Google announced the prototype "Explorer" edition of the wearable at their I/O developer conference in 2012. While the device was initially met with a sense to technological wonder, much of the general consensus quickly devolved into mockery for the device for a variety of reasons. This left only the die-hards to defend the device. And, they aren't doing a very good job.
Organizations such as Stop the Cyborgs are speaking out against Glass and other wearables. According to the Stop the Cyborgs website, "The aim of the movement is to stop a future in which privacy is impossible and where the iron cage of surveillance, calculation and control pervades every aspect of life."
The media has taken its shots too. In June 2014, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart took to deriding Glass "explorers," further adding to the negative stereotypes associated with "glassholes." This came after Google released a blog post of dos and don'ts for explorers to help prepare explorers to be better stewards of the technology.
Still, some companies are pushing forward with Glass for work programs, as the stalwarts stand strong. So, why is it so hard to think about Google Glass? Glass is still so new and, as a society, we haven't been able to fully think through all of the implications for its use.
Once we are able to fully process the use of Glass, and other wearables, the use of such technology in public will become a non-issue. Here are the main concerns for the use of Google Glass and why they won't matter in a few years.
The tech divide
To some, wearing Glass is a pretentious display of differentiation that comprises two different aspects of exclusion. The first being the fact that wearers are in the know about the technology and are among the "chosen few" who have been given the chance to purchase one.
"Google Glass is a symbol that says: 'I am living in the future and you are not.' Much the same way pulling out an iPhone around all your Blackberry-toting friends was in 2007. But in the case of Google, the headsets also say, 'And Google has recruited me to spy on you.' Google already watches us and knows millions of things about us and most people tolerate it just fine. But put an arrogant-seeming headset on an edgier-than-thou Silicon Valley resident and people's resistance to Google as an entity suddenly boils over..." said Forrester analyst James McQuivey.
McQuivey went on to explain that this is why many of the bans on Glass are happening in Silicon Valley, due to the pressure of Google's presence in that area. Of course, the exclusivity of Glass is waning since Google opened it up to the public in May, but there is still the barrier of price.
"In wearing Google Glass you are demonstrating some things," Angela McIntyre, an analyst at Gartner, said. "One is that you have $1500 to spend on a techno gadget. So, it's conspicuously displaying your disposable income. And then, if you have [Glass], it shows that you have access to information and to services that, perhaps, nobody else has."
Of course, we shouldn't expect the price of Glass to remain that high. Other wearable glasses are exploding on crowdfunding platforms such as Kickstarter, with prices as low as a few hundred dollars. Google will inevitably lower the price on the device and, if they can get it to a price threshold that is acceptable to the average consumer, they will see a huge spike in adoption of the product.
SEE: Google Glass Policy (Tech Pro Research)
The perceived invasion of privacy is the biggest issue for the potential adoption of Glass. The ability of the device to record video and take pictures is the premier reason it is being rallied against. It is also the reason it has been banned by many restaurants and bars, big companies such as USAA, and even for parts of events such as the San Diego Comic-Con.
"Since many of our programs feature exclusive or special video presentations specifically for Comic-Con attendees, we do not allow recording of that footage by any device," said David Glanzer, the director of marketing and public relations for Comic-Con. "Because of the ability of this device to record, Google Glasses cannot be worn during footage viewing in any program room. "
The banning of any recording device from a presentation that includes sensitive material makes sense, but public dissenters often use this as a jumping off point for why they believe the device should be banned more widely or, at least, heavily legislated. The interesting thing is that wearable camera technology has been around for years, often in even more discreet designs. Even more relevant, however, is that many similar concerns were raised when smartphones first debuted with cameras on them in the early 2000s.
"We do have cameras on our smartphones and people have gotten used to that," McIntyre said. "But, I remember when the smartphone camera first came out there was push back from gyms, for example, about having to ban smartphones with cameras because people would take pictures in locker rooms."
