Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Looking #Throughglass, Part 1 of 3: Practicalities, Temporalities, and Pre-nostalgia

My Google glass "review" of course became something else ... so I've broken it down into three separate entries. Part 1 looks primarily at the practical aspects of Glass on my own hands-on use. Part 2 will examine the ways in which Glass potentially integrates us into the "internet of things."  Finally, Part 3 will be more of a meditation on expectations which present technology like Glass instills, and the topologies of interface.

And a bit of a disclaimer to any Glass power-users who may stumble upon this blog entry: I'm a philosopher, and I'm critiquing glass from a very theoretical and academic perspective. So read this in that context. The technological fanboy in me thinks they're an awesome achievement.

Now, carry on.

I think the reason that my Google Glass entry has taken so long has nothing to do with my rigorous testing, nor with some new update to its OS. It's a question of procrastination, fueled by an aversion of having to critique something I so badly wanted to like. I should have known something was up when, in every Google Glass online community in which I lurked, examples of how people actually used Glass consisted of pictures of their everyday lives, tagged "#throughglass." It became clear early on that I was looking for the wrong thing in Glass: something that would immediately and  radically alter the way in which I experienced the world, and would more seamlessly integrate me with the technological systems which I use. That was not the case for two reasons: 1) the practical -- as a technological artifact, Glass’s functionality is limited; and 2) the esoteric -- it caused a kind of temporal dissonance for me where its potential usurped its use.

I'll boil down the practical issues to a paragraph for those not interested in a more theoretical take on things. For me, Glass was a real pain to use -- literally. While I appreciate that the display was meant to be non-intrusive, its position in a quasi-space between my normal and peripheral vision created a lot of strain. It also didn't help that the display is set on the right side. Unfortunately for me, my left eye is dominant. So that could explain much of the eye strain I was experiencing. But still, having to look to my upper right to see what was in the display was tiring. Not to mention the fact that the eye-positioning is very off-putting for anyone the wearer happens to be around. Conversation is instantly broken by perpetual glancing to their upper right, which looks even more odd to the person with whom one is speaking. The user interface consists of “cards” which can be swiped through using the touch-pad on the right temple of Glass. The series of taps and swipes is actually very intuitive. But the lack of display space means that there are very limited amounts of a virtual “desktop” at any given time. And the more apps that are open, the more swiping one has to do. Once Glass is active, the user “gets its attention” by saying “okay Glass,” and then speaking various -- limited -- voice commands. The bulk of Glass’s functionality is voice-based, and its voice-recognition is impressive. However, there are a limited amount of commands Glass will recognize. Glass is able to perform most of the functions of “Google Now” on a smartphone, but not quite as well, and lacking a more intuitive visual interface through which to see the commands being performed.  In fact, it seems to recognize fewer commands than Google Now, which was a difficult shift for me to make given my frequent use of the Google Now app. Battery life is minimal. As in, a couple of hours of heavy use, tops. One might be able to squeeze six out of it if used very, very sparingly.

On the plus side, the camera and video functionality are quite convenient. Being able to snap pics, hands free (via a wink!), is very convenient. As a Bluetooth headset tethered to a phone, it’s quite excellent. It is also an excellent tool for shooting point-of-view pictures and video. I cannot stress enough that there are several potential uses and applications for Glass in various professions. In the hospitality industry, the medical field, even certain educational settings, Glass would be a powerful tool, and I have no doubt that iterations of Glass will be fully integrated into these settings.

For my own use, practically speaking, Glass isn't. Practical, that is. No. It's not practical at all.  But in that lack of practicality lies what I see as Glass’s most positive asset: its recalibration of our technological expectations of integration, connection, and control.

Yes, In Glass we get a hint of what is to come. As a fan of all things Google, I think it was brave of them to be the first to make this technology available to the public. Why? Because no one who did this kind of thing first could ever hope to get it right. This is the type of technology which is forged by the paradoxical fires of disappointment by technological skeptics and fanatical praise of the early adopters who at first forced themselves to use Glass because they had so much faith in it. Those true "Glass Explorers" (a term coined by Google) integrated Glass into their daily lives despite its limitations.

But as I started using Glass, I experienced a kind of existential temporal distortion. WHen I looked at this pristine piece of new technology, I kept seeing it through my eyes two to five years into the future. Strangely, one of the most technologically advanced artifacts I’ve held in my hands made me think, ‘How quaint. I remember when this was actually cutting edge.’ It was a very disorienting feeling. And I couldn't shake it. The feeling persisted the more I used it. I found myself thinking ‘wow, this was clunky to use; how did people used to use this effectively.’ I was experiencing the future in the present, but in the past-tense.

Temporal dissonance. My #throughglass experience wasn't one of documenting the looks of curious strangers, or of my dog bounding about, or even of a tour of my office. Mine was pure temporal dissonance. The artifact felt already obsolete. By its tangible proof of concept, it had dissolved itself into the intangible conceptual components which would be seamlessly integrated into other artifacts. #Throughglass, I was transported to the future, but only because this artifact felt like it was already a thing of the past. If you have an old cell phones around -- whether it’s a past android-based smartphone or an older flip phone, take it out. Hold it.  Then turn it on, and try to navigate through its menus. That awkwardness, that odd, almost condescending nostalgia? That partially describes what I felt when I started using this advanced technology. And this was a new feeling for me. The only term I can think up to describe it is “pre-nostalgia.”

Personally, there were other factors which, for me, worked against Glass. Aesthetically, I could not get over how Glass looked. For the amount of technology packed into them, I think that the engineers did an excellent job of making them as non-intrusive as possible. But still, in my opinion, they looked positively goofy. I promised myself that I would only wear them around campus -- or in certain contexts. But there really isn't a context for Glass ... yet. Until a company or an industry starts a wide-scale adoption of Glass (which will only come when developers create the right in-house systems around its use, such as integrating it into various point-of-sale platforms for the hospitality industry, or into the medical records systems for doctors, etc), Glass will remain delightfully odd to some, and creepily off-putting to others. I wonder if the first people who wore monocles and then eyeglasses were looked upon as weirdly as those who wear Glass in public today? Probably.

Personally, this aspect really disturbed me. Was it just my vanity that was stopping me from wearing them? When I did wear them in public, most people were fascinated. Was I just being too self-conscious? Was I becoming one of those people who resists the new? Or was I just never meant to be in the avant-garde, not psychologically ready enough to be on the forefront of a shift in culture?

Some possible answers to that in Part 2, "The Steel Against the Flint, Sparking Expectation"