Google Augments Reality – No, it’s not an April Fools prank!
April 12, 2012

by tmartin on April 13, 2012

WHAT A START TO APRIL!  It could have been an April Fool’s prank. I mean, sci-fi type glasses tapping you into the data stream – imagine!  Except, of course, it was Google’s latest conversation starter, Google Glass.

Google, in case you missed the news (https://plus.google.com/u/0/111626127367496192147/posts), envisions a world where we walk around with a wearable digital interface to the world.

That’s right, instead of looking at the world and interacting with real objects in real time, we can also co-exist in a digital space, seeing a digital data overlay of our world.

Google Glass (I know, I know, we all want to call it Google Goggles!) represents the latest in a vision of “wearable technology,” an implementation of computing that takes the form of a device you wear on your body and that provides constant and ongoing interaction with a digital layer of information based on your location and actions.

What you see in the demo video is people wearing data glasses. The wearers of the glasses see a little pop up in their fields of vision when a sensor IDs certain elements in the environment.

  • Look at a subway station: get an update on subway schedule;
  • Look at an advertising poster: Make note to order advertised product;
  • Look for friend: find friends location via a friend’s glasses and its sensor.

The whole process feels a bit like having your smart phone suspended in the air in front of you on a transparent screen.

This idea of Reality-Plus,  referred to by the phrase “augmented reality,” seems to represent a long-term human desire to experience the world beyond what our own senses tell us. We latched on to technology as means to this end centuries ago.

In 1665, English scientist Robert Hooke, who invented the reflective telescope among other accomplishments, authored Micrographia, the first book describing observations made through a microscope. In it he wrote of

“…the adding of artificial Organs to the natural… and as Glasses have highly promoted our seeing, so ’tis not improbable, but that there may be found many mechanical inventions to improve our other senses of hearing, smelling, tasting, and touching.”  

A few centuries later in 1987, The Terminator hit the silver screen with the cyborg’s field of vision incorporating data and text overlaying the “real” world. A still image from that movie formed the most frequent illustration for the Google Glass coverage last week. In fact, I have a sneaking suspicion that more than one person now believes Linda Hamilton was modeling an early prototype of a Google product.

In our world, military applications have been pushing the envelope in developing cameras that ‘see’ for human operators and overlay various kinds of data atop the human sensorial field since the mid-1960s. Fighter pilots and foot soldiers alike have gone into the field armed with variations of wearable technology.

By 1994 the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), had gone public with its Smart Modules Program to encourage the development of wearable computers, even sponsoring a wearables conference/workshop in 1996 to encourage the work of industrial, university and military visionaries. Earlier this year it announced augmented reality contact lenses: http://www.darpa.mil/NewsEvents/Releases/2012/01/31.aspx

You might even remember Steve Mann, currently a professor at the University of Toronto (http://wearcomp.org/historical/index.html). In 1981, while he was still in high school, he gained 15 minutes of fame with a backpack mounted computer/photographer/image-the-world device.

Later as a graduate student at the MIT Media Lab, he started continually wearing a sort of goggle/camera combo, transmitting his cybervision to a server and eventually to a web page.

Thinking triggered by this project helped launch what became the Wearable Computing Project (http://www.media.mit.edu/wearables/), which explored a whole other way to think about computing by treating it as portable, integrated, and providing a new way to interact with the real world in real time.

Other threads from wearable computing led to ideas like “gestural computing” where what you do and how you physically move control the computer and its interactions. If you’ve ever jumped and waved around a wii or xbox game, playing virtual tennis, karate, or golf (or like me, flapped like a chicken – http://www.capeeyes.com/2010/01/wii/)  you’ve experience gestural computing. You just called it playing a game.

Within hours of Google’s announcement, spoofs multiplied on the web and pretty much every late night show chimed it. To be part of the trendy digital cultural gestalt of the month check out a few of these, starting with the original “serious” honest-this-is-not-a-spoof Google vision at:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=9c6W4CCU9M4

Then, Jimmy Kimmel had fun with it:

http://www.hulu.com/watch/348068/jimmy-kimmel-live-project-glass

And so did Jon Stewart:

http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/tue-april-10-2012/the-social-networth—google-unveils-smart-glasses—facebook-buys-instagram

And Search Engine Watch compiled a few of more popular web spoof postings (warning: some contain off-color content), which also serve to demonstrate that a lot of people have an excess of free time and that video editing tools have become pretty darn easy to use:

http://searchenginewatch.com/article/2166559/6-Funny-Google-Project-Glass-Parody-Videos

It’s all sort of funny … but it’s not. Twenty short years ago, we lived in a pre-web browser world. In a pre-smart phone world.

Our daily, taken-for-granted activities – emailing a file, taking a photo with our mobile phone and sending to a friend across the country, texting from the grocery store to see what the family wants for dinner, screen sharing and jointly editing a presentation from two locations … were less real than Google Glass is today.

Think about it – we now have a whole generation that can no longer remember a world where you literally spun a dial on a phone attached to a wall!

The parodies make us laugh, but this is no April Fools prank. Google and many many others are queuing up products that bring us into the world science fiction once imagined, where the boundaries of biology become unbound by technology.

Yeah, I’m a little scared too, but a little curious at the same time to see how it will feel to live in a future that was once just part of someone’s imagination.

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