world, potentially making it the most disruptive gadget since the original iPhone. Not only should Apple be worried, but so should everyone else about the impact a device like this will have on society.
According to The New York Times, Google is hard at work on a pair of "smart glasses" that will integrate a heads-up display that shows valuable information related to whatever's in your field of view. For instance, if you're looking at a restaurant, you might get a review streamed to your eyes along with comments from Google+ friends. This scenario might also involve offers for those who decide to check in. Location will be a key ingredient of the glasses, which will be powered by Android and cost anywhere between $250 and $600 when they go on sale later this year.
Are you bad with names or small details like how old your client's kids are? Google's wearable Googles should also be able to identify people in your social circles and deliver information on the fly. No more having to jog your memory. As someone who is terrible at putting things together, I'd also love to see video instructions overlaid on my glasses as I try to assemble a piece of furniture with a bazillion pieces. Or how about commenting on freshly posted Facebook photos as you walk down the street or playing a virtual game with someone you just met? The possibilities are almost endless.
Apple should be concerned about this innovation, because if executed well Google's glasses could begin to make gadgets like the iPhone and iPad seem extraneous. The whole point of Apple's tablet was to put you closer to your content, but it doesn't get any closer than wearing it. At this early stage Google recognizes that most users would only don the glasses for short bursts, but over time as people get more comfortable with the concept they could leave other devices behind.
It should come as no surprise that Apple is also said to be working on its own wearable computing devices, but if you believe the rumors the company's initial focus is on the wrist. To me, smart watches like the WIMM Watch and I'm Watch seem more like a step sideways than a step forward. I think people want an iEye more than they want an iWatch. Besides, what's more intuitive than tilting your head to interact with the virtual world?
That's how users will navigate the smart glasses, 9to5Google recently reported. As a result, those who decide to take the plunge first with these specs will likely get a lot of strange looks. But awkwardness is the least of my concerns.
I'm a lot more worried about the societal impact of smart glasses, including whether consumers can opt out of being scanned and searched just by meeting someone's stare. This is a whole new frontier for privacy, and Google will need to prove that this new breed of "Search, Plus Your World" won't stream information about us that we'd rather keep to ourselves.
Another concern I have is how smart glasses will affect our ability to think for ourselves. Today we already rely heavily on our smartphones for information we used to take time to remember. But when you have a pair of Google googles that can pull information instantly from the cloud, why would you exercise your brain?
Last but not least, Google glasses could steal even more of our attention away from family and friends. I admit that I laugh every time I see that AT&T commercial in which a boyfriend glances at his phone to watch the big game during a dinner date. But if it becomes socially acceptable to wear intelligent heads-up displays — and I'm assuming eventually smart contacts — think about how much less present we might become when in the presence of our children, spouses and other loved ones.
So, yes, I'm excited by Google's glasses and want to be one of the first to try them out. But we can't be blind to the larger implications of evolving from carrying our gadgets to literally treating them as appendages. In other words, unless we address the above issues sooner than later these super-specs have just as much potential to distort reality as augment it.
Editor-in-chief Mark Spoonauer directs LAPTOP's online and print editorial content and has been covering mobile and wireless technology for over a decade. Each week Mark's SpoonFed column provides his insights and analysis of the biggest mobile trends and news. You can also follow him on Twitter.