Re-framing Google Glass
J. Macgregor Wise/Arizona State University


Google Glass Video

Google Glass Video

It has been a year since Google formally announced Project Glass with its video, One Day, on April 4, 2012. Recently we’ve seen two opposing statements about Glass. First was Google co-founder Sergey Brin’s TED talk on Glass where he played the latest promotional video (OK Glass) and praised its possibilities (while declaring mainstream mobile phones to be emasculating) (( http://blog.ted.com/2013/02/27/sergey-brin-with-google-glass-at-ted2013/cccc )).  On the other side we have blogger Edward Champion’s expansive 35 Arguments Against Google Glass (( http://www.edrants.com/thirty-five-arguments-against-google-glass/ )) , many of which, I would argue, are more criticisms of this assemblage I’ve been calling the Clickable World than just about Glass (( http://flowjournal.org/2012/11/though-the-looking-glass )).

In the year since Glass was announced, we have been treated to an array of promotional images and videos in support of its possibilities. The most recent video, OK Glass, promoted by Brin at TED, shows the world from the perspective of someone wearing Glass (while skydiving, dancing, swinging on a trapeze, and so on). What I find striking about OK Glass is the way it tends to reduce Glass to one function. While the promise of Glass in One Day provided multiple data functions as part of its display (weather, directions, email, and metadata), the video, OK Glass, focuses predominantly on its ability to capture and stream first person video ((Partly this is because the other functions do not dominate the visual field—which is actually the point of Glass, and in response to critics who feared they would be too distracting. Be that as it may, it is the main image, and not its insets or graphics, that draw our attention when watching the video. )). In these cases, Glass becomes little more than a wearable webcam. So less than being a smartphone in one’s glasses, the augmented reality device touted in One Day, it’s a type of virtual reality device.  Augmented reality is about the imposition of information on top of reality. Virtual reality is about recreating someone else’s experience, hence the first person perspective. First person sutures us into the subject position of the camera; it’s a means of psychological identification with/through the filmic apparatus.  And these videos interpellate us into a quite specific class position (( Which could be a column in itself. )). But it is the emphasis on experience that I want to focus on here.

For example, the Google Glass webpage gives us three options on its landing page: How it Feels, What it Does, and How to Get One. The first emphasizes experience by linking us to the first-person-centric OK Glass video (we are meant to feel the technology). The second, What it Does, enumerates its features, though the page is visually dominated by first-person images. However, in OK Glass we are provided with two different subject positions to identify with. The first, obviously, is the person wearing the headset. But on several of the shots there is an inset box that shows an image of the people with whom the event is being shared (the children who are away from the grandparent’s birthday party, or the friends on their couch yelling as they virtually feel the airplane turn). These people are what Robert Allen once called “on-screen characterized viewers,” an “ideal audience” we are meant to imitate (like the laughtrack on TV or the live studio audience) (( Robert C. Allen (1992). Audience-Oriented Criticism and Television. In Allen (ed.) Channels of Discourse, Reassembled. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. )).  This is what we are supposed to do and feel with Glass.

The emphasis on first person perspective presents a shift in one of Glass’s universes of reference. Universe of reference is a term from Felix Guattari used by Chris Chesher to articulate the multiple dimensions of the iPhone (( Chris Chesher (2012). Between Image and Information: The iPhone Camera in the History of Photography. In G. Goggin and L. Hjorth (eds.) Mobile Technologies: From Telecommunications to Media. NY: Routledge. )) . Glass’s universes of reference include smartphones, augmented and virtual reality, wearable technology, documentary filmmaking, and more. The types of images we see in OK Glass are nothing really new, especially in terms of the universe of reference of film and television (cameras have been placed on rollercoasters before). The shift I want to focus on is where Glass fits in the universe of reference of personal photography.  When cameras were provided with small screens in addition to their viewfinder, the camera moved away from its direct relation to the photographer’s eye. We stand and hold the camera in front of us to take a picture. The camera is no longer juxtaposed to the eye. Indeed, with lighter digital cameras on mobile phones, the camera’s eye moved further away from the human eye, above or below or between its subjects. The camera is still typically at arm’s length (see, e.g., most “selfie” shots), so this image remains on a human scale.  This is a long way to get to the point that Glass is a return to the eye, the perspective of the eye/I: first person (( That is, unless you take them off and wave them around while you are filming. )).

