Gary Stix, a senior editor, commissions, writes, and edits features, news articles and Web blogs for SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN. His area of coverage is neuroscience. He also has frequently been the issue or section editor for special issues or reports on topics ranging from nanotechnology to obesity. He has worked for more than 20 years at SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN, following three years as a science journalist at IEEE Spectrum, the flagship publication for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. He has an undergraduate degree in journalism from New York University. With his wife, Miriam Lacob, he wrote a general primer on technology called Who Gives a Gigabyte?
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Google Glasses prototype
It would be nice if state governments went one step further and banned texting while walking. The law might require that anyone entering an emoticon into a smartphone would be required to stand (very still) within a foot of the sidewalk’s edge or cough up a $50 fine.
Going on foot from the Canal Street stop of the A train in lower Manhattan to the door of the huge former printing factory building where Nature Publishing Group has its offices has increasingly become a series of patterned avoidance maneuvers to skirt erratically moving objects immersed in text-crazed oblivion.
Mobile devices have succeeded in desensitizing a not insubstantial percentage of urban populations from their physical surroundings. How often have I experienced the desire to keep walking in a straight line and let the texter’s bowed head ram into my chest?
Technology giants are on the case. The purported solution is to eliminate the philosophical and physical dualism of things real and artificial. Google has come forward with Project Glass, which has demonstrated a prototype for a heads-up display that, in appearance, approximates a pair of glasses and, in function, places the capabilities of a smartphone literally in your face. Google Glasses, as they are informally known, work by sending text and images to a small sliver of a display attached to the frames, information that can orient the wearer to the immediate surroundings. They also can replicate a smart phone in other ways. Whenever it is released—and the company hasn’t specified a date—you would mouth, not finger, an “OMG,” which would then convert to a text message.
Some wags have suggested that Google Glasses and its ilk would lend a certain intimacy to the media exec’s vernacular of “searching for eyeballs,” pointing the way toward making up for the billions in advertising losses experienced by major media. Those same cynics have also suggested that walking down the street might be akin to getting spammed with a flurry of special offers—a free small coffee at Dunkin’ Donuts or a two-for-one sale at the Gap—even while you’re trying to get across a major intersection with life and limb intact.
The storied history of heads-up displays stretches back decades. Projecting information onto a jet fighter’s windshield or even that of a two-door sedan makes some sense. Ubiquitous consumer acceptance of Google Glasses may be another story. In-your-face technology portends bringing processors and sensors closer and closer to the physical self, allowing them ultimately to be incorporated under the skin.
The next question, of course, is whether we really do want to merge with the machine. Wearable displays have been tested at universities for years. The videos of the guy at the supermarket looking at a grocery list on a display at the corner of one eye are well ensconced in the annals of geek history. My colleague George Musser, who must be one of the world’s leading first adopters of new tech (yes, that’s George on the iPhone line), always protests when we discuss this topic that he just hasn’t been able to procure a good wearable device. The argument: if you build one, people (or George) will buy one.
I wonder, though. Along with the search for an elixir for baldness, one techno trend that precedes the Internet by generations is the inexorable quest for ways to make eyewear obsolete, as witnessed by the billions channeled into contact lenses and Lasik surgery. True, fashion pays partial homage to the Coke-bottle lenses of yesteryear through the black 1950s retro frames popularized by the likes of Tina Fey.
For the most part, though, the trend has pointed toward keeping nose and eyes free of unneeded superstructure. You can even make an argument against Google Glasses by delving into the evolutionary psychology literature, with the caveat that it is filled with bubbe meises. (You can check that technical term here.) Symmetrical faces, or so we are told, are thought to be more attractive to the opposite sex. How does that jibe with the visibly noticeable display, microchip and sensor package that sits only over the right eyelid and temple. Will you want to wear those geek frames with a Todashi Shoji evening dress? Maybe not. Smartphones may be around for a while, and that means still weaving among the texters on the way to work—or at least until an irresistible force like social media meets an immovable object like me.