Three Questions I Hope Google Answers Before Google Glass Is Released

We now know when, roughly speaking, we'll be able to buy Google Glass, but the company needs to address controversial use-case questions before the glasses arrive.

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You wanted to know when you could finally lay hands on a pair of Google’s slender new cyber-glasses, and now we have…if not a precise release date, at least a more concrete timeframe: early next year, according to Google chairman and former CEO Eric Schmidt.

Speaking to BBC News, Schmidt noted the company is now shipping pre-release versions of the glasses to developers (Schmidt added there’ll be thousands in the wild over the next few months). After developer feedback and some final tweaks, the glasses will go on sale. That’s a “year-ish” away, said Schmidt, indicating early- to mid-2014. That might seem like a while, given prior intimations from the company that we’d see these things by 2013’s close, and yet it’s hard to imagine it being enough time for the company to address some of the critical questions below.

Should Google Glass be wearable/usable while operating motorized (or even non-motorized) vehicles?

I wondered about this a few weeks ago, asking whether we ought to ban Google Glass while driving (as West Virginia preemptively — and I argued wrongheadedly — just did). This is a research question.

What research? Exactly. Has anyone studied what happens if people wear interactive glasses while operating a motor (or non-motor, like a bike) vehicle? Not that I’m aware of.

What does it do to reaction times if you tilt your view up slightly (from straight ahead) to scan whatever the glasses are displaying on that tiny, translucent, monocle-like screen? Are there different thresholds of operational safety between cyber-glasses and smartphones? Should Google Glass have an optional “Driving Mode” similar to a smartphone’s “Airplane Mode” that takes certain functions offline?

What about augmented reality? Could certain applications make driving with Google Glass safer by enhancing what we’re seeing out the windshield? And if Google Glass doesn’t include usage profiles, how responsible should we expect the public to be in autonomously deciding which functions to invoke and which one’s not to while behind the wheel? It’s going to be a lot harder to tell what someone’s doing wearing a pair of these, especially in a vehicle: except for the slight up-tilt in someone’s gaze, how do you know someone’s looking at the tiny view screen — much less from a distance — instead of directly ahead (or simply up at the clouds)?

What about people in crosswalks — people already occasionally heedless of their surroundings whether talking to someone on a phone or jabbing away at its touchscreen? What about crowds in general? Yes, as Schmidt notes, we’re already dealing with these issues, except I’d consider “dealing” wildly optimistic. Living in a college town, I witness near-misses daily involving vehicles and students goofing around with mobile devices while crossing the street.

On the one hand, you have Eric Schmidt saying (in that interview) stuff like: “For me, the most interesting thing is the fact that you talk to it.” On the other, you have studies like this one by Texas A&M indicating that dictating messages while driving is just as dangerous as using your fingers to type them out. And yet many of us issue voice commands while driving (I realize this isn’t exactly the same as dictating), instructing our phones to initiate voice calls. What about issuing voice commands to a device like Google Glass? Is that safe while driving?

I’m not sure it’s enough for Google to place the burden wholly on consumers: “Read up and follow the law!” says the company in its Google Glass FAQ. “Above all, even when you’re following the law, don’t hurt yourself or others by failing to pay attention to the road. The same goes for bicycling: whether or not any laws limit your use of Glass, always be careful.” Who would disagree?

But how many states have legislation that covers a device like Google Glass? And where they don’t but the release of Google Glass motivates them to action, do we trust legislators to get the legislation right? In West Virginia, the legislature acted more on a whim than anything, electing to blanket-ban “a wearable computer with a head-mounted display.” Actual research didn’t factor.

Is Google itself studying how Google Glass works in view of what we presently know about the brain, our eyeballs and motor coordination? Is anyone communicating that in plain English to legislators? Speaking of devices, is Google Glass a mobile device in the same sense that your smartphone is? Legally the same?

Loosing potentially game-changing, legally nebulous wearable tech on the public without clear guidelines seems like a really bad idea. Consider the lengths Nintendo went to in order to warn parents about potential binocular vision development issues in children under a certain age who might operate the company’s 3DS gaming handheld with stereoscopic 3D mode enabled. Nintendo even included an optional parental lock to password-disable the technology.

What does “one full day of typical use” mean?

If it’s wearable and continuously in your field of view — not something you take out to use then put away like your phone, a tablet or a pager — you sort of expect it to work all the time. I’d like to see actual metrics here. How many hours of continuous standby use? How long does it take to recharge? What’s the milliamps-hour (mAh) rating? If this stuff is still up for grabs design-wise, no problem, tweak away, but I’d like to see better battery life details pre-launch than this “typical use” generalization in the current spec sheet. Typical for what sort of user? Smartphone-typical? Laptop-typical? Help us out, Google.

Why wait? Foster the conversation about privacy and social etiquette now.

This one’s less a question than a request. Schmidt’s position in the interview is that “…in general these kinds of body-wear devices, of which this is an example, will bring in a whole bunch of concerns, and the fact of the matter is that we’ll have to develop some new social etiquette. It’s obviously not appropriate to wear these glasses in situations where recording is not correct. And indeed you have this problem already with phones.”

What Schmidt says is accurate…and waffling — a little too comfortable with the “hey, other technology too!” defense. And yet we know (and Google knows) that Google Glass represents a much more significant shift than the gradual migration that’s occurred over the past two decades from basic cellphones to more advanced Internet-connected messaging devices to PC-in-your-pocket smartphones. Sure, Google Glass could be a flop, or the adoption curve might be much longer than some assume, or someone else’s take on the tech could supersede it, but Google has a vested PR interest in facilitating an intelligent conversation about social etiquette right now, not after we’re reading the inevitable headlines like “Guy Uses Google Glass to Spy on Children in Public Restrooms.”