Every major tech company is working on computer glasses. None of them really want to go first.
They all remember how Google Glass, and the “Glassholes” who wore them in public, became the laughingstock of the world. So they’ve been waiting, biding their time, refining their prototypes, and every so often making sure investors know that, no, they’re not going to let the first potentially iPhone-sized opportunity since the iPhone slip by.
But now, Google itself is taking the next step. And whether you’ve been dreading the moment when Big Tech’s all-seeing eyes reappear on people’s heads or merely counting the days until you can own a hands-free camera-computer, you should know we’re on the verge of contending with them once again.
Last Tuesday, Google revealed that it will begin testing camera-equipped augmented reality glasses in public, and the company’s blog post contains numerous statements designed to assure you that this won’t be the era of Glassholes all over again. Google claims it’s starting with “a few dozen” testers, and the cameras and microphones on its glasses “don’t support photography and videography.” They do collect visual data, but Google wants you to imagine use cases like “translating the menu in front of you” — not recording someone across from you at a bar.
The company’s support page also contains an entire list of FAQs like “What is image data used for?”; “How long is it stored?”; and “How will I know if I’m in close proximity to products being tested?” Turns out there’s an LED that lights up if Google decides to save images for analysis, and it promises to delete them 30 days later.
For now, Google says its testers won’t be using them in schools, hospitals, churches, playgrounds, and the like — though it says nothing about restaurants and bars, where Glass famously got wearers in trouble years ago.
You probably already know how you feel, but...
If you hate this idea, there’s probably nothing I can say to convince you otherwise, nor would I necessarily want to; I’m not going to pretend to know whether such a gadget should exist in the world. I just think you should realize that if Google’s test doesn’t end in utter disgust, it won’t be long before Apple, Microsoft, and others throw their long-awaited glasses into the ring as well.
And in 2022, I wouldn’t actually bet on disgust, mainly because we’ve had a decade of pointing phones at things in public, documenting every element of our lives, to prepare us for what’s to come.
Since the day in 2012 when a team of Google skydivers landed on Moscone Center with the first public Google Glass prototypes, mobile camera use has exploded. Not only have phone cameras utterly destroyed point-and-shoots but they’ve also changed social norms. In 2012, it was still a little weird to whip out a camera in a bar or restaurant; now, it’d be weird not to nab a selfie with friends or snap some shots of a particularly tasty-looking meal. And the fear you might accidentally capture a stranger in your shot? It’s such a normal everyday occurrence that Google uses a “magic” background person eraser as a selling point for its Pixel phones.
Besides, mobile cameras aren’t just filming when someone thinks to pull their smartphone out of their pocket; they’re flying through the air. Anyone can now buy a self-flying camera from Snap for $230 to film public places robotically, and we’ve had most of a decade to get used to the idea that another person’s camera might be looking down on you from above. The vast majority of the consumer drone revolution occurred after Google Glass — the DJI Phantom wasn’t released until 2013.
Google Glass also predated the wide adoption of 4G LTE, which brought livestreaming and instant video publishing to the masses. It’s the reason you can record the police and maybe possibly hold them accountable. (Remember when Google Glass pundits wrote about the concept of “sousveillance,” a form of reverse surveillance where people use their own cameras to watch the watchers? Phones already took us partway there.)
Public spaces are full of cameras pointed in every direction now, and there’s very little expectation of privacy outside of your home. Society hasn’t mounted many successful challenges to the proliferation of cameras, either. And even if filming were illegal, how would you police it? It’s not easy to tell if someone is actually recording, checking TikTok, or even just getting work done on the go.
Will the pandemic reset norms?
As my former colleague Ellis Hamburger put it in 2014, we are all Glassholes now. And I feel that’s only become more true through the pandemic, as even technology holdouts have begun to rely on pocket computers for bare necessities like socialization and food. In the last couple of years, I’ve seen people who swore off technology for things they could do in person begrudgingly turn to Amazon, DoorDash, Facebook, Instacart, and more. And I suspect some of them will be more open-minded about the benefits of tech now.
Even headsets may not carry quite the stigma they did due to the pandemic. VR usage exploded during the 2020 lockdowns, even if the overall sales numbers are still relatively small. The modern rise and fall and rise of virtual reality is, again, something that happened after Google Glass’s fateful 2012 launch.
The pandemic might also wind up resetting some of our social norms like masking, which has the handy side effect of obscuring your identity from cameras while also lessening the spread of germs. It’s not too hard to imagine countries that would tolerate citizens wearing a Bane-like mask tolerating other head-worn gadgets as well. You might remember a time when Bluetooth headsets were considered too dorky and rude to wear in public, and those have been thoroughly normalized now.
Besides, Google isn’t the first to dip a toe back in these waters. Snapchat is now on the fourth generation of its Spectacles camera glasses, Meta has its Ray-Ban Stories, and you could argue Meta’s Project Aria test is pretty similar to what Google’s doing now. None has yet generated the kind of stink that Google Glass experienced a decade ago.
Sure, that could change if a future pair of glasses proves to be more intrusive than our existing phones and drones. There are definitely going to be serious questions about data collection and privacy, particularly given the track record of some of the companies building them.
But in 2022, I think the bigger challenge facing Apple, Google, Meta, Microsoft, and Snap is figuring out how to build AR experiences we’d actually pay for — experiences more compelling or convenient than what phones already offer. As we wrote in May when Google teased some real-time language translation glasses, the company does have an intriguing idea there:
It’s very hard to watch that video and see a Glasshole. But it’s also too easy to spot the vaporware.