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The Eyes Have It: Google Glass and the Myth of Multitasking

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Christmas came early for gadget enthusiasts everywhere when news recently broke that the highly-anticipated Google Glass would soon be available to the public. These glasses, which look like they were stolen from the set of Star Trek, (think of Lavar Burton’s character in Next Generation – they look a little bit like his clunky glasses band, but without all the… well, without the glass), can display a mini computer screen so that glass wearers can call up a variety of displays such as GPS maps, the weekly weather forecast, or last night’s sports scores.

Recently, quite a bit of ink has been spilled about the potential privacy concerns associated with Glass – the glasses also allow you to instantly record any conversation – not to mention the obvious fashion concerns. (In response, Google is reportedly partnering with hipster frame makers Warby Parker.) Notably absent from this list of concerns is how Google Glass will encourage its users to multitask in ways that they probably shouldn’t.

As a multimedia and technology scholar, I’m fascinated by how our technological developments reflect our culture’s desire to perform more and more tasks at once. Communication researchers have recently found that we multitask with media not because it helps us get things done, but perhaps because we think we are getting things done. It feels good to multitask. So it’s not surprising that we would crave technologies that will help us multitask, right?

Google Glass is just the most recent addition to a long list of technologies that have been developed to help people multitask. Take Bluetooth, for example. Its technology has allowed us to drive hands-free without one hand having to fiddle with a phone. Or for a more outrageous attempt to accommodate people’s desire to multitask, check out ‘Type n Walk’, an iPhone app that allegedly lets people text while still being able to see the sidewalk and obstacles in front of them.

Google Glass takes this concept of multitasking aid to an entirely new level. The frames have the ability to insert a digital screen in our field of vision, but because that screen is confined to a small corner in this field, our eyes are still free to wander while we perform different tasks. Google designer Isabelle Olsson told Computerworld, “we created Glass so you can interact with the virtual world without distracting you from the real world. We don’t want technology to get in the way.”

This sentiment of not letting the technology interfere with “the real world” is, admittedly, quite enticing. But unfortunately, cognitive science suggests that such a scenario is unlikely if not impossible.

Multiple studies have actually shown that it’s actually a myth that our brain can juggle two things simultaneously. In actuality, the brain is designed to only process one piece of information at a time. Cognitive capacity models of attention, memory and processing explain that our brain has a limited amount of resources it can use to deal with new pieces of information it gets to process. The more difficult a task is, the more resources the brain will need to put on the job. But the more resources we use for one job, the less we have to apply toward another. Doing two things at once stretches our brain’s capacity thin, making it so we aren’t able to perform either task without sacrificing some time or performance quality. In other words, while we can certainly try to do more than one thing at a time, reading text messages on our Google Glass screen and cooking, for example, something has got to give. Either we’ll be reading our texts at an incredibly slow pace, or that soufflé we’re supposed to be watching is in big trouble.

The fact that Google Glass is a mobile, visual distraction is particularly worrisome to me. Some tasks such as walking and driving demand visual attention, and any technologies that encourage people to divert their visual focus should be a safety concern.

I also think that it is particularly important to consider how technologies like Google Glass affect our relationships with others. Sherry Turkle, a professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at MIT and author of the book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, has done extensive research on how our desire to be constantly connected through our technologies could be detrimental to our ability to connect to people in the flesh.

On the one hand, social media (Facebook, Twitter, and cell phones just to name a few) have brought people closer together and made it easier to maintain important connections with each other. But on the other hand, always being plugged into these technologies creates barriers to developing relationships with the people to whom we feel closest. At one time or another, many of us may have found ourselves sharing a meal with friends or family and finding that each person’s focus is on a cell phone or tablet device. Although we are technically together, sharing the same physical space, mentally we are somewhere else. Evidently, this phenomenon is so common that some restaurants have begun offering discounts to patrons who leave their cell phones at the door, a positive step, I think, in a campaign to simply make people more conscious about how they use technologies and what the consequences are for their relationships.

On that note I should add that, ultimately, I think that maintaining a critical awareness — a scientifically supported media and technology literacy, if you will — is the key to making sure that technologies improve our quality of life instead of detracting from it. Technologies like Google Glass have the potential to enhance our lives in numerous ways (in the commercial promoting the specs, for example, a skydiver asks the glasses to record his jump, quite literally allowing him to capture what he’s seeing for future posterity). But to harness its full potential, we need to be aware of our own limitations and be vigilant to remain conscious of how our use of it affects us and those around us.

