In the series "A Modest Proposal," my colleagues and I will propose inventions and projects that I think are eminently doable and would love made real.
Google aims to help change the way we see the world with Glass, a transparent video display that rests lightweight in front of your eyes and whispers into your ears. The sci-fi novel "Existence" from best-selling author David Brin proposes an intriguing possibility for Glass — to essentially marry it with Facebook.
Glass offers a first-person, hands-free approach to video and photo display, recording and broadcasting, and for videophony and video conferencing.
Glass can also deliver all the other data we now expect from mobile devices — email, text, weather, appointments, dictation, translation, Wikipedia, Google (naturally) and the rest of the web, when connected wirelessly via mobile device to the Internet.
However, the most interesting possibilities for Glass lie with augmented reality, or AR — overlaying data about what we see over what we see. The first step Glass presents on this path is to overlay maps and directions over a wearer's field of view.
Augmented reality mapping apps exist aplenty for mobile devices, such as ones from AcrossAir.
Still, with its ease of use, Glass might bring AR to the mainstream. What then?
The host of augmented reality apps that already exist for mobile devices suggest a number of prosaic options, such as finding places to eat, stay and enjoy. The fact that Google already provides, say, Zagat reviews for restaurants with map search results suggests location tagging may prove easy for Glass. (Google may want to put ads up. Lots of ads up.)
But what about combining AR with social media? What happens if you could see people's Facebook profiles hovering over them? Or their online dating profiles on OKCupid? Or wanted posters from the FBI? In "Existence," Brin described overlays that included palatable layers and grubbier, illicit ones.
How might augmented reality intersect with social media? Well, one possibility involves people with mobile devices voluntarily making their identities known publicly. Another involves coupling Glass with facial recognition and image search — by asking "OK, Glass, who is that?" Glass might very well tell you. (Does neither possibility sound appealing to you? Hold on...)
Knowing a person's name can be a great thing — many people, including me, can be lousy with names. However, once a person's identity is known, depending on what databases you have access to, you could learn an extraordinary amount on that person. Publicly accessibly Facebook profiles. Details gleanable via Google searches. Reputation scores on Slashdot, Reddit or Digg. Facts about what they've posted, commented, viewed, bought. Criminal history. Phone numbers. Email addresses. What they're looking for in a date.
There are two kind of databases I can see emerging — ones where you say what you want about yourself to others, and ones where others say what they think about you. The first kind include microblogging systems such as Facebook or Twitter, or online dating systems such as OKCupid. The second kind include government and private-sector databases including criminal records, school records, voting records, viewing habits, bills, and so on — I suppose you could say bathroom stall graffiti such as "For a good time, call..." might also yield dating info.
There's a lot of ways all this data could be used in a disturbing manner. For example, you could imagine gossip sites where people can post all kinds of details about you, true or false, that you would rather others not know. You could imagine things about you that you thought were private, such as your voting record or Facebook status updates, posted or sold against your knowledge or will.
"To get name tags and profiles under peoples' faces as you walk by will require support databases," Brin said to me. "Either: 1) a world comprehensive face-recognition system tied to uber-Facebook; or 2) commercial systems, at first non-comprehensive; or 3) lesser club-level face-recog systems operating under opt-in; or 4) self-fed systems where you load the images and features yourself."
Brin is a known, vocal advocate of transparency, even writing a work of nonfiction about it that won the American Library Association's Freedom of Speech Award. He believes the benefits transparency can bring would be substantial. "The ability of citizens to look back at the mighty — called 'sousveillance,' the opposite of surveillance — will be key to people staying free," he said. "It could also lead, after a transition, to a return of some privacy, as citizens become technologically empowered to catch the peeping toms."
What concerns Brin is people passing too many laws restricting information flow. "The world's elites will simply ignore such a ban," Brin stated. "The rich and mighty — governments, corporations, criminals — will all have such databases, spy cameras, everything. They will walk down our streets like gods, knowing everything about us as they stroll, giggling, past us. But we'll be blind, having chosen to panic and refuse the power of sight."
I liked "Existence" because it has links to what may be my favorite Brin short story, "Lungfish." Although I personally don't hold completely with his stance on transparency, I found his use of augmented reality layers in "Existence" thought-provoking.
Augmented reality could face a tough road ahead, Brin said to me. "We'll face a 20-year transition period where people react with loathing toward mobile AR, as they did to movable type, eyeglasses, cell phones," Brin predicted. "Already many places ban Google Glass."
Due to Google's rivalry with Facebook, I don't see a marriage between Glass and Facebook happening. However, maybe Glass will attempt this strategy with Google+, Google's endeavor to compete with Facebook. Other companies may also make AR glasses of their own, and Facebook can partner with them instead.
You can email me regarding A Modest Proposal at email@example.com and follow the series on Twitter at #modestproposal.