By David H. Freedman, a journalist who’s contributed to many magazines, including DISCOVER, where he writes the Impatient Futurist column. His latest book, Wrong: Why Experts Keep Failing Us—and How to Know When Not to Trust Them, came out in 2010. Find him on Twitter at @dhfreedman.
Computer glasses have arrived, or are about to. Google has released some advance information about its Project Glass, which essentially embeds smartphone-like capabilities, including a video display, into eyeglasses. A video put out by the company suggests we’ll be able to walk down the street—and, we can extrapolate, distractedly walk right into the street, or drive down the street—while watching and listening to video chats, catching up on social networks (including Google+, of course), and getting turn-by-turn directions (though you’ll be on your own in avoiding people, lampposts and buses, unless there’s a radar-equipped version in the works).
Toshiba developed a six-pound surround-sight bubble helmet. It didn’t take off.
The reviews have mostly been cautiously enthusiastic. But they seem to be glossing over what an astounding leap this is for technophiles. I don’t mean in the sense that this is an amazing new technology. I mean I’m surprised that we seem to be seriously discussing wearing computer glasses as if it weren’t the dorkiest thing in the world—a style and coolness and common-sense violation of galactic magnitude. Video glasses are the postmodern version of the propeller beanie cap. These things have been around for 30 years. You could buy them at Brookstone, or via in-flight shopping catalogs. As far as I could tell, pretty much no one was interested in plunking these things down on their nose. What happened?
More interesting, the apparent sudden willingness to consider wearing computers on our faces may be part of a larger trend. Consider computer tablets, 3D movies, and video phone calls—other consumer technologies that have been long talked about, long offered in various forms, and long soundly rejected—only to relatively recently and suddenly gain mass acceptance.
The obvious explanation for the current triumph of technologies that never seemed to catch on is that the technologies have simply improved enough, and dropped in price enough, to make them sufficiently appealing or useful to a large percentage of the population. But I don’t think that’s nearly a full-enough explanation. Yes, the iPad offers a number of major improvements over Microsoft Tablet PC products circa 2000—but not so much that it could account for the complete shunning of the latter and the total adoration of the former. Likewise, the polarized-glasses-based 3D movie experience of the 1990s, as seen in IMAX and Disney park theaters at the time, really were fairly comparable to what you see in state-of-the-art theaters today.
I think three things are going on:
Bret Victor has a solid grip on interface design. And he has a beef with touchscreens as the archetype of the Interface of the Future. He argues that poking at and sliding around pictures under glass is not really the greatest way to do things. Why? Because that just uses a finger! Victor is a fan of hands. They can grab, twist, flick, feel, manipulate, and hold things. Hands get two thumbs up from Victor.
As a result, Victor argues that any interface that neglects hands neglects human beings. Tools of the future need to be hand-friendly and take advantage of the wonderful functions hands can perform. His entire article, “A Brief Rant on the Future of Interfaces” is a glorious read and deserves your attention. One of the best parts is his simple but profound explanation of what a tool does: “A tool addresses human needs by amplifying human capabilities.”
There is, as I see it, one tiny problem with Victor’s vision: hands are tools themselves. They translate brain signals into physical action. Hands are, as Victor shows, super good at that translation. His argument is based on the idea that we should take as much advantage as possible of the amazing tools that hands already are. I disagree.