Why Google Glass is the most personal tech you'll never own

commentary With tablets and televisions safely in the "shared tech" category, the still unsettling Google Glass extends the nature of "personal tech" to a whole new level.

Sarah Tew/CBS Interactive

I'll start with an admission: my adventure with Google Glass began with simply sheer, unremarkable curiosity.

On a cold fall Sunday morning in New York's Lower West Side, I walked into the world-famous Chelsea Market and made a beeline for an easy-to-miss elevator up to the eighth floor. I was there to collect about $1,600 worth of gadgetry that I knew may never make the light of day in its current incarnation.

For the past few weeks, I have bridged man and machine with Google's latest creation. This wearable technology isn't new, and it isn't exactly original in its design or concept: we've seen it in science fiction for years. But the burgeoning sensation of "what's next" led me to dig deep into my wallet to own something in this brand-new and disruptive category of gadgetry.

Inside the Glass prism Unlike a regular set of glasses, Google Glass' micro-display resting above your line of sight takes prime focus. For regular eyeglass wearers, a new pair may feel intrusive and attention-grabbing at first but over time feels natural and a part of you.

Wearing Glass is an entirely different feeling. It takes time for Glass to become a natural and logical extension of what you see and how you interact with the physical world in front of you.

Though it's not often someone on the street of Manhattan makes eye contact with you, it's nevertheless an excruciatingly awkward feeling knowing full well you have an unfamiliar and new device on your head. With Glass, I was enveloped with shyness and coyness, and my confidence rapidly melted away.

It was at almost every public-facing moment (and even with the comfort of our own nerdy newsroom) I was always looking in and thinking how silly I looked. But unlike a regular pair of glasses that become a part of you, the exo-perspective of how one looks to others, which many rarely consider, never goes away.

There was a silver lining: Glass quickly begins to negate other behaviors that almost every smartphone owner in the Western world suffers incessantly: how many times in a day do you pull out your smartphone to check if you have any messages? A dozen or two -- maybe even three? Probably significantly more in fact.

In moments when you're bored, or waiting for someone, or avoiding an awkward moment, or consciously checking in or sending your status -- it's almost subliminal.

With Glass, it's always there. You're conscious of it at all times. It doesn't slip away or blend in, and it's obscurely addictive. Not only is it always at your beck and call, it's quite literally always on -- in your eyesight, in the front of your mind, and physically always pressing gently against your temples.

The content 'cocoon' There are two physical sides to Glass: the prism display that you see, and the odd object that others see on you. Unlike a smartphone that can be looked upon by several people at the same time, Glass cocoons you in a virtual reality of your own content and communication.

While you're encouraged by the device to speak to it as though it's your head-mounted personal assistant, you aren't forced to "OK Glass" every command. The eyeglass is navigable by tapping and swiping the motion sensor in the device's arm.

"OK Glass: send a message" Zack Whittaker/CBS Interactive

There are times when you can and must talk to Glass -- dictating e-mails or text messages are the most common example. But one concern never goes away: the personal privacy factor. In spite of the content cocoon you're enclosed in, it isn't watertight because your messages can be heard by others.

The bone-conducting speaker that reads back your messages directly into your head tingles your temple with a subtle, but the vibration isn't loud or intrusive -- but it can be difficult to hear callers or read-aloud text above a rabble in a room.

From the outside in, I am just a man on the street talking to himself. It still takes a lot for others looking at Glass wearers to grasp exactly what this device can do. If the device were any smaller or more discreet, any distrust of its capabilities would only deepen.

It knows (nearly) everything One of the few things Glass doesn't seem to know is your name. But it knows the more personal things in your life, such as what time you're flying out to London for the holiday season.

Glass piggybacks off the data connection of your Android smartphone or your iPhone when you're out and about, but it has the capability to hop on Wi-Fi networks independently. Regardless of where it finds its connectivity, it gets every shred of data and more through its tethered Google account access. It knows flight times from your e-mail messages, the weather at your location, where's good to eat nearby, and more.

It's not just a logical extension of your smartphone. It is de facto your smartphone.

A smartphone has almost every shred of your data, but it rarely sparks a user's surprise. You knowingly put your e-mail, your social networks, and your contacts and other information on your phone, but then it just sits there. We often forget how much information that we store on our phones.

I don't remember telling Glass when my flights were, but somewhere along the line -- in e-mail or on a social network -- I did, and it knows.

"OK Glass: what is my flight status?" Zack Whittaker/CBS Interactive

In fact, Glass has deep Google Now integration that throws up "cards" whenever it may help. On the morning I wrote this, I knew I had my flight, but like magic a message appears with terminal information and live departure status. I walked around the terminal and, behold: a place to grab a coffee and somewhere to buy a slice of cake. It's not beyond the realms of just walking around and killing time, but a week with Glass makes a smartphone feel somewhat archaic.

The fact that this wearable technology sits within plain sight makes interfacing with it feel closer and more interactive. By that, the reality that your data is visual, it's always there, and it's available as and when you want it.

It's an unprecedented visual insight into how much data you actually have stored in the cloud (and what can be done with it) by a company whose product doesn't even know your name -- even if you know its. That's a little disconcerting, if not borderline scary in the post-surveillance disclosures world.

There's a reason why eyeglass tech hasn't taken off yet You've probably seen these wearable glasses before in "Star Wars" or "Star Trek" or something similar.

Sarah Tew/CBS Interactive

But "The Terminator" and those shades that the cyber-Schwarzenegger wore probably provide a far more realistic example of what Glass is. (Except without the death and the killer robots.)

Put something -- or anything -- on your face where people can see it and they will stare, even if they've seen it before. It's difficult not to look, frankly, particularly if we're genuinely intrigued and show interest into what something is. It's a learning process, and education cures ignorance.

But we're just not there yet. As smartphones slowly became the norm, so did the privacy situation surrounding plug-in and embedded cameras in devices all shapes and sizes. It took a while for society to adjust -- though that process was significantly accelerated when we overcame our concerns and realized we could share our cat photos with the world. Particularly in the Western world, we got there in the end.

Because Glass is so far removed from what we see as natural, society will have a great deal of work to do before we can ethically and culturally accept the reality that we are already to some extent part man, part machine, the fact that we are already vastly complemented by technology.

This is not to say it won't happen. But it will take a long time until we as humans feel safe enough to go outside our collective societal comfort zone.

This story originally appeared as "Google Glass: The most personal piece of tech you may never own" on ZDNet.

 

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