Hands-on with the decade-old predecessor to Google Glasses

On your next vacation, will you be looking at the scenery around you or—unbeknownst to your family—secretly sizing up restaurant reviews of nearby restaurants in your glasses?

It's possible, thanks to a renewed push to bring so-called augmented reality technology into secret agent-style eyewear. It's a wearable computing future that was envisioned years ago, and recent refinements promise to make it a mass-market, head-spinning reality soon.

Google, Olympus, and Apple are just a few of the companies currently working on the technology. Google has been showing off its prototype Google Glass Project, a pair of glasses with a built-in display and video camera. Connected to a smartphone, the virtual screen can project any online information—details about the monument you're looking at or Yelp reviews of a pub down the street—into your peripheral vision, as well as take pictures and video of your surroundings.

An Apple patent filed in 2006 and granted on July 3 reveals that Steve Jobs was considering similar technology. And Olympus announced recently that it too was getting into the scene, with the MEG4.0, yet another take on wearable computers.

It's an old dream, actually, one that implanted in Silicon Valley's collective consciousness at least as far back as William Gibson's 1984 cyber novel "Neuromancer."

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Before the end of the 90s, I'd experimented with a wearable computer from Xybernaut, the $6,000 Mobile Assistant. And a little over a decade ago, I spent a day wandering around New York City wearing the device, secretly reading e-mail while buying a bottle of wine and flipping through files while pretending to listen to a friend's conversation.

Granted, I looked more like a Borg than an international secret agent.

But the experience provided some insight into what such an augmented future might look like when such glasses become as pervasive as cell phones.

Spending the day with a miniature viewfinder strapped to my head brought on a few stares, but not many. (You can walk around in a bear suit in Manhattan and no one would give you a second look.) Was it cool having this secret virtual display? Certainly, but it was also distracting.

There were plenty of, “Honey, are you even listening to me?” moments, and while texting had yet to become the phenomena it is today, incoming e-mail was definitely a distraction. If you feel compelled to check your messages every time your cell phone vibrates, then augmented reality glasses promise to bring on a case of ADHD on steroids.

The technology can also become a drug, creating a hallucinatory world adorned with a spinning collage of information in the form of virtual tags hanging in space. Of course, you will be able to switch off such a full-on augmented reality mode. However, I found that if I concentrated on what I was looking at in the monitor for too long, I got dizzy and even bumped into store displays. (Funny how that never happened to Tom Cruise in Minority Report.)

There's been substantial hardware improvements in years since I sauntered along Manhattan's streets like a cyborg. And the advances in speed and access to the Internet make such augmented reality technology even more appealing today. The glasses could not only keep you up to date online but also now alert you to friends nearby—or even friends of Facebook friends nearby, along with head shots and updated bios.

And given that Google is racing to bring its Glass Project to market for as little as $1,500, you can be assured that there will also be advertising involved. Imagine the pop-ups in your eyewear: “Hi JQ,  there's a special on jeans at the Gap across the street today!” Great, augmented spam.

Never mind the, er, adult entertainment implications and privacy concerns that will inevitably be raised by a pair of augmented reality glasses that are indistinguishable from the latest Danish fashion eyewear. But this is a family Web site, so I'll leave those possibilities to the reader's imagination.

While this next wave of wearable computers may be the fulfillment of decades of high-tech fantasies, it will bring on a new set of cultural changes—and rules of etiquette. In a couple of years, instead of asking people to turn off their phones we may asking them to take off their glasses.

Follow John R. Quain on Twitter @jqontech or find more tech coverage at J-Q.com.