Google Glasses and the Myth of Augmented Reality

An experiment with Internet-enhanced vision reveals the best and worst of our technological dreams.

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The mockup from Google's Project Glass.

On first glance, the video for Google's Project Glass has all the expected elements of a flashy, futuristic clip: the light, modern music; the glossy, slick interface; and the image of a life full of pleasure and easy socializing. We clearly recognize this future because it is our world made better and brighter, rather than more ominous and grey. It is a futurist concept meant to go viral.

At the same time, all utopian dreams express something about the dreamer. Whatever the place of modern technology in our lives, it finds expression in Project Glass and its eminently plausible vision of augmented reality. After all, that particular form of digital tech has always been the assumed apotheosis of modern gadgetry. As Andre Nusselder notes in Interface Fantasy, his 2006 work on 'cyborg ontology', our actual wish for technology is for it to supersede our bodily limitations, to escape the death drive not with self-destruction, but the birth of a new kind of techno-individual.

But that dream has in many ways already arrived. Encyclopedias accessible from smartphones inflect our conception of knowledge. GPS wayfinding changes our relationship to space. All technology--especially when we think of language as its most basic form--reshapes and reforms how we relate to that thing called reality. It's perhaps because of this that GigaOm's Kevin C. Tofel has already noted that the glasses and their unintrusive design represent "the next logical step" in our already techno-augmented lives. It's almost as if we've always known this was coming.

Arguably, we have known these glasses were on their way. Without slipping too far into undergrad philosophy, there is no such thing as an "un-augmented reality". When we walk down a street, what is 'out there' is already constructed by us and for us. How we respond to the design of a car, the layout of a building, or fellow pedestrians is already overloaded with interpretation, weighted down and moulded by things much bigger than us. Augmented reality isn't so much the only layer atop our world as it is one of many fashioned by history, ideology and personal experience. 

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Picasso's Factory, Horta de Ebro, 1909.

But if tech is one of the ways we are stitched into reality, that means it is not and can never be neutral. The Project Glass video presents a lifestyle distinctly urban and leisurely in character. If in one way the glasses " let technology get out of the way", they are also very much an intrusion into our field of view. In the "ideal use case" of the video, a user checks in at a food truck, buys a book and reminds himself to purchase concert tickets. If the glasses are meant to "augment" reality, they do so in a rather pragmatic, non-confrontational way.

The clip is thus a neat little summation of the profound ambivalence of modern tech. On the one hand, there is undoubtedly a touch of poetry to the way the video ends. At its best, the contemporary digital does in fact enable and enhance interpersonal connection, and the idea of sharing a view of the sunset over the Hudson is a delight. On the other, the trajectory of the video is a process of consumption. Our hero moves through a series of mundane economic processes to end up at a brief reprieve from them.

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Navneet Alang writes about the intersection of technology and contemporary culture. His work has appeared in The Toronto StandardThis Magazine, and Canadian Business.

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