Looking the Future in the Eyes


This essay is reposted from Weird Future on Medium

“OK…OK……Oh… wait, hang on.” I’ve got one eye on a small prism, and one trying not to focus on the action in front of me.I’m standing in the middle of a post-industrial warehouse space. It’s a Saturday, and it’s boiling hot outside.

Almost all of the nine people standing nearest me are also staring into space, some squinting, rubbing their right temple, and occasionally and quite suddenly jerking their heads back, nose slightly tipped up, like they’re acknowledging another surfer on the beach. And everyone’s saying “OK” at odd intervals.

More completely, they’re all mostly addressing their headgear with a sunny “OK Glass.” We are in the middle of a strange five-minute demo of Google’s already iconic head-mounted computing device, Glass, and the sensation is not one of empowerment, but of awkward disorientation mixed with racing curiousity. Five minutes, give or take. How to see the future in five minutes? For some, it’s trying to find pizza or barbecue. For others, it’s attempting to video someone else. For most, it’s a slightly zombifying experience, turning slowly, staring just above the horizon, or squinting at a clock floating in front of one eye. Some are talking to their Glass, giving it short commands. Others, like me, are finding the noise level of 50-odd people all muttering to the metal on their heads falling short of the promise, the magic.

All of this is taking place amid a few dozen also slightly nervous looking Googlers jetted in to this warehouse for a day, trying gamefully to fit a few thousand heads with this awkward yet alluring device. And all amid camera crews and sound guys straining in to catch that moment of augmented rapture, when the consumer and the future come together and smile at one another. We are here to see, and we are here to be seen seeing. And somewhere down the road, in a TV spot, banner ad or magazine, you might see us, pioneers in the art of advertising the augmented life.

I’ve been among those to be somewhat skeptical of Google’s Glass from its announcement in February—less about its capabilities, and more about privacy, possibilities of surveillance, or intrusion into the space of others. It’s my job to think about how these things might play out. I’ve also been somewhat circumspect of the way Glass can radically alter social behavioral norms. It’s not like a mobile phone that can be discreetly tucked into a pocket or held at one’s side. It lives on your face. And it isn’t very discreet. Along with the new gestural quirks that it requires for interaction, Glass is something potentially very new, as in “shock of the new”.

I’ve experienced a few moments of Glass nearness in the last few months, both at a conference about technology and society, as well as (rather surprisingly) a random London bus stop on a man also wearing an infant in a BabyBjörn-like carrier, which seemed at once both stressful and a slight cheat to have so much outboard memory.

To fairly judge the device, I needed to experience it first hand. I also felt that, with this device in particular, it was important for me to experience other people in its presence. I got my wish when Google recently announced on Twitter that they would hold a demo near me, what it called the first of a multi-city tour (other cities are as yet unannounced) to let people try out Glass. Luckily for me, my colleague Hilary Dixon, an ethnographer, was able to join me, and later offer her take as well.

The Day

My fellow guinea pigs were a mix of college students, older adults, and some teens that came with family. There were some kids present but only watching, not wearing (some day they will laugh at the experience like someone today recalling their parents bang their first cellphone on the dashboard of the car in frustration). I overheard a Google staffer telling a fellow attendee that the reason children were allowed in but not allowed to wear Glass at the event was that the day would be used to record users for future marketing purposes, and since Glass isn’t designed for kids, they didn’t want issues of poor fit or inaccurate functioning getting caught on camera. Understandable. The future is big, kids, and your heads are still small.You must be this tall to ride this ride.

Meeting Glass

After a short wait outside of the non-descript warehouse space, I was ushered into the buzz of the oddly Crate ‘n’ Barrelish set Google had fashioned for our experience. We were moved through in groups of ten, like people waiting for a roller coaster (and weren’t we?). We anxiously signed boilerplate waivers, and were then introduced to our guides—in my case, two young Googlers from Los Angeles, Venice Beach to be exact, flown east for the event (not atypical, as I found out later).

We were given a brief, if haphazardly worded, intro about how Glass was a product of Google X, which was set up, in the words of one of our guides, “as a futuristic moonshot factory which uses technology to solve problems not ten percent better, but ten times better.” He then went on to describe how a Google engineer had conceived of Glass while attending his daughter’s recital, and being frustrated that his view was obscured by his own smartphone as he recorded the event. I’m not sure how this qualifies as a “global moonshot problem,” but my nine eager compatriots nodded heavily as he told this tale. In fact, they nodded, oooh’d and ahhh’d enthusiastically throughout most of the ten-minute setup. They were about to wear the future, after all.

I’m Talking to the Internet Here…

With about a minute of briefing on controls, we were then handed our own units to quickly try out. I wasn’t sure what to expect. I found the Glass unit surprisingly insubstantial in my hand—more headband than Oculus Rift—yet quite uncomfortable to wear at first. We were given cards with some simple control instructions, and shown a couple of functions in the demo, such as finding a nearby restaurant or snapping a picture, but were generally left to wander in a tight circle, trying to trigger some useful function as the clock ticked.

Some did manage a search or a picture, but most seemed to squint and stare into the distance, flicking their finger on their temple to try various control functions—itself an odd act when performed by many people at once in a small space. One-fingered swipe, two-fingered swipe down, tap, wink, nod. Around us were an additional 50 or so people in other groups attempting the same, all the while being captured at a distance by the wandering video crew, occasionally poking a boom mic at our self-mumblings.Unfortunately, rumored hand gestures haven’t been implemented yet, or we might truly have looked pre-verbal.

