Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Looking #Throughglass, Part 3 of 3: Risk, Doubt, and Technic Fields

In my last post, I discussed the expectations that Google Glass creates in relation to the internet of things. In this final section, things will take a slightly more philosophical turn by way of Glass's paradoxical weakness.

Connection. Integration. Control. They are related but they are not the same. One of the pitfalls of a posthuman ontology is that the three are often confused with each other, or we believe that if we have one, we automatically have one or both of the others. A connection to any kind of system (whether technological, social, emotional, etc. or any combination thereof) does not necessarily mean one is integrated with it, and neither connection nor integration will automatically instill a sense of control. In fact, a sense of integration can have quite the opposite effect, as some begin to feel compelled to check their email, or respond to every signal from their phone or tablet. Integrating a smart home or child tracker into that system can, at times, exacerbate that very feeling. Explicating the finer differences among connection, integration, and control will be the subject of another entry/series. For now, however, we can leave it at this: part of the posthuman experience is to have an expectation of a technological presence of some kind.

The roots of the word “expect” come from the latin expectare, from ex- “thoroughly” + spectare “to look.” (etymonline.com). So, any time we are “looking for” a technological system of any kind, whether or not it is because we want to find a WiFi network (vending machine, ATM, etc.) or because we don't want to find any obvious sign of a technological device or system (save for the most rudimentary and simple necessities), we are, generally, in a state of looking for or anticipating some kind of technological presence. 

Wide scale adoption of certain technologies and their system of use is a very important aspect of making that specific technology ubiquitous. Think about email. For each of us, when did email and the internet become important -- if not the main --  means of retrieving and storing information, communication, and entertainment? How much of the adoption of that technology came about by what seemed to be an active grasping of it, and what seemed to be something foisted upon us in a less voluntary way? The more ubiquitous the technology feels, the more we actively -- yet unconsciously -- engaged with it.

And in the present day, we expect much, much more from the internet than we did before. Even in other technological systems: what do we expect to see on our cars? What will we expect to see in 10 years’ time? 

In this context, the successful technology or technological system is one that creates expectations of its future iterations. Much like the film Inception, all a company needs to do is plant the idea of a technology in collective consciousness of culture. But that idea needs to be realistic enough to occupy that very narrow band between the present and the distant future, making the expectation reasonable For example, cost-effective flying cars may be feasible in the near future in and of themselves, but we also know that wide scale adoption of them would be contingent upon a major -- and unrealistic -- shift in the transportation infrastructure: too many other things would have to change before the technology in question could become widespread. 

In this case, Glass -- subtly, for now -- points to a future in which the technological presences around us are evoked at will. Most importantly, that presence (in the internet of things), is just "present enough" now to make the gap between present and future small enough to conceptually overcome. It is a future that promises connection, integration, and control harmoniously fused, instantiated by an interface that is both ubiquitous, yet non-intrusive. 

In the present, in terms of everyday use, this is where Glass falls short for me. It is intrusive. Aesthetically, they've done all they can given the size limitations of the technology, but its user interface is not fluid. I think its reliance on voice commands is at fault. Although the voice recognition present in Glass is impressive, there are sometimes annoying errors. But errors aside, using voice as the main user control system for Glass is a miss. Voice interaction with a smartphone, tablet, or computer can be quite convenient at times, but -- especially with smartphones -- it is infrequently used as the primary interface. No matter how accurate the voice recognition is, it will always lack what a touch-interface has: intimacy.

Now this may seem counterintuitive. Really, wouldn't it be more intimate if we could speak to our machines naturally? In some ways, yes, if we could speak to them naturally. Spike Jonze’s Her presents an incredible commentary on the kind of intimacy we might crave from our machines (yet another entry to be written ... so many topics, so little time!).  But the reality of the situation, in the present, is that we do not have that kind of technology readily available. And voice interfaces -- no matter how much we train ourselves to use them or alter our speech patterns so that we’re more easily understood -- will always already lack intimacy for two main reasons. 

