During the climax of the 2011 film Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, Ethan Hunt and a fellow super spy access an interactive, multi-touch car windshield to dynamically plan a faster route as they drive through the crowded streets of Mumbai. The scene illustrates the fantasy that Tom Cruise and Paula Patton can simply reach out and touch a nearby object, demanding that it come awake and respond to their command. Likewise, Robert Downey Jr.’s alter-ego, Tony Stark, when not running a global conglomerate or driving a race car in Monte Carlo, can simply reach out to a free-standing glass panel in his lab for a view of phantom components that comprise the Iron Man suit. The more we see big screen stars interact with intelligent glass, the more we expect that glass surfaces should recognize our presence and invite us to fondle the virtual objects displayed within.
It’s no accident that interactive glass makes its first Mission Impossible appearance in a sequel with “ghost” in the title. This notion of specters and phantoms suggests that a thing once dead can come to life if we just reach out to it in the right way. Chicago-based startup Nervana uses the term “ghost wall” to describe the interactive partitions it installs in businesses such as the Hard Rock Hotel. It is difficult to know what is being ghosted by Nervana’s glass walls—the information in the wall, or the outdated notion of a wall as a non-interactive surface? Corning (a glass manufacturer since 1851) recently captured its future vision in a short film that takes us into a world where a variety of everyday glass surfaces offer opportunities for stimulation. The company’s “A Day Made of Glass” reminds us how our ordinary lives are populated by bathroom mirrors, home windows, car windshields, and kitchen counters—all ready to entertain our whims and inform our desires. Watching the glass come alive in Corning’s video, it is hard not to see how our lives, already oriented toward the glass displays of our smartphones and laptops, might soon be overtaken by them.
Interactive glass displays promise immediate access not only to what pleases us, but also to what excites others. Was it so long ago that Minority Report (2002) offered us the promise of swiping our hand to rearrange and re-size snippets of someone else having an affair or planning a crime? (And, perhaps more importantly, to feel like we’re Tom Cruise while we’re doing it?) Cruise’s actions in the film aren’t notable just for the swiping and turning that’s since become ubiquitous with touch-screen technologies like the iPhone. His gestures also promise to help us look into someone else’s soul. Like the purloined letters, tell-tale hearts, and other confessional objects that inhabit the tales of Edgar Allen Poe, the glass wall in Minority Report reveals the secrets that simmer beneath the countenances of our friends and neighbors. Watching Cruise manipulate virtual objects on a transparent surface also reveals how glass is peculiar—an object we rarely acknowledge as an object because we are constantly looking through it to see something else.
One person’s mundane experience can be climactic to another viewer. Ralph Fiennes’ character in Kathryn Bigelow’s science fiction film Strange Days (1994) peddles the full sensory experience of “an 18-year-old girl taking a shower” to a businessman in a dive bar. He even becomes addicted to reliving his own recorded sensory experiences, continually returning to an erotically charged moment of learning to rollerblade with his ex-girlfriend, played by Juliette Lewis. Cinema scholar Caetlin Benson-Allott suggests that Bigelow’s feature films “invite us to see differently,” and these moments from Strange Days remind us that something innocent can seamlessly become something illicit, based on who is doing the seeing.
Changes in our culture are reflected in glass surfaces. The ease with which visual experiences are shared online can concern parents, who worry that images of their children might come under the desirous gaze of a stranger. Thanks to increasingly ubiquitous private screens, increasingly we see only the content we choose. Virtual 3D worlds such as Second Life, which digitally mimic the real world, have fallen out of favor. Rather than entering simulated worlds that reflect the physical world, we’re saturating our own real world with things that are more and more virtual—all via glass screens. We thumb our glass phones and grasp our glass tablets with vigor. These devices respond to the natural electricity in our fingertips, suggesting that we’re bringing them to life but also reminding us that our bodies are in some ways machines, too.
Google Glass signals another move towards a world comprised of transparent surfaces that satisfy our whims. The headline of Google’s marketing site, “Welcome to a world through Glass,” asks us to look closely at a product that’s designed to be looked through. A promotional video from Google shows first-hand the viewpoint of someone using Glass. If the whooping and gleeful screaming in the video are any indication, the Glass users want to be quickly directed to their desires: taking hot-air balloon rides, rushing for last-minute flights from San Francisco to New York, or strutting down the fashion runway. These people are following their bliss and jumping from peak experience to peak experience.
But how many people are really living such lives of constant adventure? Abraham Maslow seemed to believe there were a select few who could attain such an apex of living out loud. Maslow suggested that the most highly evolved of people could reach the “self-actualization” stage of his hierarchy of needs, and thereafter experience a life comprised of peak experiences. The promotional materials for Glass suggest that those people are out there. And don’t worry if you’re not one of them—you can still experience this euphoria on your computer screen, through somebody else’s elevated eyes.
While Google Glass is less speculative than the objects in a science fiction film or even in Corning’s video, it’s still unclear exactly who will use it. Andrej Karpathy, a graduate student in Computer Science at Stanford University and former intern at Google Research, has analyzed the winners chosen to be early adopters of the product by tweeting a reason to #ifihadglass. Karpathy found that only 26 percent have less than 100 followers on Twitter, suggesting that these people already have a cadre experiencing their lives through a series of pithy headlines and newsbursts. One winner, 4everBrandy, had this reason for wanting to win: “I would be sooooooo ecstatic!!!!” 4everBrandy’s wording does more than just reflect apexes of enthusiasm; there is also something belied in the etymology of the adjective she chooses. Ecstatic and ecstasy have their origins in being “beside oneself.” Viewing the world through someone else’s eyes leads us to the highest levels of feeling—and also offers the promise of stepping out of our bodies.
It might seem odd to use the term “ecstasy” in the same breath as Google Glass. As Atlantic writer Rebecca Greenfield recently noted, despite the stylish photos of urban hipsters on Google’s site, the product may quickly lose appeal because of its dorkiness. But more optimistically, Glass’s success isn’t predicated on how it looks. Rather, it’s all about how Glass invites us to look and how it makes us more aware of when and where we’re looking. The ecstasy-inducing capacity of Google Glass lies in the pleasure of watching: watching others, being watched, and watching for the meaning of the technocultural moment heralded by Google’s evocative new product. Glass promises a new way to get out of our own bodies and to enter those of others. And we like it.
Wearing Google Glass, our eyes may no longer float naturally from object to object, but instead look more deliberately upon what we think others might want to see. Steve Mann has coined the apt term “augmediated” to describe the ways that computerized eyewear shows us more of the world—but also distances us from it by making us aware of the lenses through which we’re always looking. And as our everyday glass objects promise interaction rather than simply reflection, we’ll start to expect a glass partition in a hotel lobby or a table at a restaurant to recognize and respond to us. We touch glass and it touches us back with the images of our desires. These objects take us further out of ourselves—into the lives of others or into speculative lives we hope to be living. While such a world may be more immediately stimulating, it’s hard not to feel that we’re losing one of the best parts of having our whims fulfilled. If glass dictates where we look, we’re less likely to let our gaze absentmindedly float across our surroundings, surprising us when we lock our eyes on an unexpected and unexplained object of desire.