Most smartphones have better recording and sharing capabilities than Glass does, and they are almost ubiquitously accepted in public areas, at least in the US. While it is legal to photograph or record images in public places almost everywhere in the US, the issue is bigger than just the right to record. According to McQuivey, it's about coming to terms with the intrusion that technology plays in our lives.
"It's true that a proudly worn Google Glass headset is a very clear intrusion into the lives of the people around the Google Glass user," McQuivey said. "But it's an intrusion that exists on many levels at once. Sure, the device has a camera in it, and rudely used, that camera can violate people's expectation of privacy. But if we stop there we're really missing the bigger point. A Glass headset is a camera but it is also a symbol of certain things that some people are not going to be comfortable with, at least not until they are worn down by repeated exposure and come to gradually ignore and eventually accept the intrusion."
The issue many people have with Google Glass is the potential it carries to desensitize people to the process of recording. The Stop the Cyborgs' website puts it like this: "...wearable devices socially normalise ubiquitous surveillance. That is they create a society where we expect to be recorded, where every moment to is shared, documented and data-mined. "
However, camera-equipped smartphones and the rise of YouTube — and now Vine — present the exact same potential for surveillance, without the confrontation of a device worn on the face. There are a plethora of videos online, taken with a smartphone, that showcase the drunken antics of a specific party goer; many with millions of views. Additionally, many major cities in the world operate street cameras that capture the daily lives of citizens without their knowledge or consent.
The world got used to cell phone cameras and the world got used to city surveillance, and the world will eventually get used to seeing cameras on people's faces. Google Glass confronts people with a reality they don't want to acknowledge: our lives are being recorded everyday whether we like it or not, and many of us don't know what we can do to stop it.
Much like many of the other "moonshot" products coming from Google, Glass has struggled to define use cases that would make it a valuable tool for consumers. According to McIntyre, this is due mostly to the fact that many consumers do not fully understand what the device is capable of.
"Most people still are not that familiar with what Google Glass can actually do, and have a difficult time understanding what value it would bring to them to purchase one. I believe that's more of the issue than the privacy," McIntyre said.
New technology, especially technology that works in the foreground of everyday life, is almost always met with resistance. McQuivey said that this temporary tension will eventually wear away, but it will take repeated exposure to the technology and some work by Google on the marketing and features of the product to make that happen.
"This is the same temporary furor that storms into being every time a company makes a step forward in technology — people immediately jump to emotional conclusions unsupported by the actual details of the technology but more linked to people's deep-seated sense of the world in which they live or wish they lived in," McQuivey said. "This was true of surveillance cameras, the VCR, webcams, and a host of other technologies from the assembly line robot to the construction of railroads."
It will take time, but the public will eventually find a way to work products like Glass into everyday life. There will still be opponents, much like there are still opponents to technologies such as smartphones, but Google Glass, and wearables like it, will eventually be folded into the social norms of everyday life. There's no way to know exactly what that will look like, or how we will chose to acknowledge the technology in certain social interactions, but Google and other wearable computing makers will have to play the long game and wait it out.
"In the meantime, Google has actually done itself a favor by forcing the development of this etiquette in a market that is going to take several years to mature anyway," McQuivey said. "As long as it's comfortable being the bad guy in the meantime. Very much the same thing that the company has been doing with driverless cars or Amazon has been doing with drones. Get the idea out there early, let people fret and worry about it while it's not a technically feasible thing anyway, then, once people have gotten over it, move in for the real power play."
What do you think?
We want to know. What do you think is the appropriate reaction to wearable devices such as Google Glass? Should Glass be banned, or is it an inevitable part of the future?
- The Daily Show mocks Google Glass but privacy concerns are real
- The 'right to record' is not a question of technology, but rather power and policy
- Google Glass goes enterprise: Victory or defeat?
- Google wearables: The face vs. the wrist
- Wearable Device Policy (Tech Pro Research)
- Google Glass Policy (Tech Pro Research)
Conner Forrest has nothing to disclose. He doesn't hold investments in the technology companies he covers.
Conner Forrest is Enterprise Editor for TechRepublic. He covers startups and enterprise technology and is passionate about the convergence of tech and culture.