Re-framing Google Glass
J. Macgregor Wise/Arizona State University
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)1. On the other side we have blogger Edward Champion’s expansive 35 Arguments Against Google Glass2 , many of which, I would argue, are more criticisms of this assemblage I’ve been calling the Clickable World than just about Glass3.
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 video4. 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 position5. 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)6. 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 iPhone7 . 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 person8.
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”9. 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.
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 idea10 , and promoted by Ray Kurzweil11, 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 participated12 ). 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 transhumanism13, 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?
1: Google Glass Video (Author’s screengrab)
2: Google Glass Video (Author’s screengrab)
- http://blog.ted.com/2013/02/27/sergey-brin-with-google-glass-at-ted2013/cccc [↩]
- http://www.edrants.com/thirty-five-arguments-against-google-glass/ [↩]
- http://flowjournal.org/2012/11/though-the-looking-glass [↩]
- 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. [↩]
- Which could be a column in itself. [↩]
- 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. [↩]
- 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. [↩]
- That is, unless you take them off and wave them around while you are filming. [↩]
- Jean Baudrillard (1983) Simulations (trans P. Beitchman, P. Foss, and P. Patton). NY: Semiotext(e). [↩]
- 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 [↩]
- Ray Kurzweil (2005). The Singularity is Near. NY: Viking Press. See also Lev Grossman (10 Feb., 2011). 2045: The Year Man Becomes Immortal. Time [↩]
- Ashley Vance (12 June, 2010). Merely Human? That’s So Yesterday. The New York Times. [↩]
- For an overview of transhumanism, see Braden R. Allenby and Daniel Sarewitz (2011). The Techno-Human Condition. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. [↩]
This article is full of suggestive insight on human subjectivity, body, and technology. However, I felt this article assumes the camera as an essence of the Google Glass and, thus, I think, put too much emphasis on the Google Glass’s characteristics of first person recording.
Yes, the promotion video of Google Glass consists only of first-person shots from supposed Google Glass, starting with the users’ voice of “OK Glass, record!” or “OK Glass, take picture!” In this sense, the author’s discussion of “return to the eyes” is totally right. But, do you really think shooting movie clips and taking pictures are major activities of using Google Glass? First person shooting with both hands free is one of the biggest advantage of Google Glass which is praised in OK Glass video. In addition, augmented reality is also the big invention and advantage enabled by Google Glass, although it is not emphasized in the video.
Augmented reality might provoke a schizophrenic or consciously self-reflexive subject rather than an egocentric subject. Imagine a possibility of navigation enabled by Google Glass. Although the prototype glass has a small rectangular screen space, advanced one must has a full screen, on which you can see a map and informations to get to the destination. The reality is going to be annotated by virtual information, thus, the viewing subject cannot maintain simple recognition that he/she is the center of the world. I’m not sure why such a possibility is not described in the official promotion video, but the possibility of Google Glass is far beyond first person recording.
I don’t think that, even if the camera is the core of Google Glass, the camera’s return to the eye becomes the fundamental characteristic of the new device. If Google Glass is disseminated, people never throw away note PCs, smart phones, and tablet devices as a means to write, edit, search and sort information. Regardless of the optic characteristics of recent inventions, it can’t be denied that our society is highly networked and vision is ubiquitous. So, I guess, Google Glass is not a new invention which create a new sensibility of seeing or a new visuality, rather, it seems to make us suitable to connect to information network and ubiquitous visuality.
Despite the suggestion of a sort of egocentrism inherent to the first-person perspective aspect (‘return to the eye’) of the device, I think the appeal in praising this ‘first person webcam’ functionality may lie more with an interest in a sort of ‘decentralized ego’. I think the mention of the Singularity concept here is interesting, and possibly poignant – but the element of the idea that best applies here is not mentioned.
Frequently, there is talk of a ‘one-mind’, a collective consciousness, that may be the result of or ultimate realization of the Singularity. While this has a certain science fiction bent to it – at least as far as current technology goes – there is something inherently seductive about the idea of being able to directly apprehend the experience of another.
In this sense, the Google Glass PR discussed here may not be saying “Look at what YOU can do with Google Glass,” as much as it’s saying, “Look at what you can understand about other people who use it, look at how ‘close’ you can feel to someone else.” It’s no surprise that skydiving or trapeze-swinging would be included in a demonstration of ‘functionality’: rather than depicting all of the things Google Glass can ‘do’ (typical of smartphone advertising), emphasis is placed on how the physicality of an experience can be more directly transferred from one individual to another (Getting ‘creative’ with the device certainly wouldn’t take a lot of brainpower).
From an advertising standpoint, this may be just as if not more effective than marketing directly to a consumer, as it implies the importance of a Google Glass community for maximum intersubjectivity. This is the ‘thrill ride’ – the invitation to others to ‘be my eyes’, to experience what one experiences as they experience it. While not an argument fundamentally different to the points raised above, maybe this is the crucial reframing – it is not just that YOU want Google Glass. You want other people to have Google Glass, too.
