The Future of Smart Glasses

Feb 08, 2016

The Future of Smart Glasses

by Olivier Rouy

Smart glasses offer totally new features. They represent a clean break from the smartphone paradigm. A computer that sits on your nose has many benefits:
 

You don’t need your hands to use it
Many things cannot be done when holding and tapping the screen of your smartphone, or turning your wrist to look at your watch. Glasses don’t require to be held up to your face: they’re already sitting there. Users don’t need to drop what they’re doing in order to check what’s going on in the cyber world, they can do it hands free. This is already attracting interest from police forces.
 

You don’t need to look away to check it
Although the idea of a head up display (HUD) is not completely new, it remains a great one. Whenever your gaze must not be distracted from your current task, checking the screens of smartphones, and even watches, becomes an issue. On the contrary, the screens of smart glasses, being always in your field of vision, are perfect for this situation; they will be a boon for professionals who need data support while operating — surgeons and mechanics, in particular.
 

It can stay always on
Because they are located as close as possible to the main sensors of our body, our eyes and ears, glasses are always ready to use. The wearer can receive and send information at any moment, in any physical position.

Those 3 points represent a huge gain in conveniency. In addition, smart glasses bring advantages similar to watches regarding safety from theft and biometric data collection, although to a lesser extent.

Ultimately, smart glasses make possible the concept of augmented reality: the superposition of data over what we see, bringing both the physical world and the virtual one together in the same picture. No other form factor can offer the ability to switch so easily from the surrounding reality to data, and back. No gesture, not even a movement of the head is required; our interaction with data can become almost seamless and instantaneous.
 

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Smart glasses have a lot of use cases
To take an obvious example, the capture of pictures and video works even better with smart glasses, since the alignment with your perspective is guaranteed. Smart glasses could take over from smartphones as the “best camera in the world” : i.e. the one that’s always with you.

Applications such as maps, GPS, tourism guides, etc, can be built to display data about what is in your field of vision. Contextual data related to your current interests (gathered through search or other), current location and the orientation of your head could be provided without even having to ask. This is the first step towards augmented reality, and Google seems to have made a good start there.

Smart glasses share some shortcomings with the watch : screen size and text entry methods are severely restricted, and voice input would need to be top-notch to make up for that. Touch input is reduced to a bare minimum. But they bring much more functionality and potential in exchange.
 

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As most new things, smart glasses will have a tough time being accepted. Good looks are only a minor concern.
In that respect, smart glasses could be seen as sunglasses, or just plain glasses: they would fulfil a utilitarian function, while significantly altering the way you look. People put on their glasses when they intend to read, they wear their sunglasses in sunny places (or when they want to look cool). Why not put on the smart glasses when you need to do some connected tasks? I am yet unsure whether many people are ready to change their looks when using a personal computing device, but all considered, it is not that unlikely. All they need is a cool design.

Google glass users have already earned a less-than-nice nickname, which sums-up the kind of resentment one creates when they wear the latest expensive and exclusive tech gadget on their face, in the face of all the rest of us. It doesn’t just look weird ; there’s a perception of arrogance, of a claim to a higher status. But cellphone users were once stigmatized in a similar way, and here we are now.
 

Worse: smart glasses will cause gross behavior
For people wearing glasses, the small screen in the corner of their field of vision would be a constant source of distraction. At any moment, they could abstract themselves from an interaction with other people, to check e-mail notifications or a wikipedia entry on their smart glasses. Such behavior is already a pain with smartphones, it would become even more common. Maybe new social conventions will be adopted to regulate these uses and make them less annoying.

If not, with such a powerful temptation to switch off from any slightly annoying circumstances, zapping will become the default mode of interaction with people, and attention spans will become even shorter than they are already. Are we going to witness the rise of the goldfish generation? Isn’t it already the case?

Moreover, smart glasses makers might enable passive uses, where information is pushed unsollicited to the wearer. For example, imagine walking in the street and suddenly receiving ads for the local burger joint, because data shows you haven’t had lunch yet. Some people may appreciate it, but it would also create new situations where we are unwillingly distracted from a human interaction and pulled in the world of data, making us even more rude. And this flow of unsollicited information could also be seen as an attempt to control our behaviours. This will be especially tempting for companies whose business model is based on advertising.