There certainly is no dearth of intersubjectivity in the constant copresence with absent others that is the sine qua non of our mobile mediated everyday lives. So why promote a particularly carnival-ride version of intersubjectivity (resonant with the film industry’s current emphasis on experiential movie-making through 3D spectactulars)?  Intersubjectivity of this sort is a goal of virtual reality, exemplified in fiction in Case’s experience of Molly’s sensorium in William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984). Voyeurism and surveillance have much to do with this, as does what Jean Baudrillard once called “the thrill of the real” (( Jean Baudrillard (1983) Simulations (trans P. Beitchman, P. Foss, and P. Patton). NY: Semiotext(e). )).  But Glass is also prioritizing a form of intersubjectivity that is, in some contradictory way, also solipsistic, self-centered, and self-important (as opposed to the sense of co-presence that I think marks more community-focused mobile phone practice). Perhaps it is this contrast in intersubjectivities that underlies Brin’s comment about emasculation. The return to the eye is a return to the egocentric.

Google Glass Video

Google Glass Video

The PR for Glass seems tangential to trends in mobile device use. Perhaps this is just Google being far-sighted. Or perhaps something different is being pursued. If so, how should we then re-frame Glass?

Here’s an idea: Lurking in the wings in all this is the theme of bodily transcendence—Glass allowing us an “out of body” experience. The camera returns to the eye to supersede the eye. The experience, sensations, and affect are not those of the subject wearing the glass but the subject that is the assemblage of Glass/body/network, and is always in excess of the body. This excess is both the transcendence of the body through technology, and the trajectory of the assemblage past a critical point when everything changes, even, they say, what it means to be human. This transcendence is the hallmark of the Singularity movement, based on Vernor Vinge’s idea (( Vernor Vinge (1993) The Coming Technological Singularity: How to Survive in the Post-Human Era. http://www-rohan.sdsu.edu/faculty/vinge/misc/singularity.html )) , and promoted by Ray Kurzweil (( Ray Kurzweil (2005). The Singularity is Near. NY: Viking Press. See also Lev Grossman (10 Feb., 2011). 2045: The Year Man Becomes Immortal. Time )), that the moment is coming soon when humans will be able to free ourselves from our bodies and exist in machines and the networks, to live forever. Singularity University, which holds exclusive and pricey classes and retreats on this topic, was co-founded by Larry Page (who co-founded Google with Sergey Brin, who also has participated (( Ashley Vance (12 June, 2010). Merely Human? That’s So Yesterday. The New York Times. )) ).  The Singularity movement is actually relatively diverse, but there is a core (or corps) that takes it in the direction of a particular type of well-funded transhumanism (( For an overview of transhumanism, see Braden R. Allenby and Daniel Sarewitz (2011). The Techno-Human Condition. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. )), a massive utopian technical fix of the human condition (one that tends to ignore social or cultural solutions in favor of the technological, and the transcendence of the [privileged] individual over that of the society—did I mention the egocentric?). So if we think of Glass not as the newest smartphone, but as another piece that moves us closer to Singularity (along with driverless cars, massive databases, and canny data analysis engines), how does this afford us a different framework in which to address it, and a different set of questions and critiques?

Image Credits:
1: Google Glass Video (Author’s screengrab)
2: Google Glass Video (Author’s screengrab)




