Wearables with augmented reality are mind-blowing -- and an ethical nightmare

A panel of industry experts at CES 2014 discusses the ethical quandaries and shared responsibilities with the augmented reality and head-mounted wearables that will change our lives as dramatically as the smartphone.

Nick Statt Former Staff Reporter / News
Nick Statt was a staff reporter for CNET News covering Microsoft, gaming, and technology you sometimes wear. He previously wrote for ReadWrite, was a news associate at the social-news app Flipboard, and his work has appeared in Popular Science and Newsweek. When not complaining about Bay Area bagel quality, he can be found spending a questionable amount of time contemplating his relationship with video games.
Nick Statt
4 min read
Sarah Tew/CNET

We all remember the day, before the smartphone, when taking a picture in public felt a bit invasive, an encroachment on public etiquette that could earn you a dirty look at best and a vocal condemnation if you pushed the envelope. Now watching someone squint into a smartphone screen to snap a shot, regardless of when or where, is part of daily life, so much so that nearly everyone has considered its toll on our ability to "live in the moment."

That sort of transition is bound to happen with the next generation of soon-to-be ubiquitous technology: wearables, specifically head-mounted ones like Google Glass that rely on augmented reality (AR) to deliver information. But not before society as a whole grapples with the fresh set of challenges such gadgets will bring to public life, personal privacy, and our relationships with the companies and authority figures that will have access to more real-world data than ever before.

Because it doesn't stop with cameras you can't see. Wearable tech and the AR software that powers it will surface far-reaching issues, all of which will be hitting court rooms, policy discussions, and dinner table conversations regarding what's appropriate to use in public, safe to use while driving, and mentally healthy to engage in day to day.

In a CES 2014 session titled "Augmented Reality: Next Big Thing or Info Overload?" a panel of AR specialists discussed these issues from the perspective of those who -- in the words of panel participant Brian Mullins, CEO and founder of AR software company Daqri -- will be "essentially arming the public with the technology" to fundamentally change how society functions.

Lumus DK40, the best smartglasses of CES 2014 (pictures)

See all photos

Moderated by Scientific American Senior Editor Seth Fletcher, the talk meandered from the design and engineering challenges of AR and wearables to more philosophic questions. It found itself looking squarely at the ethical dilemmas posed by having devices overflowing with new and telling data strapped to our faces at all times and changing, literally, how we see the world.

"The social engineering aspects of augmented reality are just as important as the computer engineering aspects," said Neil Trevett, VP of mobile marketing at chipmaker Nvidia, which in the last few years has begun experimenting with AR in gaming. Also on the panel was Thomas Alt, CEO of AR software-maker Metaio, which will help power the "Real Sense" 3D camera that Intel announced at CES on Tuesday.

"It's hard to predict how society is going to react. Really the only way is to try it and see," Trevett went on. "Having a camera that you can't tell whether people are using is a new step. Society has to figure out whether that's acceptable."

The camera issue is certainly the most visible backlash against wearables at the moment. Google Glass has been preemptively banned from a number of public locales like bars and restaurants for the reason that it may make some people uncomfortable. But believe it or not, being able to snap is far from the most troublesome ethical quagmire on the horizon, at least in the eyes of the people behind the software that will pull these problems from the periphery.

Because when the privacy issue arose, Fletcher pushed the panel for the creepiest thing the group had ever encountered in the AR space, which was unanimously the inevitability of personalized facial recognition, meaning the kind that can actively identity someone in real-time and not just track motion.

"We've intentionally not released facial recognition tech," said Mullins. "But the genie is out of the bottle." That genie involves a wide variety of misuses. For instance, Mullins said, one could use images discretely captured with a wearable device and cross-reference them with social media, discovering not only who that person is but also relevant information that could inform a conversation with him or her. In other words, Facebook creeping taken to the extreme and wielded in real-time.

And it goes without saying that facial recognition is at its scariest, and most disruptive, when one postulates the ways in which governments could abuse it, or personalized advertising could begin flooding our field of view when we walk down the street.

"Personally I think it's going to force the social-media industry to actually provide users with more 'real' protections," said Trevett. A common refrain from the bunch was the idea that wearables and AR bring with them a collective, societal responsibility -- and that sentiment was repeated only partly because it absolved the AR experts of shouldering all the responsibility for the rippling effects the industry will bring.

Because at the end of the day, deciding the future of wearables and AR, like most technology these days, is a consumer-oriented conversation that involves everyone up and down the chain. Nobody is going to force you to use Google Glass, and technology dies on the vine, even if it's powerful, when nobody wants to buy it or be seen using it. So while Glass has been fantastic at stirring up the necessary questions and getting people to actively consider how this technology will change us, it's received a thorough beating -- to the point of critics continuously forecasting that it will fail.

Still, much like scientists must wade through the personal debate surrounding discoveries becoming weaponized or manipulated by industry, the innovators in the wearable hardware and software space are stuck with a heavier weight than most when wondering about the ways in which their developments will trickle down to the mainstream.

"I think it's more than a little ironic that we're having this conversation in Las Vegas, where we're on camera all the time," Mullins noted, adding that powerful facial recognition is used by nearly every large casino in the area to surface unlawful gamblers.

"I don't think we can hide behind the fact that our technology could be used in that way," Mullins added.