SxSW is a future-forward kind of place, featuring the latest in music, movies and technology. So I see this crowd as the perfect testing ground for tech’s most polarizing new gadget: Google Glass.
Google Glass was all the rage at last year’s SxSW, so it makes sense that the novelty has worn off here. Now we can look at the real question: Will it ever be normal and acceptable to interact with other humans while wearing a computer strapped to your face?
First the basics: Glass has a tiny display that tells time, takes pictures and video and, using voice dictation, can send you messages, give you directions, and search the Internet.
But here’s the problem: It’s creepy.
As I walked around the show, I wondered what the Glass wearers were doing with their gadgets. Were they searching for information, recording video, reading text messages? The uncertainty about the other person’s actions is what makes the idea of interacting with a Glass wearer so odd to me. And I’m not alone.
Google debuted Glass in 2012, and since then 8,000 Glass “Explorers” have donned the digital frames. I asked a series of those Explorers what weird reactions they’ve experienced.
College student: “I got booed out of a club at Harvard.”
Computer scientist mom with a toddler on her hip: “A manager at a Trader Joe’s asked me to take it off because they didn’t allow cameras in the store.”
IT manager who implemented Glass for his logistics team: “After work we were sitting around in the conference room, and people told me to take it off because it annoyed them.”
Interaction Designer: “When I was going through Immigration at the Detroit airport and they thought I was recording and they approached me and had me take it off, and it was scary.”
Programmer: “I had a problem with a police officer; I was driving with Google Glass and I got the famous first ticket for driving with it.”
Dad who wore Glass to the zoo with his kids: “I was walking into the men’s room and quickly took them off. Yeah, that could have gotten a little sketchy.”
The social friction caused by Google Glass is a big point of discussion at SxSW this year. Prior to the show there was a suggested panel called “Google Glass Makes Me Want To Punch Your Face.” While that particular session wasn’t selected, I attended the “Glassholes: The Cultural Dissonance of Technology” panel. As with many discussions I had with Glass early adopters, the message was clear: People who wear Glass love it. People who interact with Glass wearers don’t love it; at best, they tolerate it.
Many people expressed suspicion, intimidation and paranoia when they were around people wearing Glass. A few people seemed unfazed, and one friend of a Glass Explorer joked, “I’m careful to wipe my mouth regularly when dining with him. I never know if he’s snapping pictures.”
The only exception to this was when I found two Glass wearers talking to each other. I asked Glass-wearing student Raheem Ghouse how he perceived his friend’s use of Glass during conversation. He replied, “The thing with Google Glass users is that we understand how it works, and we know how creepy it can be, and we know when it gets activated and when it doesn’t.” And that points out a huge part of the Glass issue: It’s not transparent to all. It is a singular experience that’s physically exclusive to all but the wearer. So when it’s worn in public spaces and in social settings, it’s automatically a physical and emotional barrier to having a shared experience.
If you’re a wearer of Glass, it’s on your face. When you’re talking to someone with Glass, it’s in your face. The wearer is having the experience, but the Glass physically comes between him and me. I fully accept that wearable computing is coming, and while Google Glass is an awesome tool, it is ultimately too creepy and socially awkward to gain mass adoption in everyday life.
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