Google Glass is here, but the view is more invalid than cyborg...

For £1,000, you can now sport the technology that promises to transform our lives, or destroy personal privacy, depending on your lookout

Look at your wrist. Do you see a watch? If you do, you have already embraced the idea of a wearable computer – although it’s sobering to recall that the widespread use of wristwatches by men came home from the battlefields of the First World War. As for eyeglasses, Venice had rules that governed the craft of making portable corrective lenses by the early 1300s. To stretch a point, woven cloth and stitched leather date back at least to the early Neolithic Age. Technology has empowered, enabled and enhanced the human body for 10,000 years and more.

Google describes its much-debated Glass device as “an extension of you”. An interesting choice of words: it was Marshall McLuhan – the Canadian communications guru of the sixties given a posthumous lease of life by the digital age – who half a century ago dubbed media as “the extensions of man”. Now, on a summer afternoon in King’s Cross near the UK “home base” for Google’s intelligent eyewear, this latest extension is perching on my nose. With the patient support of Alice, one of the company’s “guides” for gormless novices, I wander gingerly around the neighbourhood to see what it can – and cannot – do.

First announced in April 2012, trialled in the US a year ago, Google Glass remains a prototype product that (in this country) asks users to pay a cool £1000 for the privilege of joining its research team. The project wants, and needs, feedback from these “Glass Explorers” to iron out bugs and glitches, and to discover new applications, before the smart specs go on general sale.

From surgeons to chefs and firefighters, plenty of professionals have already begun to develop functions for a hands-free and voice-activated piece of kit that delivers information on the move, or on a task, without the need to touch or tap a screen. It does so either visually, to the small glass prism attached to the right lens of the 43-gram titanium frame (for the viewer, equivalent to a 25in HD screen 8ft away), or else verbally, via a tiny microphone that makes use of the bone-conduction technology found in hearing aids. Alice says she employs the mapping function to follow directions while cycling – a usage that calls for the kind of confidence few people on the planet will yet have with Glass.

 

First impressions? The flexible titanium frame is easy enough to wear, and can be customised – for an extra cost – with prescription or sunglass lenses. It took me a while to adjust the screen attachment that sits at the edge of your vision until it felt completely comfortable. Likewise, I proved pretty clumsy at first with the taps and slides in different directions that wake Glass up and then move it from one display to another – but all of that would become more familiar with practice.

The voice command “OK Glass” summons the genie from its lamp: take a photo or a video (with a default length of only 10 seconds); answer a question, via that ghostly bone-conducted voice, or do a Google search and show its results. At Granary Square, with a giant screen showing matches at Wimbledon, it updated me on tournament news and told me what I wanted to know about Thomas and Lewis Cubitt, the 19th-century master-builders of these palatial sheds and storehouses.

A few hitches delayed us: non-recognition of some voice commands, and problems with tethering Glass to data from a smartphone. For all the promise of a handset-free future, you can’t yet do all that much without an online connection. No doubt a lot of the delay came from my own beginner’s ineptitude. Some (for instance, failing to hear spoken responses) had to do with ambient noise and bustle; crowds, and glare, make it harder to get the messages.

I did have moments of Aladdin-like wonderment. Once I had got used to the maps (a favourite for many Glass pioneers), the blue line that leads towards your destination, modifying its course to your steps, does feel like an enchantment. Even more so the translation function, which – OK, after a bit of head-wagging – converted a “No Smoking” sign into “Défense de Fumer”. This was the nearest to a science-fiction scene during my stroll with Glass, as a mental function appeared to take material shape. An illusion, of course: I had merely searched a remote database and received the result. Still, I felt a slight frisson.

Google Glass replicated the translate function on a smartphone instantly (Teri Pengilley/The Independent) Google Glass replicated the translate function on a smartphone instantly (Teri Pengilley/The Independent)
As a first-wave “explorer” with a gizmo on your face, you do fear looking like a bit of a wally. Alice told me that she would wear Glass in the park with her dog. “But in a club, no.” In uber-trendy King’s Cross, virtually no one batted an unenhanced eyelid – although a road worker did ask if we were reading maps. We were. In central London, you’ll need to sport more than a distended pair of specs to make a reputation for oddity.

The sheer conspicuousness of the device – a deliberate design – puts those early worries about privacy and surveillance into perspective. During video recording, the frame even lights up. A discreetly pocketed smartphone still offers many more options for covert information-gathering. Which also means that the noble calling of the citizen-journalist in the midst of riot or repression will probably have little use for Glass. A truncheon-swinging heavy would pick on its wearers first.

