Google recently released a video of “Project Glass”, its concept of an augmented reality system, triggering a wave of posts asking “Wow, can they really do that?”. Followed by a tsunami of shouting “Not even nearly”. It is an excellent piece of science-fiction, but in terms of launchable products they might as well have played a clip of Star Trek.
Augmented Reality is the idea of improving the real world by filling it with pretend items. This is a very good idea, and one we’re already putting into practice (whose life hasn’t been improved by Harry Potter, Mario, or movies with the carefully constructed artificial shell built around Tom Cruise?). But since these figures can only live in pages or on screens, the next step is to stick a screen over our eyes to have them appear everywhere.
The Project Glass demo shows off a few of the first-draft applications of such a system: easy access to maps, videochat with far-away people, the ability to check your e-mail while walking down the street until you comically fall into roadworks and die (they cut away before that bit). The slim and stylish camera frames Google’s engineers have used aren’t as bulky as most heads-up display (HUD) units, for the simple reason that they aren’t a heads-up display unit.
The tiny nub in the corner of those lenses could just about show you a power light, not an entire alternate reality. Miniaturized projection systems, transparent glass displays, holography, none of the system even remotely capable of doing what the video claims it can. Which makes it weird. Google has a habit of turning up with almost-completed items we didn’t even know we wanted yet, so it’s strange to see it waving vague promises of “That cool thing, sure, we’ll have that”.
Despite featuring more Google fantasy than a fifteen year-old’s browser history, Project Glass is still brilliant. Because it’s saying that there’s no reason for smartphones to still look like phones. In remote regions, a communications device might still be a specialist tool, but in the world of always-on communications people are more aware of their online status than their heart rate. Handheld tools are things you use often but not always, like forks or screwdrivers. Phones are always on and taken everywhere and, like clothes, we consider going outside without them kind of crazy. So we should be wearing phones as well.
Wristphones have never taken off, despite the James Bond retro coolness, and phone pendants have always been more about style than easy use. Glasses might not be the best choice, but at least they get rid of the “clunky little box you hold” idea. And glasses have always been associated with being smart. What will be interesting is when Apple decides to shift the shape of a phone. Which it will eventually, because it needs to make some kind of change to sell a new model every year (and when Camp Cupertino does it, the rest will follow. Because even if people reject the idea of a phone gaining four eyes, Apple could release an impenetrable iBlindfold and it would still sell a million units.