Is Anyone Going to Want Google's New Glasses?

It is very difficult to estimate the ways a new technology can rework society.


Far away in its secret lair known as Google X, the company is working on a device that seems straight from the future (as, of course, it will remain for at least a few more months): Internet-enhanced glasses that will stream information to a user's eyes in real time, The New York Times's Nick Bilton reports. The glasses will bring into a wearer's view geographical information, and other local details, such as reviews and weather. They'll have a built-in camera and will cost about the same as a smartphone.

Once you get past the whoa-Internet-direct-to-your-eyes initial awe, the natural question is, but who would want to wear them? They've been described, in appearance, as similar to Oakley's bulky Thumps sunglasses, and at some level it's hard to imagine that it would ever feel natural, for lack of a better word, to have such bits of information constantly crowding your view.

But trying to predict that experience is a fool's errand. The recent history of technology is littered with people avowing that such-and-such new device will never become mainstream, many of which David Pogue collected in a recent piece for Scientific American. Who would possibly want a telephone, or a TV, or an personal computer? Some of these examples are well worn, but they are also so delightfully wrong that it's good fun to give them a read. Pogue's list includes:

* "There is practically no chance communications space satellites will be used to provide better telephone, telegraph, television or radio service inside the United States."--T.A.M. Craven, Federal Communications Commission commissioner (1961)

Needless to say, Mr. Craven is no longer the commissioner of the FCC.

* "I think there is a world market for maybe five computers."--Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, 1943

Of course, Watson was referring to room-size mega-machines filled with vacuum tubes. But still.

* "The Americans have need of the telephone, but we do not. We have plenty of messenger boys."--Sir William Preece, chief engineer, British Post Office, 1876

How're the messenger boys working out for you, England?

* "This 'telephone' has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication."--Western Union internal memo, 1876.

Oops! Western Union sent its last telegram in 2006.

* "Television won't be able to hold on to any market it captures after the first six months. People will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night."--Darryl Zanuck, 20th Century Fox, 1946

He was right. We've moved on to aluminum and plastic.

The point here isn't that of course Google's glasses will become the next TV or telephone, but that it is very hard to estimate the ways a new tool can rework society. Whether Google's glasses find widespread adoption will in part rest on the details of the interface -- whether it seems to integrate naturally with the visual world or obscure and clutter it. But surely, if Google's glasses fail, they will not be the final attempt at wearable tech -- this is something whose appeal runs deep.

Beyond the issues of interface and appearance, Google has to sort out a complex knot of legal issues around the glasses. Bilton reports, "The company wants to ensure that people know if they are being recorded by someone wearing a pair of glasses with a built-in camera." That seems like a good, if minimum, starting point.

Image: Wikimedia Commons.

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Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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