Let’s be honest: Google Glass looks pretty silly. Its appearance is out of time, futuristic, and obnoxiously so. And it's out of place in daily life—a strange accessory with mysterious purpose, as if someone were to walk around all day with a skateboard on a leash.
But Glass also points to an intriguing future, one in which the line between using a digital device and simply going about daily life is removed. Whereas traditional spectacles have a corrective purpose to see reality more clearly, Glass offers a new category of lenses that promise to augment the reality we see. It opens a vast new frontier for the practice of interaction design that, like the Wild West, is full of lawlessness and danger and promise. And it is the UX community that will shape this landscape; we will determine it’s character, and the impact it will have on people’s lives.
A key question all this raises is: what “reality” is Glass augmenting? At the moment, being a Google product, the augmentation is designed to primarily target the urban economic and social spheres. Looking down the street through Glass, you may see restaurant store-fronts adorned with floating metadata describing the cuisine type and star-ratings by previous diners. Turning your head, an indicator points in the direction of the location of your next calendar appointment. Peering at a product on the shelf, prices for similar products are displayed for easy comparison. You’ll always know where you are, where you need to be, and what you’re looking at. The reality that Glass augments is a realm of people, objects, places of business, and locations. In other words, what can be expressed in a database and efficiently searched.
Toward a better future
At this point in the conversation, the story usually veers into the realm of exasperation and despair. Google Glass represents the death of spontaneity! It will systematize and computerize our lives! Organic experience will be lost! (And, most insidious of all) Google will monitor and monetize every saccade of our eyeball, every step we take!
Given the penchant for technologists to base business models on advertising and “big data” about their customers, it is not surprising that Google Glass can be seen as a kind of portable panopticon. But I think the truth that this device foreshadows is something potentially more benign, and almost certainly beneficial.
The dystopian narrative that depicts a society dominated by machines and ubiquitous surveillance is common, expressed through fiction, film, and even journalism, which tends to draw on the same sinister rhetoric. George Orwell’s 1984 describes the homogenization and suppression of culture through rules, systems, and constant surveillance. In a more recent popular expression, Pixar’s Wall-E imagines a future humanity composed of zombie-like innocents, shuttled along by automated chairs, staring feebly into digital screens, mobilized—and controlled—by machines. The plausibility of these futures is made even more vivid by the unfolding story of the depth of NSA surveillance.
To paraphrase a recent piece by Don Norman, it all depends on how we design and develop augmented reality applications. If we manage to create useful and utility-producing applications with wearable technologies like Google Glass, people will benefit. This seems at first more like a truism than truth. But the obviousness of the statement belies the underlying premise, which is that Google Glass and its future iterations are simply a canvas on which we can write the future of our “augmented” everyday experience. So let’s not leave it all up to Google, shall we?
Ideas for the positive future of augmented reality abound. Augmedix, for example, is a small company with a vision of Google Glass re-shaping the doctor-patient relationship. Increasingly, the burden of the new and fraught world of digital medical records is damaging this interaction. Doctors stare at screens instead of faces, they spend as much time clicking checkboxes and radio buttons as they do examining the bodies and listening to the voices of the people under their care. Augmented reality could turn this scenario on its head by allowing doctors to look at and converse with their patient while simultaneously accessing and transmitting important information through Glass. This will almost certainly lead to fewer errors, an increase in trust, and ultimately better health outcomes.
Or consider William Gibson’s Spook Country, a novel in which a central character creates “locative art,” what you might call augmented reality sculpture. Imagine looking at a city fountain with your augmentation goggles and seeing a bloom of light and color where others see only water. That we could transform our physical landscape in a way that enhances its beauty—rather than simply enhancing its economic potential—is a stunning notion. Unlike 3D movie glasses or straight-up “virtual reality,” the idea of a physical/virtual mashup offers us a chance to experiment and play in realms previously only available to the world of screens and displays, without losing the notion of being present in a place, something virtual reality cannot avoid. We remain in the real world.
The design of augmented reality
The first attempts to harness the power of Glass-like technology will be “ports,” shoe-horning old functionality into a new form factor. Text and email messages will appear, caller ID will notify you of a phone call, the front-facing camera will take a picture or video on command. But none of these use cases address new goals. They simply make achieving old goals incrementally faster or more convenient. I don’t have to lift my phone and look at the screen to see a text message or know who’s calling. I don’t have to lift my camera and press a button to take a picture. The difference in my experience enabled by porting functionality from my phone to Glass is a difference of degree, not a difference in kind.
More interesting will be the forays into using augmented reality tech to solve previously unmet goals. Augmedix is a good example, because it bucks a trend toward less personal medicine and solves both a doctor and a patient goal. Locative art is similarly interesting, because it provides an entirely new artistic medium and way of experiencing that art. Mapping and orientation in a visually augmented world represents another fundamental change, because it bridges the gap between the abstract 2D map and the immediately actionable—a translation that currently happens in the human brain.
Go get ‘em
Augmented reality is in its infancy. Google Glass still faces some serious challenges, especially on the hardware front—miniaturizing the device and making it less obtrusive is necessary to make it less like pulling a skateboard on a leash everywhere you go. But the frontier for experience design this device opens up is huge, and doesn’t have to remain within the boundaries Google sets. Part of our challenge and calling as a UX community is to think deeply about what an augmented experience feels like, and how it shapes people’s lives. As you would with any user experience, let unmet user goals guide your design.
Your role in this revolution is just beginning.