As for the panic about piracy in cinemas, the frame’s obtrusive visibility and limited recording capacity (max. 45 minutes of video) make this a pretty superfluous gadget in the techno-criminal’s toolbox. On etiquette in general, Google’s “Don’t be a glasshole” advice emphasises that users should switch off in the same places and for the same reasons as they would kill their phones. But then, after a short inactive spell, Glass goes to sleep anyway without prompting. Hence the need for regular side-taps to rouse the easily tired genie from its slumber.

After blundering around these prettified Victorian railway-lands – remnants of an earlier hot technology – did I feel like a visitor from the future? The opposite: more like an invalid than a cyborg. That hi-tech bulge over the right eyelid, with its need to be stroked and instructed, had an almost medical effect – and, after all, you are using a hearing-aid transducer. Rather than sensing yourself to be a superior, upgraded brain, you might feel (as I did) visibly impaired and in manifest need of prosthetic help. But then all our frail bodies and minds suffer various defects. Glass seeks in part to remedy one of them – the limits of our memory and knowledge without manual access to page or screen.

Surely here’s the rub. Any objection to Glass as an irritant distraction that seeks to bind our curiosity to a corporate database would apply to smartphones and laptops; in effect, to any portable technology. If you really wish to regain the innocence of the questing eye, then leave all your kit at home – even the wristwatch and phone. Try walking data-naked for a day: a temporary fast can be very therapeutic.

The prosthetic attachment of Glass to human eye and ear makes it look like some game-changing integration of individual mind into collective data. It is not. If it allows firefighters to navigate burning buildings via instant access to floor plans, or even home cooks to craft a curry without dunking recipe books or e-readers in indelible sauce, that sort of function should prove enough to carve out a secure niche – though not, I’m sure, at £1000 a throw. More than that it will not do.

Boyd Tonkin, senior writer and columnist for The Independent, tries out Google Glass (Teri Pengilley/The Independent) Boyd Tonkin, senior writer and columnist for The Independent, tries out Google Glass (Teri Pengilley/The Independent)

If you worry about knowing too much but seeing too little, or about glimpsing reality through a fuzzy screen of corporate data, then to wear or to refuse to wear a £1000 pair of chatty super-specs will neither redeem nor ruin you. All the same, a much bigger picture does lie behind the Glass.

Over the past few months, Google has made a series of key appointments and acquisitions that signal its intention to recruit some of the planet’s leading thinkers in the field of artificial intelligence. It bought, for around £240 million, DeepMind – a British start-up researching the “learning algorithms” that enable computers to acquire or mimic the contextual knowledge that their human users have. That same principle lay behind its hiring of cognitive scientist Geoff Hinton, a pioneer of the artificial “neural networks” that can bring machine-learning closer to the workings of the brain.

Above all, in December 2012, Google appointed Ray Kurzweil as director of engineering. Without hyperbole, that was much like IBM signing Isaac Asimov or Arthur C Clarke as head of R&D in the 1950s. To be sure, Kurzweil has distinguished credentials as a hi-tech inventor – from flatbed scanners to text-to-voice software. But his cultural cachet rests on his role as far-out futurological guru who often patrols the edgelands where science proper and science fiction meet. Kurzweil believes that, by around 2029, the “singularity” will merge human and machine intelligence.

Then, in the Kurzweilian Utopia, we really would be wired up to the World Brain: a different kettle of petabytes from my request to Glass to show me “No Smoking” in French. Kurzweil’s ambitions tend to soar to a level somewhat beyond the “X Lab” lab workshops where Google thinks and crafts its cleverest toys – whether nose-supported mini-computers or self-driving cars.

Still, the near and the far can connect. For instance, Glass makes use of the natural-language, human-sensitive computing that lies at the heart of Kurzweil’s vision. Wrap that sort of capability – literally – around your brain, rather than at your fingertips, and fantasies of a cyborgian future do spring more readily to mind. However, fantasies they remain. For the moment, most of the Glass “explorers” will be happy enough to follow the blue line to their next rendezvous. Beyond that, God – or Ray Kurzweil – only knows.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Life and Style
Suited and booted in the Lanvin show at the Paris menswear collections
fashionParis Fashion Week
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Kara Tointon and Jeremy Piven star in Mr Selfridge
tvActress Kara Tointon on what to expect from Series 3
Voices
Winston Churchill, then prime minister, outside No 10 in June 1943
voicesA C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
News
i100
News
An asteroid is set to pass so close to Earth it will be visible with binoculars
news
News
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Gadgets & Tech

    Ashdown Group: Systems Analyst - Tunbridge Wells - £30,000

    £25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Junior Test Analyst/Systems Administ...

    Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - .NET, C#

    £40000 - £65000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Global Real Estate Software P...

    Recruitment Genius: Drupal / PHP Developer

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity for a talented...

    Recruitment Genius: IT Technical Support Engineer

    £17000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Due to continuing growth, recru...

    Day In a Page

    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project