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Google Glass and the third half of your brain

Google wants to be an extension of your mind. Glass, though accompanied by skepticism and fear, is a gateway for Google to achieve that goal.

Google co-founder Sergey Brin sends data from his Glass to Google's servers.
Image by CNET/Google

Injecting new technologies into cultures can be tricky.

When the telephone was first introduced in the 19th century, people had major concerns about health risks as well as fears that unwanted ears would be listening in on their conversations. Some people avoided using the telephone, believing the new device would adversely impact relationships in their community or that they could contract diseases through the telephone from parties breathing on the other line.

Nearly 100 years later, the first cell phone, which weighed in at 2.5 pounds and cost nearly $4,000, was greeted with skepticism, concerns about health risks, and social disruption.

Martin Cooper of Motorola is considered the father of the cell phone. He made the first private mobile phone call in 1973. The Motorola DynaTAC handset was first introduced in 1983. It had 30 minutes of talk time and 8 hours of standby. Motorola/CBS

The introduction of new technologies are often accompanied by fear and uncertainty, according to Amparo Lasen Diaz, a professor of sociology at Universidad Complutense de Madrid. She notes:

A certain amount of 'moral panic' about its effects ensues the adoption of many new technologies. Some of those fears are similar in both cases [land line and mobile telephones]: threats to the health, danger of addiction, the decline of traditional interactions, the loss of interest in taking part in social activities or inconsiderate behaviour. Others are new, such as the privatisation of public space, the intrusion of work into the private sphere, or the increased possibilities for control.

Now Google Glass enters the scene -- the wearable progeny of Ivan Sutherland's augmented reality display, the mobile phone, and science fiction -- accompanied by curiosity, excitement, and fear.

Later this year, for less than $1,500, consumers will be able to get their hands on Glass Glass, and we will begin to witness techies talking to their spectacle-mounted Google display and recording photos, video, and audio of their surroundings.

In 1968, Ivan Sutherland developed an augmented reality system, with a head-mounted display tethered to a computing system. Ivan Sutherland

Glass backlash
The backlash has already started. One Seattle bar placed a ban on entering the establishment with Google Glass. The ban was partly a publicity stunt, but concerns about privacy and social interaction etiquette surround Google Glass. It's bad enough that people chat loudly on their cell phones or to Apple's Siri or Google Voice while standing in line for coffee; now they will chatting via Glass and recording whatever the Glass sees and sending it back to the Google cloud for targeting and anonymized data mining.

"We want to make Google the third half of your brain," said Glass frontman and Google co-founder Sergey Brin said in 2010. That's what has some people worried about Glass. The third half of your brain could be perceived as your digital hemisphere locked in a Google cloud that captures all your interactions through the Glass lens and other Google access points, although Google would contend that the third half of your brain refers to a future search engine that "understands exactly what you mean and gives you back exactly what you want." Whatever the interpretation, Glass is a gateway to Google's goal to super-serve your digital soul.

You can ask Glass to search for answers to your questions based on your location. Google

"Google Glass opens a new front in the digital war against privacy, but the company is not in any way guarded about the way in which the spectacles, or its self-driving car technology, can be used as a surveillance tool," said "Digital Vertigo" author Andrew Keen.

"You and I could be sitting in a restaurant, and another person wearing Google Glass can be filming everything we do, and we have no idea where the data is going or who is collecting the data. Fundamentally, people are not comfortable being watched and not having control over their data."

The data gathering capabilities of Glass aren't new. Anyone with a smartphone can take photos and record video in a restaurant and share the data. But Glass has the potential to make those tasks far less overt and more surreptitious.

Google's approach so far to dealing with Glass backlash is to say that the market will dictate the new normal. "It is still very early days for Glass, and we expect that as with other new technologies, such as cell phones, behaviors and social norms will develop over time," a Google spokesperson said.

Keen noted: "Google knows Glass will be controversial. The company is willing to forgo addressing issues like privacy to push a technology. They could be more transparent, but it's all part of its strategy to Hoover up data and become the dominant big data company."

Figuring out how far to push edge has sometimes proved troublesome for Google. Just this week, Google signed off on an agreement to settle a long-running controversy involving unauthorized data collection during its Street View project. And the company has clashed with European regulators over how to square search results data results with local privacy laws.

It's all about the apps
While Glass is in its early days, it's not hard to imagine billions of people wearing some descendent of the device. Several companies, such as Vuzix, are developing wearable devices that will compete with Glass. Apple is rumored to be working on an iWatch that complements the iPhone. ABI Research predicts that the wearable device market will grow to 485 million annual shipments by 2018.

"There will be Apple Glass, and Google Glass, and RIM Glass. These companies are all working on glass. I think everyone is going to be making glass. I think we're also going to have a glass war instead of a smartphone war," wearable computing pioneer Steve Mann told The New York Times last year.

For the telephone and cell phone, business users were the first adopters. With a price above $1,000, Glass will be for the well-heeled technophiles and businesses that can calculate a clear return on the investment. For example, a wearable, voice controlled eyepiece computer could be an efficient way for merchandisers to scan information, search, and give instructions to computer systems.

In five years, however, Glass and its competitors will likely be priced under $100 or even free with subscriptions to cellular, prime shopping, and other services. The device will be even smaller and more powerful, fully integrated into fashionable eyewear. As with the cell phone, apps will be the key driver of adoption.

Glass and other wearable devices on the iOS and Android platforms will benefit from more than a million apps currently available. Glass will retrieve news, e-mails, tweets, and other text and read them to you. In addition, the device takes dictation and can share or store data. Without your having to look down at some other device, Glass can present almost any kind of data, including biometric data as you jog or bike along a trail.

Iron Man Tony Stark, Star Trek's Geordi La Forge, and Google's Sergey Brin Disney, Paramount, CNET

Within the next decade Glass-like devices could become just as integral to daily life as the smartphone, and even replace the smartphone. Inside a store, Glass could scan bar codes and present relevant information and even on-the-spot coupons for bargain hunters. You could see the ingredients for a product as well as reviews and competitive pricing on demand, hands-free. With its third half of your brain, Google can more precisely target search results and other content, as well as advertising, resulting in more revenue per user.

Then there is the Insight app for Glass, created by some Duke University researchers. The app, partly funded by Google, uses data from clothing colors, body structure, and motion patterns as fingerprints to identify people. The idea is to help people find each other in busy places like airports, shopping malls, and sporting venues. Each individual has pictures taken via their smartphone, which are turned into visual fingerprints in the cloud that Glass can access for identification, and linked to social profiles. If a person changes their clothes after InSight calculates a visual fingerprint, they would become anonymous again.

Sketch of InSight: Bob's phone announces his own name and fingerprint to the vicinity; Alice's phone computes fingerprints from her Glass, matches them against the ones received from the vicinity, and recognizes Bob. InSight

Let's suppose that someone else develops an app similar to InSight that takes pictures of people without their permission, applies advanced facial recognition and creates a database of visual fingerprints linked to financial and shopping data that can indicate to salespeople which customers in a store are the best prospects. A hotel could instantly recognize high-value customers entering the premises and know their preferences and past history. Those applications of the technology might be considered practical but also a bit sinister.

The creative people at Sight Systems offer a glimpse of a strange world where Google Glass and its competitors could be heading in the video below.

Sight from Sight Systems on Vimeo.