Google Glass

This column originally appeared on LinkedIn

Google Glass is one of the most polarizing user-interface inventions to come along in decades.

We’ll have a chance to see just how polarizing this week when thousands of developers crowd into the Moscone Center in San Francisco for Google I/O, the tech giant’s sixth annual developer conference. Since Glass just started shipping to its earliest adopters, Google I/O will probably have the highest concentration of Google Glass wearers anywhere to date. That means we’ll have plenty of opportunity to watch people struggle with its interface — and to watch bystanders’ reactions. Expect lots of photos of Glass-wearing nerds to pop up in your usual media streams.

On the one hand, Google Glass users look like the Borg, creeping us out as they stare into a digital middle distance that no one else can see. It also raises troubling privacy implications, since it can be used to take photos and video almost surreptitiously.

On the other hand, the device is undoubtedly a harbinger of technologies to come that are even more integrated into our bodies.

The question now is: How do we make the most of this invention without making ourselves look like complete dorks?

Some take a hard-line approach. Bars and restaurants have banned the device. Casinos have said Google Glass is not welcome (due to its potential to help gamblers count cards, no doubt). Other establishments will follow.

Ryan Singel has suggested that lasers could seek out and blind Google Glass cameras using the same technologies currently being investigated for mosquito eradication. (Seriously!)

And many of us will content ourselves with simply making fun of people wearing Google Glass, just as we mock people for wearing Bluetooth headsets.

But let’s not let the dork factor blind us to the real-world possibilities. Google Glass, or something very like it, will have a revolutionary effect in many areas of life.

Among the most promising uses are those that fit into work environments where the addition of data can provide real, meaningful benefits.

Google Glass makes a lot of sense in health care, for instance. Doctors and nurses could use Google Glass to look up prescription details, access patient health records, see reminders about their next appointments, and even get better at recognizing patients’ faces.

What’s more, Glass would have a real benefit in the sanitary environment of a hospital because it could enable health care providers to do all this without having to touch a keyboard or a screen with their hands (or even, god forbid, paper).

For paraplegics and quadriplegics, Glass could be a stunningly useful way to get information and interact with it, as investor John Doerr noted last month when unveiling Kleiner Perkins’ Google Glass-focused investment fund. Its combination of a heads-up display and voice-control mean that it’s potentially ideal for people unable to use hands to control their computing devices. While it might seem creepy to take a picture just by winking, that is exactly the control gesture needed by people who don’t have hands.

For journalists, Google Glass could be an amazing note-taking and content-generating device that lets them shoot videos and photos as they cover a scene in real time. I’m a fan of the Livescribe pen, which lets me capture audio at the same time I’m jotting notes. Whenever I use it to interview someone, I always ask permission to record the audio. The same technique could work with Glass, and I’m looking forward to trying it. Right now, Glass only records 10-second video snippets and only has about 12GB of usable storage, but it shouldn’t be too hard to make an app that records longer audio or compressed video clips, as Jason Perlow noted on ZDNet.

For game designers, Glass presents tempting opportunities to overlay the real world with imaginary video game elements, as Google itself is already doing via Niantic Labs, its experimental augmented-reality project.

Even for tourists, Glass might have some intriguing possibilities: Imagine walking through a neighborhood in Paris, using an app like Findery to view geotagged notes about historical events that happened in a place, interesting architectural details you might have missed, or recommendations for good places to get a pastry and a café au lait.

Just keep in mind that these are special-purpose uses. And just because Glass is useful doesn’t mean I have to enjoy talking with you while you’re wearing it.

Eventually, our attitudes toward Glass and other always-on devices may shift. It’s not uncommon now to see a table full of people at a restaurant, all of whom are busy tapping away at their phones at the same time as they talk to each other. While many people might find that rude, it’s clearly acceptable to a growing circle, whereas five years ago it would have been unheard of.

Similarly, Google Glass might become more socially acceptable as it becomes more ubiquitous.

But that day isn’t here yet. So wear Google Glass all you want at work, or while you’re playing the goggle-eyed tourist or the obnoxious journalist. But please remove the damned thing when you’re talking to me.

Photo: Jolie O’Dell, VentureBeat

VentureBeat's mission is to be a digital town square for technical decision-makers to gain knowledge about transformative enterprise technology and transact. Discover our Briefings.