First, voice commands are public: they must be spoken aloud. If there is no one else in the room, the act of speaking aloud is still, on some level, public. It is an expression that puts thoughts “out there.” It is immediate, ephemeral, and cannot be taken back.  Even when we talk to ourselves, in complete privacy, we become our own audience. And sometimes hearing ourselves say something out loud can have a profound effect. A technological artifact with a voice interface becomes a “real” audience in that it is an “other” to whom our words are directed. Furthermore, this technological other has the capacity to act upon the words we say. These are, after all, voice commands.  A command implies that the other to whom the command is directed will enact the will of the speaker. Thus, when we speak to a device, we speak to it with the intent that it carry out the command we have given it. But, in giving commands, there is always a risk that the command will not be carried out, either because the other did not hear it, understand it, or -- as could be a risk in future AI systems -- does not want to carry it out. Of course, any technological device comes with a risk that it won't perform in the ways we want it to. But it’s the public nature of the voice command that makes that type of interface stand out and augments its failure. I propose that, even subconsciously, there is a kind of performance anxiety that occurs in any voice interface. With each utterance, there is a doubt that we will be understood, just as there is always an underlying doubt when we speak to another person. However, with another person, we can more naturally ask for clarification, and/or read facial expressions and nonverbal cues in order to clarify our intentions. 

The doubt that occurs with voice commands is only exacerbated by the second reason why voice interfaces lack intimacy. It is something which is more rooted in the current state of voice recognition systems: the very definite lag between the spoken command and when the command is carried out. The more “naturally” we speak, the longer the lag as the software works to make sense of the string of words we have uttered. The longer the lag, the greater the doubt. There is an unease that what we have just said will not be translated correctly by the artifact. Add to this the aforementioned performance anxiety, then we have the ingredients for that hard-to-describe, disconcerting feeling one often gets when speaking to a machine. I have no doubt that this lag will one day be closed. But until then, voice commands are too riddled with doubt to be effective. And, all philosophical and psychological over-analysis aside, these lags get in the way. They are annoying. Even when the gaps are closed, I doubt this will ameliorate the more deeply rooted doubt that occurs when commands are spoken aloud, publicly. 

For now, the real intimacy of interface between human and machine comes in the tactile. Indeed, the visual is the primary interface and the one which transmits the most information. However, on the human side, the tactile = intimacy. Thus, when trying to navigate through menus on Glass, the swipe of a finger against the control pad feels much more reliable than having to speak commands verbally. Having no middle ground in which to quickly key in information is a hinderance. If we think about the texts we send, how many of them are will willing to speak aloud? Some, clearly, contain private or sensitive information. Keying in information provides the illusion of a direct connection with the physical artifact, and, in practical terms, also is “private” in that others can’t easily determine what the individual is keying into his or her screen. 

Whether or not this aspect of privacy is in the forefront of our minds as we text doesn't matter, but it is in our minds when we text. We trust that the information we're entering into -- or through -- the artifact is known to us, the artifact itself, and a potential audience. Make a mistake in typing a word or send a wrong command, we can correct it rather quickly.  Of course, there is still a potential for a bit of anxiety that our commands will not be carried out, or understood. But the “failure” is not as immediate or public in most cases as it would be with a command or message that is spoken aloud. Repeating unrecognized commands via voice is time consuming and frustrating.

Furthermore, a physical keying in of information is more immediate, especially if the device is configured for haptic feedback. Touch "send," and one can actually “feel” the acknowledgement of the device itself. Touching the screen is reinforced by a visual cue that confirms the command. Add any associated sounds the artifact makes, and the entire sequence becomes a multisensory experience. 

At present, technology is still very artifactual, and I believe that it is the tactile aspect of our interactions with technological systems which is one of the defining factors in how we ontologically interact with those systems. Even if we are interacting with our information in the cloud, it is the physical interface through which we bring that information forth that defines how we view ourselves in relation to that information. Even though Glass potentially “brings forth” information in a very ephemeral way, it is still brought forth #throughglass, and once it has been evoked, I believe that -- in the beginning at least -- there will have to be a more physical interaction with that information somehow. In this regard, I think the concept video below from Nokia really seems to get it right. Interestingly, this video is at least 5 years old, and this clip was part of a series that the Nokia Research Center put together to explore how 
mobile technology might evolve. I can't help but think that the Google Glass development team had watched this at some point. 



