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Could Smartglasses Be the Next Big Tech Bust?

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

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Google Glass just ran an article on smartglasses. Not just the famous Google Glass, but a whole crop of smartglasses that are supposedly going to change everything: Big things afoot for the face in Tech Land.

I dunno, this technology just doesn’t make sense to me. I could be wrong, along the lines of DEC chief executive Ken Olsen’s infamous quote that there was no reason for anyone to have a personal computer at home. I concede that there could be a few neat uses for these gizmos, perhaps in a surgical suite, on the factory floor or to guide a disoriented Alzheimer’s patient on the walk home.

Beyond special needs, I just don’t get it. I wear glasses and most people at work don’t anymore. And the millions or billions that have been spent on surgery to get rid of eyewear for good suggest that a computer fashioned as a glasses-like device, no matter how small, is a non-starter.  Sit at a window table in any restaurant when the light is just right and watch the women (and men) check themselves out in the plate glass. Donning headwear with a little chip attached is not what people are hankering for.

I’m no Luddite, but it seems that technology works best when it integrates without any visible seams into an existing social and commercial ecosystem. The smartphone is a good example, letting you run your life from something that fits in your pocket. My guess is that’s as far as people really want to go when internalizing microchips. There’s no deterministic geek dialectic that mandates a sequential staging from mainframe to mini, followed by the desktop, then a handheld device and later Google Glass and ultimately perhaps a neural implant.

People want a computer as a companion or an assistant. They don’t necessarily want one in their face. R2-D2 is cute. The person in the next seat on the bus talking into a pair of smartglasses or blinking his right eye furiously into a lens sensor to transmit a Morse-code-like text message just plain isn’t.

Source: Antonio Zugaldia/Wikimedia Commons




Gary Stix About the Author: 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? Follow on Twitter @@gstix1.

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

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  1. 1. jstevewhite 1:12 pm 04/27/2013

    That’s because you’re looking at Google Glass, which is a completely unimaginative implementation of the concept, and roughly equivalent to an IBM PC in 1982. It can do interesting stuff, but nothing like what it will be doing it just ten years.

    Smart glasses will depend on two technologies; the ability to overlay the entire field of vision, or a large slice of it, and the ability to act autonomously, without the user’s intervention. A trivial example: An “app” that would constantly monitor some portion of my field of vision for bar codes; when one appears, it would scan it and provide some non-intrusive means of accessing information about it, such as model, make, price, calories (in the case of food), power consumption (in the case of, say, a refrigerator), etc.

    Another trivial example – it might ‘listen’ to your conversations and mine them for search terms. You say “Apple” and “stock” within a few seconds of one another, it might put “AAPL $417 +8″ in some unobtrusive portion of your visual field. Or if you say “I wonder how tall the Empire State building is?” it might put “1,454 feet tall” in the same unobtrusive portion of the visual field.

    I’ll leave further examples to the reader, as I’ve got a head full of them and some might be valuable some day if someone doesn’t think of them and implement them first. I’m just waiting for the next gen. If these ideas don’t excite you, I’m sure you can think of a few of your own that do.

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  2. 2. tharriss 1:34 pm 04/27/2013

    I agree, so far, most of what I’ve seen discussed as actual widespread usage of these glasses is for taking pictures/videos… and smart phones already do that.

    The average user isn’t interested in a constant video diary of everything they see, and I haven’t seen any thoughts for useful “heads up” display information that you couldn’t also easily get off your phone.

    It really seems like “much ado about nothing…”

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  3. 3. Yoshi 6:18 pm 04/27/2013

    Seems that this would have far more use on the battlefield or law enforcement than anything else. All the denos I’ve watched make life look like some sort of info-laden, high-stress video game…..
    I agree with the poster about eyewear as burden. Brings up another questin, does this tech work for eyeglass wearers? The US population ain’t getting any younger, or richer….

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  4. 4. 6:29 pm 04/27/2013

    I thought they were already, make a pair of full size glasses that will mirror whats on my iPhone and I will buy 2.

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  5. 5. Simon Says 6:31 pm 04/27/2013

    I agree. Technology should be there when we need it but out of sight when it is not. I use my phone when I need it, if I don’t I put it up and live my life in peace. One issue I noticed not brought up is using smart glasses while driving. Would that be like drinking and driving, or worse, texting and driving? Seems like a great big ol’ distraction to me. I can see it now, we have DUI, DWT (Driving While Texting (a real case now, believe it or not)), and soon, “DWG” (Driving While Glassing)! Oh, I reserve rights on that acronym!!

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  6. 6. littleredtop 10:25 pm 04/27/2013

    Many years ago now, when I was a kid, I saved up my money and sent away for a pair of x-ray glasses that were advertised in the back of comic books. Those glasses were going to revolutionize everything for me. I would be able to see things that no one else could see and the potential was limitless. Needless to say, the glasses were a scam and did nothing other than give me a headache.

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  7. 7. BuckSkinMan 10:34 pm 04/27/2013

    In the state where I live (midwest, not “cowboy country”) the number of people licensed to carry concealed pistols for self defense has increased by over 700% since 2002. This brings to mind the heads-up displays on jet fighters: used to assist the pilots in flying their “gun platforms” both outside and inside combat zones. I think – it’s possible that “smart glasses” might just be the perfect “target acquisition and aiming system” “concealed carry” civilians will like. Coming soon – to a gun shop near you.

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  8. 8. NateWeeks 12:37 am 04/28/2013

    I think you are woefully mistaken. While I don’t know what all Google Glass can do yet, it is the intro into a whole new field of wearable computing. The more addicted I get to tech, the more I long for a hands-free display that I don’t either have to sit in front of or hold for hours while I read or watch content. If Glass isn’t the answer I am looking for, I’d bet a competitor will have one soon enough.

