“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.” — Steve Jobs
There’s been a lot of excitement about the Google Glass Project in the past 24 hours. Here are some thoughts.
There’s a lot of what I call technology wall sticking going around. Someone gets an idea and, sure enough, the technology to build a prototype (or create a concept with CGI) is available. With YouTube and social media, it’s easy to whip up a fervor and throw it against the wall to see what sticks. Even so, I’ll admit that I too am enthusiastic about the Google’s Project Glass. However, it’s for different reasons than most.
Image Credit: Google Glass Project
For those two or three of you who haven’t heard about this project, here’s the project page and a demonstration video of the concept.
We certainly have the technology to bring the Google Glass project to production. Fast, wireless video communication, Google maps, the Internet, electronics miniaturization and advanced optics all provide the needed infrastructure and converge at the just the right time. The bigger question, however, is who does the technology serve? Does it fulfill a fundamental human need by many? Or is it a toy for geeks? The answer to that question will determine whether the product becomes mainstream, a commercial success and a permanent part of our culture like the TV and the Internet, or whether it’s just another technological boondoggle.
The concept video by Google is, in many ways, like Apple’s Knowledge Navigator video from 1987. That video inspired a whole generation. Surprisingly, not all of its technical components have yet been realized, a quarter century later. Apple, in fact, in the early 90’s frittered away several years trying to develop each technical component in the hopes of bringing the concept to fruition as a realizable commercial product. Alas, the company got into trouble and Steve Jobs had bigger fish to fry in the late 1990s. So that effort was dropped.
I mention this because of the similar visions but also because a compelling vision can be a double edged sword. It can both inspire and obsess (and distract) a company.
We have come to learn that modern technology is so interleaved into our society that is brings with it both the good and the bad. It can force some people to make a life style decision, but it can generally enslave other people who aren’t so introspective about their lives. For example, how would someone from Abraham Lincoln’s era respond to a time traveler who describes how we watch 50 hours of TV a week?
Along with the negative aspects of any new technology come the cultural norms. For millions of years, humans beings have been social, generally interacting with each other in person, only lately via remote video. That’s a powerful cultural meme.
The initial attraction of the Google Glass is very much inward. I call it Technological Autism. For example, who would want a barber, a bus driver, a restaurant server, a doctor, a nurse or an attorney wearing this device in our presence? Chatting with a friend? Technology that distracts others and affronts us, that drives them deeper within their self-absorbed selves, will have a hard time succeeding. When we want something but don’t want others to have it because it harms us, that’s a definite warning sign.
Have you ever run across a boss or colleague who never listens? Someone who is so distracted, inwardly focused, that that can’t stop to listen? It drives us crazy. As a result, the technological vision could become relegated to very specific kinds of people: pilots, astronauts, video gamers, data center or control room managers and so on.
This feeling that we are uncomfortable, indeed annoyed by the self-absorption of others, is already present in our concern for drivers who text or people on the street, oblivious, perhaps even getting run over by motorists. Or running over us. That feeling has been articulated in this humorous video. We don’t want people around us who are dangerous.
All of that is over above the sheer ugliness of HUD glasses of the past. Making the headset fashionable and less obtrusive solves only part of the whole problem. Does Google know that?
Technical evolution is an enabler, but not the whole solution
The Vision of Steve Jobs
Steve Jobs was a man who always believed in how technology could bring people together and celebrate life. Products like iTunes, iPhoto, iMovie, and FaceTime were designed to connect people and celebrate life, friends and family. Everything Apple is built on is based on that concept of elegant, first class, highly functional, simple and reliable technology that serves us.
The Google Glass project, at first glance, doesn’t seem to have that magic touch, that intense feeling that this is the future of humankind. It makes one wonder how deep Google’s vision goes. Last month, I wrote about about what might come after the iPad and briefly mentioned Google and HUD glasses as a possible technological next step. But I didn’t go into detail.
Now when I think about it, I think about whether this is the next phase of our devlopment as humans, something so alien to Apple that the company will miss the revolution. That happened to Microsoft twice. So absorbed and obsessed was Microsoft in the 1990s that it fell way behind Netscape and the Internet at first. Today, they’ve missed the tablet revolution. Or so it seems.
Apple’s distinct vision: connecting family. (Credit: Apple)
In Apple’s case, for now, I don’t think the company needs to rush right out and jump on this bandwagon because its management is so well grounded in its values. Google may thrash about, seeking to get onto the Next Big Thing before Apple does, but that’s a strategy based on panic, not on paying attention to what people fundamentally need.
I could be wrong. Sometimes technology and sociology build an unstoppable roller coaster ride. But I think I’m safe, and Apple is safe, for now.
On the other hand, like Apple’s Knowledge Navigator, the Google Glass project could be a harbinger. A nibbling around the edges of where we want to be. The ultimate instantiation of the technology may be a few iterations away. Ultimately, if it makes us more human, more connected and compassionate, then it will succeed. That’s the part that excites me. For example, I’d like it if my doctor, operating on me, had instant access to medical data and my x-rays. I’d like it if people who help me out have better access to maps and information that can help me enjoy a vacation. If an airline pilot can find the information he needs, visually, faster to make a critical decision in a stall, so much the better. People around us should act smarter, not dumber.
However, if the vision remains steadfastly inwards, self-serving, then this concept will just remain a toy for geeks.