My first reaction to the Nokia video was this is what Glass should be. This technology will come soon, and Glass is the first step. But Nokia’s vision of “mixed reality” is the future which Glass prepares us for, and -- for me -- highlights three things which Glass needs for it to be useful in the present:

Haptic/Gesture-based interface. Integral in Nokia’s concept is the ability to use gestures to manipulate text/information that is present either on the smartglass windows of the house, or in the eyewear itself. Even if one doesn't actually “feel” resistance when swiping (although in a few years that may be possible via gyroscopic technology in wristbands or rings), the movement aspect brings a more interactive dynamic than just voice. In the video, the wearer’s emoticon reply is sent via a look, but I would bet that Nokia’s researchers envisioned a more detailed text being sent via a virtual keyboard (or by a smoother voice interface).
Full field-of-vision display. This was my biggest issue with Glass. I wanted the display to take up my entire field of vision. The danger to this is obvious, but in those moments when I’m not driving, walking, or talking to someone else, being able to at least have the option of seeing a full display would make Glass an entirely different -- and more productive -- experience.  In Nokia's video, scrolling and selection is done via the eyes, but moving the information and manipulating it is done gesture-haptically across a wider visual field.
Volitional augmentation. By this, I mean that the user of Nokia Vision actively engages -- and disengages -- with the device when needed. Despite Google’s warnings to Glass Explorers not to be “Glassholes,”  users are encouraged to wear Glass as often as possible. But there’s a subtle inference in Nokia’s video that this technology is to be used when needed, and in certain contexts. If this technology were ever perfected, one could imagine computer monitors being almost completely replaced by glasses such as these. Imagine for a moment what a typical day at work would be like without monitors around. Of course, there would be some as an option and for specific applications (especially ones that required a larger audience and/or things that could only be done via a touchscreen), but Nokia’s vision re-asserts choice into the mix. Although more immersive and physically present artifactually, the "gaze-tracking eyewear" is less intrusive in its presence, because engaging with it is a choice. Yes, engaging with Glass is a choice, but its non-intrusive design implies an “always on” modality. The internet of things will always be on. The choice to engage directly with it will be ours. Just as it is your choice as to whether or not to check email immediately upon rising. Aside from the hardware, what I find the most insightful here is the inference of personal responsibility (i.e. and active and self-aware grasping) toward technology.

If Google Glass morphed into something closer to Nokia’s concept, would people abuse it, wear it all the time, bump into things, get hit by cars, lose any sense of etiquette, and/or dull already tenuous social skills? Of course. But Nokia’s early concept here seems to be playing for a more enlightened audience. Besides, at this level of technological development, one could imagine a pair of these glasses being "aware" of when a person was ambulatory and default to very limited functionality. 

Overall, Glass is the necessarily clunky prototype which creates an expectation for an effective interface with the internet of things.  Although it may not be practical for me in the present, it does make me much more receptive to wearing something that is aesthetically questionable so that I might have a more effective interface when I choose to have it.  It is, however, a paradoxical device. It’s non-intrusive design impedes a smooth interface, and the hyper-private display that only the wearer can see is betrayed by very public voice commands. Its evoking of the information provided by the internet of things is impeded by too much empty space. 

But in that failure lies its success: it creates an expectation that brings technological otherness down from the clouds and integrates it into the very spaces we occupy. Over half a century ago, Martin Heidegger implied in The Question Concerning Technology that the essence of technology does not reside in the artifact, but in the individual’s own expectation of what the artifact or system would bring forth. He would be horrified by Glass, because it “sets in order” our topological spaces, objectifying them, and rendering them into information. The optimist in me would disagree. but only with the caveat that engaging with the “technic fields” that an internet of things would emit must be a choice, and not a necessity. That is to say, it is the responsibility of the individual to actively engage and disengage at will, much like the somewhat Hyperborean user depicted in Nokia’s Mixed Reality project. 

Philosophically speaking, this type of technology potentially offers an augmented integration with our topologies. It highlights the importance of the physical spaces we occupy and the ways in which those spaces contribute to how and why we think the way we do. Used mindfully, such technologies will also allow us to understand the impact that our human presence has on our immediate environment (i.e. the room, house, building, etc. we occupy), and how those spaces affect the broader environments in which they are found. 

Now, will Glass just sit on my shelf from now on? No. I do have to say that more apps are being developed every day that increase the functionality of Glass. Furthermore, software updates from Google have made Glass much more responsive. So I will continue to experiment with them, and if the right update comes along with the right app, then I may, at some point, integrate them into my daily routine.

#Throughglass, however, the future is in the past-tense.


[I would like to express my appreciation and gratitude to Western State Colorado University and the faculty in Academic Affairs who made this possible by providing partial funding for obtaining Glass; and for the faculty in my own department -- Communication Arts, Languages, and Literature -- for being patient with me as I walked through the halls nearly bumping into them. The cyborg in me is grateful as well.