Google Glasses and the Myth of Augmented Reality

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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.

Whatever one's thoughts of either the tech or the way it's used to valorize a certain kind of New York City life, what the video makes clear is that technology conditions us. It doesn't so much coerce us to make certain choices, but it does cajole; it beckons us to actualize the many futurist videos we have seen. How many of us, the first time we swiped through a magazine on a tablet or streamed a song on the bus, have felt "Yes, now I'm living in the future"? We crystallize and actualize visions of a future we already knew was coming.

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A 13-year-old concept for wearable tech at MIT Media Lab.

Strangely then, for all the legitimately utopian hope of Project Glass, it is also a reminder of why the centralization of technology among a few key, large players is reason for pause. The glasses take those tired, pedantic debates over "open versus closed" operating systems and interfaces and puts them into sharper focus. This is about what kind of world we want to see. Google wants you to see a leisurely, consumptive day of coffee and ukulele. But that's not a complete description of the important layers of reality. We'd need others, too: interfaces that detailed social ills once "hidden before our eyes"; those that traced flows of energy use; or secretive, private networks that directed us to the performance art around the corner.

There is nothing inherently wrong with the world Google imagines: checking in at a coffee shop, texting with friends or video chatting with a partner. These are ways of narrativizing our lives, something that it is both eminently and fundamentally human. In as much as digital can place these in front of us, this is good. But Google has always had its own ends for how it has organized information, and other companies do too. What we will need are counter-cultural realities sutured into our more ordinary ones, bursts of the counter-hegemonic appearing before our eyes while waiting in line for the taco truck.

What happened to literature and language in the last century must now happen to tech. For all of the flaws of 20th century critical theory--its obtuseness, its abandonment of the ordinary reader--it also made it impossible to look at words as transparent conduits of meaning. Instead, we had no choice but to see the webs of power and ideas that they wove and we wove with them. Project Glass, and its tantalizingly close promise of augmented reality, demands we do the same for the world of digital technology: to acknowledge that we cannot simplyput on and take off glasses that color our world; instead, we can only exchange one ambivalent, culturally loaded pair for another.

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From Spectacles and Eyeglasses: Their Forms, Mounting, and Proper Adjustment, 1895.

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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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