Voice commands were nearly useless in a brick-and-steel lined space holding around 100 people, so none of mine worked. With my unit’s battery running low and wi-fi flickering in and out, I was quickly given a second unit, which didn’t function any better. After about five minutes fiddling with two Glass headsets given to me by an increasingly tense-looking guide, our demo was deemed over. I and my cohort of nine fellow trialists were ushered to a free snack and drinks upstairs in the loft space, and a trip to a photobooth where dozens of other folks waited in line to get a selfie with Glass. A few short chats with other attendees while waiting for our close-ups, suggested my experience wasn’t uncommon—most fiddled with their Glass trying to get something to happen, but weren’t quite sure what to expect from it.

A Smartphone on Your Face

Despite only the brief and fairly unfruitful opportunity to try Glass, I did manage to form a few impressions of it, and little of it really matches up to the aura that seems to surround the device. First, its functions are very limited at the moment.It’s early days for Glass, and only developers, a few thousand fans and some celebs have the device, but it seems to have the functionality of a basic voice activated smartphone app—taking and sharing a picture, looking up maps and related navigation, doing some limited search (it wasn’t happy with natural language at all in my case) and Web browsing. It’s a basic Android smartphone on your face, or, more accurately, hovering distractingly over one eye.

It’s rough, experimental technology still, and one might expect it to be, so soon out of the lab. It also feels cheap in the hand, despite its high retail cost, still $1,500 for developers with no price yet set for consumers. To be small, light and unobtrusive, weighing in at only 36 grams, it has a very insubstantial weight to it . While there is a lot of technology packed into Glass, it feels almost disposable, which may be seen as an accomplishment of sorts for wearable technology, but also strikes me more as novelty than giant leap at this point in its evolution.

This last point is what struck me most about both my experience and my observation of others. One common factor among the attendees was a seeming tech-fetishism. There were more bluetooth headsets than I’d expect in a general population, as well as Fitbits, Jawbones and Nike Fuel bracelets. There were novelty video game t-shirts highly visible, and not a little smartphone worship going on—with belt-clips, and bright, blingy covers. Personal tech was very present, and very, very visible among the (again, self-selected) demo-ists—technology as a pose as much as a tool. Self-augmentation, and an affinity for tech as simple, personal fantasy. Glass fit into this progression—the next “see me” accessory, more than a “see you” tool.

The Technological Sublime

I can’t speak for the other 3,000-odd people who travelled through the building on the day, but I felt there were two distinct phases to the experience: initially, an excited, nearly electric anticipation of what this glimpse of the future might bring, akin to their first iPhone moment perhaps—what my colleague Hilary characterized as “a one-day tent revival” to “see the technological sublime”—and a slightly awkward, slightly puzzled actuality, in part acknowledging that yes, Google had done something else “futuristic” and technologically one-upish, but also wondering what it’s for.

For wearing, I concluded. For being seen in, in much the same way the other devices on show tipped their owners to others as “technologically savvy,” but not much beyond. “Trying them on is fun at first—at last, ‘at last, the powerrr’—but after you take a few pictures and learn how to say ‘hello’ in Korean, there’s not much else to discover or master,” Hilary wrote to me in her assessment after the event. “Glass is, ultimately, just a utilitarian headset.”

Of the photobooth selfie, Hilary and I found we agreed as we shared notes afterward: it was as much the payoff as the technical demo of Glass. It “actually ends up being the point of the experience for both Google and the visitors,” she commented. “You get a photo to post to your carefully groomed social media profiles for some social status. It’s like one of those novelty Wild West photo studios, except you’re dressing up as a Silicon Valley elite.”

That Feeling of Futurity

Our joint experience, mine and Hilary’s, on the day made me think how much of our current technological moment is about the look and the lifestyle—and the promise, more than the payout. The first dotcom era focused on web sites and the services they delivered, there was little other than some day trading investment windfall or some promotional swag one could show that signified membership in the early adopter elite. Unless someone came to your house, or saw your Palm Pilot, by today’s standards, the evidence of belonging to the technorati was low-key in daily life. With the advent of smartphones, power met visibility, to the point where even an aging iPhone is a now magic wand that can yield conspicuous results: a black towncar called to the street in front of you, summon a discount, or book a table at a hot new restaurant.

Google increasingly has something more on its side, something Apple had until lately but less so today—a public perception that it is making the future as we watch. And the company knows this. On its quarterly earnings call this week CEO Larry Page said as much with regards to another Google X project, the self-driving car. Page responded to tech analyst Gene Munster about its progress with the car by saying that the company has effectively changed consumers’ perceptions of possibility: “…we change the business from being something that wasn’t going to happen at all to something that now is somewhere inevitable and people’s feelings about it…” Google understands, or is beginning to understand, the power of signaling its preferred future, as well as the importance of illustrating the public’s acknowledgment of it. And where else to show this recognition but literally on the face?

To me, Glass is about perception, about being seen, more so than seeing. My encounters in the wild with Glass-wearers has so far reinforced this—the seeming self-consciousness of the wearers, the way they look at you when you look at them, the slight upward tilt of the head. They wear both a literal and figurative halo of self-awareness. They (probably) aren’t recording you. They seem to be monitoring your reaction as much as you, looking for your recognition that they have the future under control, and your validation of their privilege, of their status.

Things change. Technology evolves, and behaviors adapt. Glass will gain new capabilities soon, including upcoming apps that will extend its functions well beyond what I was able to see in a glimpse. But seeing it in context of other personal technology, of other wearers, and their spoken or performed expectations, I feel like I have a better idea now of what Glass is, and where it fits for the foreseeable future. I’ve learned to stop worrying about Glass (for now) as a node of the panopticon, and see it more as a piece of computational couture, just a slightly higher level status signaling device.