Let’s face it : the notion of interposing a computer screen between our eyes and our environment is a bit scary.

The rudeness and instrusiveness of such devices might be shocking, but once, people found ads inserted in the middle of movies obnoxious as well — and some still do, but the ads are there nonetheless. Economic interests create a strong pressure which can progressively bend our standards, and make us tolerate a nuisance. I don’t believe that rudeness alone will prevent people from using smart glasses.
 

The real issue is privacy
A device that allows you to take pictures or videos at any given time, without anyone noticing, is bound to raise some alarms; it already does. Even though Google and Facebook have a real interest in destroying the notion of privacy as we know it, and have actually started to do so, a backlash is possible. Many people are uneasy whenever someone wearing Google Glass is facing them, knowing that there is a camera (and maybe a microphone) pointed at them.

You could think of solutions to reduce the creepiness; the glasses could display a blinking light when filming, for example. But they could be hacked in order not to display it; and even if they weren’t, there would still be cameras continuously aimed at everyone. Smartphones have already made stolen images a threat to our privacy ; smart glasses will bring the threat to a new level.

Enough to bring a definitive backlash, or to thwart adoption? That remains to be seen. The internet, and social media in particular, have spearheaded a major change in what people consider as private or public information. It may either be a long-term change, or a swing of the pendulum in one direction soon to be followed by a corrective movement in the opposite direction. Attitudes towards smart glasses will be part of these fundamental changes.
 

Glasses as the new car, smartphones as the new truck?
transformed once we experience them with smart glasses, and many new, groundbreaking uses could be created thanks to the innovative form factor.

Because there are so many ways to use them, because they are the ultimate “always with you” device, there is a good chance that one day, we do the majority of our digital tasks with them. A share of our digital life large enough that the glasses become our primary device, in spite of their restrictions. We have been there before: yes, you still need a “real computer” to build spreadsheet, but it hasn’t prevented smartphones from capturing a large chunk of the time we previously spent on PCs.

Indeed, we may reach an age of multiple options. Some people may stick to their smartphones, others may like to have both smartphone and smart glasses, but we should expect to see a third category: people who want to mostly, or even exclusively, rely on glasses, at times or all the time.

The multiplication of mobile devices of all sizes and shapes will offer a lot of choice for this. Some combinations could completely suppress the need for smartphones. For example, one could organize their digital life around smart glasses for daily uses, a 7″ or 8″ tablet for more text-oriented uses, and be perfectly fine.
 

A mobile internet connection will be required
Existing wearable devices need to be used in association with a smartphone, via tethering or bluetooth. It allows to have the chip, antenna and battery required to reach the mobile internet in a place where their volume and weight are not a concern. But with the expected progress of miniaturization and power efficiency (assuming Moore’s law still applies), wearable devices could become autonomous in a not-so-distant future. Being able to sell and use them separately from smartphones would open the doors of mass markets, for example for customers who would rather not buy more than one device; so we should expect this autonomy to be pursued by makers, and ultimately within reach.

Obviously, adding a 4G chip and antenna to smart glasses raises issues. First, I heard it is not recommended to have a powerful radio emitting close to the head for extended periods of time. How to minimize that? Should we don the new, shiny smart-helmet? A solution cold be to build a separate, pocket-sized module to support the additional power and connectivity, in the manner of a portable hotspot, but it would lack elegance, not to mention the multiple devices to keep charged. Second, what about data plans? Would we have to subscribe a separate contract with carriers? Should it cover voice calls as well as data? A lot will depend on carriers’ attitudes towards the new devices, and the lessons they draw from their experience with smartphones.
 

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Like it or not, smart glasses are coming!
Whilst glasses are not the path of least resistance towards the future of personal computing, they have the greatest potential to upset the computer industry, and — unfortunately — the concept of privacy as well. This is why, even though many elements are still missing, we can bet a lot of resources and thought will be spent on smart glasses and ultimately, solutions will be found.
Let’s just hope that some acceptable proposals will be made to protect our privacy from these spying machines. For this to happen, more competition will be needed; it doesn’t feel safe to leave only one major player such as Google define this product category according to its own interests. But whatever the outcome, I believe smart glasses will radically impact the computer industry — and us, its customers — in the years to come.

 
 

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