The notion that the voyeuristic experience of watching the wearer’s life experiences will revolutionize programming by tapping into people’s egocentric tendencies is an unsound theory riddled by its own egocentricities.
One of the main attractions of the increasing trend in reality TV, is the heightened state of voyeurism enjoyed by the audience. The mediums of film and television have always been linked to the voyeuristic gaze, the ability to become intimate with people and places one would ordinarily never experience. Film and television allow the audience a space of escapism, a break from the mundane. Google Glass is also closely linked with the notion of voyeurism. However, unlike film and TV, Google glass returns the audience to a place of authentic voyeurism, the creepy “pepping tom” type. Unfortunately, with the addition of Google Glass, the modern peeping tom’s gaze is super charged with video capability and access to all the information and functions of the Internet. As a result, many places are preemptively banning Google Glass, before the product even hits the consumer market.
All this aside, the notion of Google Glass as a place where one can become their own individual entertainment network, is all fine and good, but who really gives a shit. Reality TV is interesting because it is preconceived and manipulated to increase the entertainment value for the audience; in a word, it’s scripted. There is one undying absolute which has always shined from within the content of the programming being broadcast and received by the viewer since the dawn of entertainment, regardless of the medium. That is entertainment itself. The banality of the audience member’s life is exactly what they are escaping by choosing to be an audience member. The inherent drama that film and TV offer cannot be recreated in “real” life. Yes, Google Glass may change the interface and medium through which people absorb their entertainment. And yes, it may eventually affect the programming itself. But will people’s friends and loved ones become a personal studio audience laugh track for the wearer? No.
Once the novelty of Google Glass wears off, the content of people’s day-to-day lives will fail to fulfill the audience member’s expectations and they will inevitably turn to content which offers entertainment through a heightened state of reality. The question is, will this put and end to Google Glass as a whole, or will it lead to a bizarre augmentation of the reality we exist in on a day to day basis.
In other words, if Google Glass becomes the a major force shaping the way content is generated and received, then what happens when the life of the Google Glass wearer turns out to be just as boring as the life of the audience member? What happens when this content ceases to make the cut of entertainment? Will the wearer be forced to manipulate their environment in order to keep their ratings up? And if so, how will this inevitably affect the world that the audience member lives in when they aren’t an audience member, but just a plain old member of society? Will the reality of our lives become augmented by those generating content who also live within the walls of our society? Will the fourth wall truly dissolve with the coming of Google Glass? And if so what’s to stop this hypothetical tug of war between mundane existence and entertainment that used to be kept neatly behind the glass of the TV set?
Google Glass, Reality TV and Being John Malkovich
Like another commenter, Sam, I too thought of Google Glass and its potential affect on the television industry, more specifically on reality television. While reality TV is currently constructed in a way that separates the audience with the actor, the allure of Google Glass for contributing to this genre is that the audience is now embodied in the actor, being able to see from their first-person perspective. Yet, an unedited version of someone’s life that lacks the narrativization devised in post-production through editing and music cues causes Google Glass and its potential for real-time first-person reality to lose its charm. So, looking ahead, I thought about how the industry might adopt this new technology. One ways is possibly through scripting where the person will go, what they will do and say, who they will talk to, which already happens in Reality TV (e.g. The Hills). Another way is through casting pop icons or celebrities to be those who wear the glasses. In Being John Malkovich, for example, people line up to be “inside” Malkovich’s body and see from his perspective. Yet, some of the reasons why the television industry is able to generate so much income on reality TV is because it’s cheap, it uses non-famous actors and on-location shooting. Using a celebrity would increase the costs. If this technology was used for reality television, how would it change the genre of reality TV itself? What is the measure to gage what is “real”? And will those wearing the glasses need to get permits to wear them inside certain locations? Just some thoughts looking ahead and the industry’s potential adoption of this new technology.
Utopic narratives and myths are often constructed around new media technology — from its potential to increase democracy, bridge geographical barriers, or transcend time and space. We saw this with radio, then cable technology, then the Internet and now Google Glass. These too are also paired with elements of moral panic. While one could imagine this technology as a means for one to record their life events through their own perspective, one must also wonder how corporations may use this technology as a means for regulating what their employees do or how the government or other institutional apparatuses may use as a means of increased surveillance. In the context of Michel Foucault’s work on the Panopticon, one also wonders how these glasses may change the actual behavior of those wearing it. When one knows they are being watched, how would that change their actions?
The concept of the Google glasses fascinates me. It makes you wonder how they would be used in the future of video games and the First Person Shooter genre.
And isn’t Google Glasses camera a fish eye, much like the HD Go Pro camera? Could you shoot a film on the google glasses?
One of the other exciting things I feel that Google glasses can give us is the GPS HUD that it seemed to promise in their original video.
I also agree with the concept of “on-screen characterized viewers”, it reminds me of advertisements for the Xbox Kinect, where perfect families in perfectly structured living rooms play the game with humongous smiles on their faces. The opposite of that is the informercials where someone is having the worst time making spaghetti.
In regards to Singularity, it might even come to the point where humans won’t even realize that it has happened until it is too late, but by then there won’t be anything we can do about it anyway.