In the absence of technology
J. Macgregor Wise/Arizona State University

Rachel in Revolution

Rachel in Revolution

Revolution, this past Fall’s new JJ Abrams-produced NBC television series, opens with a scene in a contemporary Chicago apartment. Rachel (Elizabeth Mitchell) is talking on a mobile phone with her mother. Rachel’s young daughter sits glassy-eyed on the couch watching cartoons refusing to even blink when her mother tries to get her to talk to her grandmother on the phone. ((This stereotypical portrayal of a child as couch potato is obviously a relatively ham-handed critique on the part of the show about our dependence on or addiction to media, but I should point out that even without televisual distractions, many young kids don’t want to talk to grandma on the phone anyway.)) The even younger son is playing with a tablet computer. And as Rachel talks, she walks over and starts checking things on her laptop, as distracted as her children. This short scene represents, for the show, contemporary daily life. In Revolution, much of this goes away. The power then goes out, all electronic devices cease functioning, planes fall from the sky, and the city descends into chaos. The narrative quickly move 15 years into the future to a small rural community where these children, now young adults, live. The show itself is more about the struggles to survive in the post-apocalyptic future against a violent militia which controls that area of the country, and about exploring the mystery about why the technology failed. The opening scene caught my eye for its depiction (and vague critique) of contemporary media culture. I began looking for other such moments in the show, but there were few that explicitly dealt with media technologies or their absence. CD players show up in a scene or two (briefly and mysteriously turning on, filling characters with longing for the loss of popular music), and a mobile phone shows up in another. This latter scene in the second episode (Sept. 24, 2012) involves the character of Maggie (Anna Lise Phillips), a member of that community, who still carries her iPhone with her, though it hasn’t worked in 15 years. It is finally revealed that Maggie, a British national, was in the United States on business when the power went out, and has been unable to return. She carries around her phone because it holds the only pictures she has of her children, though she cannot access them.

Maggie in Revolution

Maggie in Revolution

The image of Maggie clutching her mobile phone later resonated for me with an image of a character from a very different show. That was an episode of the tween comedy Victorious entitled, “Cell Block.” Victorious is a program on Nickelodeon, set in a performing arts High School in Los Angeles. The opening scene for the Nov. 24, 2012 episode, “Cell Block,” has the students in their drama class barely paying attention to the teacher. All attention is on mobile phones and iPads and a flurry of texting and social media updating. Frustrated, the teacher accuses them of being addicted to their devices and presents them with a challenge: a week without any technology invented since the teacher was born. They accept. As the week goes on the challenge becomes one of girls versus boys as to who will cave in first . ((I am bracketing here issues in the program such as race-related jokes and problematic gender politics.)) Despite a couple of jokes regarding other technologies (a record player and a typewriter), the focus is on the mobile phone. It is only the mobile phone that they truly desire, and the phone stands in for a whole regime of technologies (including laptops, televisions, and so on). A key figure in this episode is Cat (Ariana Grande), who seems the most desperate to use her phone (having to be bodily restrained) and who purchases a dog toy in the shape of a mobile phone to carry around with her pretending to text. In the end, mobile phones finally back in hand, the students return to their previous practices without a hitch or hesitation. The show doesn’t even serve up platitudes about moderation.

Cat in Victorious

Cat in Victorious

I am interested in moments when technologies, especially ones that are part of daily habit, stop, break, or are refused or banned. If we carefully examine the debates and issues (and consequences) that arise when a technology goes away, we learn quite a bit about cultural values and generally the shape of technological culture. I have been influenced in this regard by the final chapter of Jerry Mander’s 1977 book, Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television (a chapter ultimately more about technology than just television), where he discusses the flabbergasted reactions he would get to his proposal to ban television. That is, the question of the outright rejection of television was so inconceivable, that it wasn’t even on the agenda of questions that could be asked. Why not, at least, ask and explore? Otherwise a technology becomes such a part of the woodwork that we cannot even see it anymore.

But rather than argue for or against banning TV or cell phones, I’m interested today in thinking about what insights we gain when a technology goes away, or is refused. I have an assignment that I give students in my media studies classes from time to time. The full assignment has students swearing off all mass media for a week (unless required for class or work). This leads to interesting debates about what constitutes mass media, of course, but also reflections on their own habits and relationships. They have to deal with silence, and boredom, and the need to converse with other people. I always tell students that I have no presumptions about what their experience will be like; for some it will be easy, for some it will be difficult, and most will be in-between (somewhat irritated at the inconvenience). In the end, I’m not telling students to reject the media, just giving them a space to step back and think about it.

The figures of Maggie and Cat show us not just the banal and commonplace notions that our mobile phones are becoming the site of convergence for all our media uses and that they are a significant part of our social and affective scaffolding (to borrow a term from philosopher Andy Clark) literally becoming our social connections. They show us, with some poignancy, that sometimes the removal of a technology reveals (if not reinforces) our at times deeply affective attachment to them and that all technologies are social through and through. For Maggie, her phone is her children. And for Cat, her phone is a constant stream of connection and (implicit or explicit) affirmation of self; perhaps a transitional object as she negotiates adolescence. Technologies are us, they are not attachments. They are part of how we think and act in the world. In the absence of technology, we find out who we are by discovering who we were.