    As for the appearance aspect, I think bluetooth headsets look stupid, but they are everywhere.

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  9. 9. Shickading 7:39 am 04/28/2013

    I couldn’t disagree more. I don’t know if Google Glass is the iteration of the technology that will take off (i.e. is it Newton or iPad). But on fundamental grounds I see the ability to overlay the visual field as so compelling that it’s bound to happen eventually. The use cases are too powerful for it not to happen.

    Re: “technology works best when it integrates without any visible seams into an existing social and commercial ecosystem”. People are very willing to wear glasses for non-corrective purposes, sunglasses for example. The Google Glass device does have a cyborgy look to it, but soon the display chip and computer will become so small and unobtrusive that it will look like just another pair of glasses. I argue this will have fewer “visible seams” with our lives than a smartphone does. The smartphone after all demands your full attention, with negative consequences ranging from social isolation (we’ve all seen groups at a restaurant each staring at their own phones) to physical danger (e.g. navigating a car).

    In the end it doesn’t matter what Gary Stix or other adults think of the Next Big Thing. What matters is what the 10 year old kids of today think of it.

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  10. 10. jtdwyer 7:39 am 04/28/2013

    littleredtop, I never ordered those ‘x-ray’ glasses, but I often chucked at the thought of those who did – and wished they could work!

    Perhaps a CGI app could convert the user’s visual field into a graphical animation, let’s say speculatively selecting individuals to ‘reveal’ more completely! Even if it didn’t work very well, you might make a fortune selling the app!

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  11. 11. dbtinc 8:54 am 04/28/2013

    possibly a solution in search of a problem?

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  12. 12. Cyberdactyl 12:21 pm 04/28/2013

    I agree with most of the comments here. While the GG style will almost certainly change, the underlying technology will boom in the coming few years. Another possibility that may integrate with vision overlay technology is voiceless communication such as what Michael Callahan’s startup, now offers in crude form. These devices and technologies will certainly begin a paradigm change for social media as well as direct person to person interaction that we have not seen since verbal communication began.

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  13. 13. eyetops 1:10 pm 04/28/2013

    Love it…”Beyond special needs, I just don’t get it.”

    Oh but you will – just like we all will too.

    We all use the internet and the opportunity to immerse oneself within it (handsfree!) is coming fast. You will be grateful for the return of that arm!

    Got to love the naysayers and haters on all the comments – they will be the sweetest of conversions!

    Imagine running a business without this technology against one with this technology – goodbye car, home and shirt!

    Too add:

    “Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, which has joined with fellow firms Andreessen Horowitz and Google Ventures”

    These entities sound both exciting and scary at the same time – they are probably the people who pick the winners.

    Generically, I think they are going to be called eyetops – from desktops to laptops to eyetops

    Realistically, I know it’s gonna be about the apps so if you ever wanted to program – start now because it is just starting to get exciting. @eyetops FB eyetops

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  14. 14. N a g n o s t i c 7:29 pm 04/28/2013

    The author lacks imagination.

    I’m don’t call my specs “eyetops”. They’re X-ray glasses. Augmented reality indeed.

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  15. 15. N49th 8:30 pm 04/28/2013

    Well it will be a bubble anyways to start with whether it has any ‘legs’ is yet to be seen?
    Like to read more about these things called 3D Printers. Are they the HD televisions of the ’90′s?

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  16. 16. loomerds 10:22 pm 04/28/2013

    “I’m no Luddite, but it seems that technology works best when it integrates without any visible seams into an existing social and commercial ecosystem. The smartphone is a good example, letting you run your life from something that fits in your pocket. My guess is that’s as far as people really want to go when internalizing microchips.”

    I must respectfully disagree with your premise although I wish it were true…I think. When I see my students and own children interact with their smartphones I realize that they have a fundamentally different relationship with them than those of us who did not grow up digital. For us (by us I mean anyone over about age 25 or 30), computers and smartphones are appliances to be used. For the most recent generation, computers and smartphones are an extension of themselves. We integrate them into our lives; they integrate them into their understanding of self.

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  17. 17. OgreMk5 11:32 am 04/29/2013

    Watch the Iron Man movies and then say that the tools of a built in heads-up display wouldn’t be valuable.

    They could easily be blutoothed and connect to the sensors in your car (coming soon) and you could have speed, traffic conditions, radio station, warnings about other vehicles or animals all on your glasses while driving.

    When you step out of the car, your phone takes over. Turn by turn directions overlaid on your vision.

    I’d be really interested in such a system, but I suspect that it will be a while before it gets that good.

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  18. 18. plswinford 3:30 pm 04/29/2013

    I would think the ability to network such augmented reality devices might have effects we cannot imagine. For example, I walk into a gathering site and my glasses inform me who is married, who is not (the wearers of the other devices have set their choices for the level of display of such information). The point is, the power of networking might take things to some level not currently imagined.

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  19. 19. jh443 3:38 pm 04/29/2013

    Google Glasses are just a stopgap tool between a tablet in your hands and a wifi transceiver (with several TB of SSD RAM) embedded in your brain.

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  20. 20. gmperkins 6:42 pm 04/29/2013

    Eh, niche market. I personally despise any tech that tries to make me pay attention to what it thinks is “important”. I am very function oriented with tech, I haven’t seen a compelling function for this yet. Maybe in 20 years when it isn’t irritating and obtrusive, it’ll be a handy device.

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  21. 21. quadrivium_veraciticas 12:50 am 05/2/2013

    It is a precursor to transhumanism; the incorporation of human and machine. First it is eyewear and in no time it will be hardwired into your nervous system.

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