The best technology, as Google cofounder Sergey Brin recently noted at the company’s annual developer conference, “gets out of the way” while helping you do what you want to do. Brin was introducing Project Glass, computerized eyewear that works like a hands-free smartphone, displaying messages, images, and maps onto the world in front of you. The glasses also have built-in cameras, allowing you to capture moments without disrupting them—moments like Brin tossing his son in the air. “Obviously,” Brin pointed out, “I couldn’t capture that with a camera or I’d drop my son.”
But the thing that makes wearable computers like Project Glass appealing—their ability to fade into the background—is also what makes them potentially risky. Unlike camera phones, where lifting the device and snapping a picture will probably tip off your subject that he or she is being photographed, wearable devices can be on for hours, unobtrusively recording everyone in your line of sight and sharing the footage online. This is a threat to privacy you can’t opt out of by simply choosing not to use the technology; so long as other people are wearing the devices, you’ll have to assume you’re on camera.
What’s more, the footage may ultimately be owned by Google, or whichever company ends up dominating the wearable computer market, and governments and courts will likely demand access to it—as they’ve already done with Google, smartphones, and Twitter. Soon getting accurate eyewitness accounts in a court case may be as simple as subpoenaing Project Glass data.
And while Project Glass has been mocked for its peculiar appearance (some joke it’s akin to strapping a smartphone to your face), it’s only a matter of time before it’s indistinguishable from ordinary eyewear. We may soon see an offering from famously design-savvy Apple, which was awarded a patent for a similar device last week. Further into the future, as wearable computing merges with ongoing developments in digital photography—such as efforts in nanotechnology to reduce camera size and gesture-based technology that lets you take photos with the blink of your eye—we may be able to dispense with the glasses altogether.
Project Glass is a first look at what’s to come. History tells us that resisting major technological innovations—in this case, an innovation that lets us easily augment our personal and collective memory—is futile. As with Facebook, smartphones, and the Internet in general, this new wearable tech promises a great deal of convenience and connectedness at the cost of some privacy—exactly how much remains to be seen. The important thing is to make that trade with eyes wide open.