Three questions, by way of conclusion:

Do you have assignments where students take a media break or go off the grid for a while? What sorts of insights do they tend to gain? Is it becoming more difficult to assign such projects?
What other examples of giving up media or communication technologies have we seen in recent fiction programs? For example, I’m reminded of the moment when the batteries in Hurley’s CD player finally die, in Lost.
Does anyone read or reference Mander’s book anymore? Ultimately, his book is about technological and social determinism, not just television.

Image Credits:
1: Rachel in Revolution (Author’s screengrab)
2: Maggie in Revolution (Author’s screengrab)
3: Cat in Victorious (Author’s screengrab)

Please feel free to comment.




Through the Looking Glass with Google
J. Macgregor Wise/Arizona State University


Project glass people

Google Project Glass People

On April 4, 2012 Google released a video announcing what they were calling Project Glass ((https://plus.google.com/+projectglass/posts)) . Project Glass is an ongoing research project at Google’s super-secret Google X lab to produce augmented reality glasses. These are glasses that work as a smartphone. Information would be displayed on the lens of the glasses, overlaying the world in front of one. Project Glass provides a screen—television, computer, telephone—that we look both through and at, that overlays the world with what Paul Virilio once called stereo-reality ((Virilio, Paul. 2000. The Information Bomb. Trans. Chris Turner. NY: Verso. Cf. Jay Bolter and Richard Grusin’s ideas of transparent and hypermedia in Remediation, MIT Press, 2000.)) .

Information appears on your glasses either contextually (look out the window and get a weather report, look at the subway stairs and see a warning of a shut down) or through verbal commands (cf. SIRI for the iPhone), hand gestures, eye movements, or head tilts or gestures. The glasses can provide directions and a camera. And, presumably, one could stream video content to your glasses wherever you would be, viewing the content in privacy with no one able to look over your shoulder to see what you were watching.

The video, Project Glass: One Day…, presents a day in the life of an unnamed protagonist. We never actually see him, since the video is shot ostensibly from the perspective of his glasses. But we get the sense that he is a young male, living alone. He wakes, drinks coffee, eats breakfast, arranges to meet a friend for (more) coffee, and heads out for his day ((Significantly, we do not see him at work, or hear mention of work. The day depicted is one of leisure and consumption.)) . His glasses warn him that a subway line is closed and maps an alternate walking route for him to a bookstore. The glasses even give him a map of the store and directions to the section he is looking for (where he finds a book on learning to play the ukulele). He meets his friend. Later that day he heads up to his roof where he has a live videochat with a woman we presume is his girlfriend; he streams for her his view of the city at sunset while he plays a tune on the ukulele he just bought and learned to play. Throughout the day he has photographed graffiti and shared it with friends, set up a reminder to buy concert tickets, gotten the weather report by looking out a window, looked up the location of a friend, and streamed background music. Indeed, what we presume is the nondiegetic music playing throughout the video is turned off by him at the end when he speaks with his girlfriend.

project glass street directions and map

Project Glass Map and Route

Though the video constituted the announcement of this project to the general public, bloggers and columnists ((Bilton, Nick. 21 Feb., 2012. Google to sell heads-up display glasses by year’s end. New York Times. http://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/02/21/google-to-sell-terminator-style-glasses-by-years-end/)) had been hinting for months that Google was developing these glasses, and what their capabilities would be. Google executives mentioned that one of the reasons they went public with the concept video was that they were tired of only wearing them in the lab, and now could test them in public ((Carr, Austin. 30 May, 2012. Inside Google X’s Project Glass, Part I. FastCompany.com. http://www.fastcompany.com/1838801/inside-google-xs-project-glass-part-i)). Indeed, a new type of sport developed: spotting Google employees wearing the glasses “in the wild.” Finally Google collaborated with designer Diane von Furstenberg in September to feature her models wearing Google Glasses at their show during fashion week. ((https://plus.google.com/s/%23DVFthroughGlass))

The parodies of the Google video were quick to come and while humorous were rather predictable. Videos showed distracted users of Google’s glasses running into things, falling down stairs, or accidentally enabling features through verbal comments or gestures, sending inappropriate messages, and so on.