Image: Antonio Zugaldia on Flickr.

Elizabeth L. Cohen About the Author: Dr. Elizabeth L. Cohen is an Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at West Virginia University. She researches the social and psychological effects of media and technology use and she recently taught an online course on multitasking with technology. Follow on Twitter @ElizabethCohen.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Comments 9 Comments

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  1. 1. huntershoptaw 9:49 am 03/13/2013

    While I agree with most of the points of your article, I would disagree with the targeted premise that Glass will interfere with our daily lives. While I agree that it can and can expound on issues we already have in our social interactions and attentiveness, I disagree that it will do so to a greater extent that what we see today already. I would suggest that, if anything, it can help these issues.

    Since many people today bury their heads in the cellphones/tablets I can see how something like glass is actually beneficial in that at least the primary line of sight will not be obstructed and people will have a better chance of seeing their surroundings. Granted that something like this can of course be abused, like all technology it needs to be used responsibly.

    Lastly, I can foresee utilizing this technology not just to bring up the weather or check my texts, but also in augmented reality overlays. The ability to attach notes to your surroundings, have indoor maps of businesses you frequent or have virtual signage can very easily reshape the real physical landscape of our world, hopefully for the better.

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  2. 2. kinnikinick 10:48 am 03/13/2013

    As far as multitasking goes, a cognitive burden not mentioned here is “switching cost” – the act of retargeting attention itself uses mental resources, so enabling quicker and quicker hops between tasks becomes less and less efficient, in terms of actually getting things done.
    Of course, as the things getting done become more and more constrained by the limits of the machine’s interface, that won’t really matter to the user, floating in a warm bath of simplified choices.
    Blink here to like.

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  3. 3. racu1952 10:56 am 03/13/2013

    I can’t see using the Google glass, probably wouldn’t be able to see anything on it anyway, but I have to differ with the notion of not being able to do more than one thing at a time. I’ll agree that multi-tasking is a myth, but I dual-task all the time. And before you say, “well, you *think* you are,” back when I was a teller, I could rapidly and accurately count money and carry on a conversation at the same time. Even now I can talk to someone, fully in the conversation while typing a letter or email.

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  4. 4. sjfone 10:57 am 03/13/2013

    Fear not, someday a tech device will be issued to every person and it will be an energy-saver, you will not have to think.

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  5. 5. plswinford 3:07 pm 03/13/2013

    Right now when I find myself interacting with a headphone user in a situation where I cannot tell if the words being conveyed are for me or not, I find that situation very irritating. Google Glass will take this to the next level. Then there is the deadly combination of Google Glass and drivers.

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  6. 6. Jerzy v. 3.0. 6:30 am 03/14/2013

    For me this obsessive checking of texts is just a person showing off that he/she has not learned task and time management. Sometimes it is just because a job is poorly organized, other times a person is poorly organized.

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  7. 7. Jerzy v. 3.0. 6:34 am 03/14/2013

    Human brain needs ca 0.5 – 1 sec to switch between tasks. If distracted then, brain can get jammed, with a person disoriented for a few secs and unable to respond.

    0.5 – 1 sec seems not much, but enough to make Google Glass and car, or Google Glass and bicycle a deadly combination.

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  8. 8. CherryBombSim 9:24 pm 03/14/2013

    I share plswinford’s concern about googleglass + driving. A lot of public concern about cell phone conversations and texting while driving focuses on the physical distraction when the real danger is disengagement of the mind. Of course, Google is planning to drive our cars for us, so this problem could eventually be moot.

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  9. 9. ChipsterXX 7:29 pm 03/15/2013

    I understand, and for the most part agree with, the concerns mentioned above. However, there has always been a multitude of factors disctracting us from the tasks at hand, way before communications technology interfered and took over. E.g., while driving, we find it completely natural to have a conversation with the person next to us, just as we would do while preparing dinner. When i drive behind another driver engrossed in intense conversation, i can tell by their driving how said conversation is going. Speeding up, slowing down, zigzagging, swaying, suddenly braking because they missed the turn-off — very hazardous situations in every-day driving. Yet — would this warrant forbidding drivers from having a conversation with anyone in their car? (While i predict it would dramatically improve road safety.) The only way out of this dilemma is to put our lives into the hands of completely automated cars. Something along the lines of anti-terrorist drones … I certainly wouldn’t want to drive one of those cars!

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