In the first season finale of the brilliant British TV sci-fi anthology Black Mirror
, the story is set in a world where the majority of the public have high-tech "grains" implanted behind their ears. These grains allow people to record every waking moment of their lives. Footage can be privately replayed within their field of vision or publicly projected as a floating screen called a "re-do." The scenarios that result in this fictional world don't seem at all farfetched: Business meetings are reviewed and obsessed over, a night out at a club is replayed for ambience at a party, a couple in the midst of a fight replays what the person just said to gain the upper hand.
But this is a world without a single shred of privacy. If you're within someone's eyeline, you're undoubtedly being recorded. Intimate moments between former lovers are saved and replayed like a sex tape that just won't go away. Spotting a mate's furtive glance to someone else can be analyzed like the Zapruder film, picking up every subtle nuance of emotion and adulterous motive. Even a character who elected to have her "grain" removed is looked upon like an oddity, a societal leper. It's a world where, potentially decades prior, everyone saw the possibility to have their entire lives exposed and said, "You know what? We're cool with it."
Coincidentally, the episode aired about eight months before Google
(NASDAQ:GOOG) co-founder Sergey Brin demonstrated the Google Glass to an enraptured crowd at the Google I/O conference in 2012.
Now, we're a long, long way from the kind of technology demonstrated in this Black Mirror
episode, but the themes apparent in the TV show could very easily represent what we'll one day see with Google Glass.
On a smaller timeline, you can almost compare it to when Apple
(NASDAQ:AAPL) CEO Steve Jobs debuted the first-generation iPhone on stage in 2007. We couldn't predict the complete extent of what it meant back then -- the best and most useful features of our present-day smartphones couldn't have been developed or even imagined until we had some time to play around with the devices -- but we knew it was important, and the seedlings of our 2013 smartphone world were just being planted.
We're less than six months into the exclusive developer preview of Google Glass where a select few "Glass Explorers" were given the opportunity to purchase a headset for the low, low price of $1,500 and take it on a real-world test run. Early reviews have been on the positive side, which is surprising given its bare-boned features and the new and unfamiliar way to interact with this connected device. But despite the brief learning curve, most of these "explorers" have quickly and seamlessly integrated Google Glass into their lives until, for some, they've become absolutely indispensable.
But putting aside privacy fears for a moment, how has Google Glass changed the lives of reviewers and the public who spot them in the wild.
By and large, testers have reported that they were initially self-conscious about wearing such a conspicuous and odd-looking device on their heads in public, but social fears were soon eliminated upon realizing that passersby weren't pointing and giggling but curiously engaging. Users have been routinely approached by perfect strangers with opening lines like "Are those them?"
and "Wow, what's it like?" One reviewer mentioned that he almost felt what it's like to be a celebrity or rock star by the way people approached him with childlike wonder.
So it turns out, you're more ripe for mockery by wearing a Bluetooth earpiece than Google Glass.
But the device isn't without a bit of awkwardness. Testers have admitted that the "bone-conduction transducer," which vibrates the bone behind the user's right ear for audio, is a strange feeling -- almost as if the virtual assistant is inside their brains. Another reviewer received some ribbing from a friend who watched him repeatedly invoke the screen with a series of head tilts; the friend said it looked like the reviewer had a tic.
And without a touchscreen, users will have to verbalize their queries aloud in public, letting everyone around them know that not only are they headed to the Met, but they're also not exactly sure how to get there. (Though it probably won't be long before users will be able to type out more private queries on their Bluetooth-linked smartphones and receive visual results on their heads-up display.)
There's also a change in body language from a Google Glass user and a smartphone owner. Rather than posing in a hunched and closed-off stance, with one's forearms bent up and face covered by a glowing screen as if in an upright fetal position, Google Glass users are open to the world and able to engage with others face-to-face -- aside from the occasional glance up and to the right. There's a world of difference between shutting out the world to stare into a small screen six inches from your face and having your face and body continuously exposed. Conversations don't necessarily need to come to an abrupt stop in order to reach into one's pocket, take a photo, then hold a black rectangle between the speaker and listener in order to post the snapshot to Facebook
Ironically, a device purported to be obstructive actually frees the user from obscured positioning. What that means for the future of social engagement and the complaints that connected devices rudely shut out the real world around us remains to be seen.
What is apparent, however, are the fears that Google Glass will mean an end to privacy as we know it. Already we're hearing about businesses preemptively banning the device from the premises -- an obvious decision for places like a Vegas casino or a "gentlemen's club," but a few local bars and restaurants have also posted signs of a Google Glass with a circle and line through it in their front windows.
But oddly enough, like the denizens of the Black Mirror
world, strangers don't appear to mind the possibility of being filmed. Early adopters have reported folks approaching them without a concern for their privacy. Whether that nonchalance will carry into the coming years when more and more people are out in public with tiny cameras attached to their eyelines, again, remains to be seen.
In fact, most of Google Glass' potential is still unforeseen. Like the original iPhone before it, we won't know what features and repercussions -- both social and technological -- will result until developers have some time to tinker with the device. While we're starting to notice a shift in body language, social interaction, and public perception, the capabilities of Google Glass two, five, 10 years down the line are still a mystery.
Then again, we might just be unknowingly witnessing the dawn of Google Grain.
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