project glass friend in a bookstore

Project Glass Heads Up Display

The idea of Project Glass is actually not a new one. Indeed, it is the latest in a long line of developments in the area of augmented reality research. Augmented reality devices are ones that add information to daily life, and are often differentiated from virtual reality devices which completely replace the immediate environment with a simulated display. The latter could be accomplished via a virtual room (think of the holodeck on Star Trek) or VR helmets. The work of Steve Mann is germinal here. ((Mann, Steve & Hal Niedzvieki. 2001. Cyborg. Anchor Canada.)) Mann, a self-professed cyborg, has been building his own augmented reality devices since the 1980s–using a camera to capture what is in front of him, running the information through a computer, and projecting the resulting image on his eye or eyes. Using the computer he can alter the incoming image in real time, changing colors of objects, the orientation of the world, the frame capture rate, and so on, including overlaying information, like email or other data. Mann’s mission is to take back control of our overmediated environment, creating the world as we want it to look, even deleting unsavory elements. Mann suggests, for example, deleting all billboards.

Today most augmented reality systems work through mobile handheld screens rather than head-mounted displays. Users access locationally relevant information through scanning bar codes or use of locational data. Howard Rheingold reported users doing such things a decade ago ((Rheingold, Howard. 2003. Smart Mobs: The Next Social Revolution. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Publishing.)) . In the last number of years augmented reality games have exploited the capabilities of this technology.

While some praised the innovations and possibilities of Project Glass, and others critiqued their distractions, some saw the project as representing broader cultural issues. For example, in a piece in the New York Times, conservative columnist Ross Douthat commented on the Project Glass video ((Douthat, Ross. 14 April, 2012. The Man with the Google Glasses. New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/15/opinion/sunday/douthat-the-man-with-the-google-glasses.html?_r=0)) . “Even if the project itself never comes to fruition, though,” he writes, “the video deserves a life of its own, as a window into what our era promises and what it threatens to take away. If modernity’s mix of achievement and alienation was once embodied by the Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, now it’s embodied by the Man in the Google Glasses.” The Man in the Google Glasses has almost unlimited access to information at a moment’s notice, anywhere he travels. But at the same time, he lives alone in a rather bare apartment, spending much of his socialization time online (though he does meet a friend for coffee).

project glass street view alternate reality

Project Glass Street Directions

Project Glass is but the latest iteration of a new technological assemblage currently being mapped by research on mobile media and mobile interfaces, an assemblage I have called the Clickable World ((Wise, J. Macgregor. 2012. Attention and Assemblage in the Clickable World. In Jeremy Packer and Stephen B. Crofts Wiley (eds) Communication Matters: Materialism Approaches to Media, Mobility, and Networks. NY: Routledge.)) . As Douthat points out, when it comes to these issues there are both optimists (crowd socialization has benefits) and pessimists (we are more and more alone) ((Douthat cites Clay Shirky as representative of the former, and Sherry Turkle of the latter.)) . Too many issues get raised here to be dealt with in such a short column. But let me mention that these glasses, functioning as presented in the video, might afford further cyber-enabled cocooning—not only are we reinforcing established social networks at the expense of non-mediated serendipitous encounters (as other social media are wont to do as well), but through the glasses we may only see things of comfort and familiarity to us. I am reminded of Zaphod Beeblebrox’s Peril Sensitive Sunglasses in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: at the first sign of trouble they turn completely black so you don’t see anything alarming and can carry on without panic or stress.

And then there are troubling questions of privacy and surveillance (of which Google seems aware). A tremendous data infrastructure needs to be in place to provide content appropriate information anywhere in a city, and the system needs, likewise, to track users, recording and analyzing their activities. The positive version of this assemblage is advocated for by lifeloggers and those who promote the benefits of the Quantified Self ((E.g., Bell, Gordon & Jim Gemmell. 2009. Total Recall: How the E-Memory Revolution will Change Everything. Dutton. Wolf, Gary. 28 April, 2010. The Data-Driven Life. The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/02/magazine/02self-measurement-t.html?pagewanted=all)) . For the negative version—well, let me just point out that April 4, the day Google released its video and presumably the day its Joycean hero navigates his everyday, is also the first day of Winston Smith’s diary.

April 4, 1984. Last night to the flicks. All war films. One very good one… ((Orwell, George. 1949. 1984. Harcourt Brace and Company))

Image Credits:
1. Google Project Glass
2. Project Glass Map and Route
3. Project Glass Heads Up Display
4.Project Glass Street Directions

Please feel free to comment.