Google has unsurprisingly called an end to the current version of Google Glass. What does this mean in the ongoing battle between cool gadgets and personal privacy? When Glass was launched for developers in 2013 it met with a fairly mixed response, many seeing it as a step too far into our private lives. Does the recent move offer vindication for these concerns? Has the encroachment of technology into our lives been halted? This would appear unlikely.
The official line is that Glass is graduating from the Google[x] labs to become its own team reporting into the head of home automation. This will continue the shift in focus away from consumer to workplace applications. Glass met with resistance not only because of privacy concerns, but also because none of the consumer applications were compelling enough to offset the 'nerd factor' of wearing a headset around all day.
In contrast workplace applications have seen more success. Glass lets workers record and access data while still using both hands; this can be useful in a variety of settings. In 2013 a surgeon broadcast an operation live to 13,000 students while answering their questions. In warehouses staff can be directed where to go and have items verified by the camera. In factories and construction sites staff can be alerted to safety risks. Or a sandwich shop has used it to get staff recording and watching training videos in the first person.
Google Glass and other smart glasses are continuing the trend of technological augmentation in the workplace. There may be a lack of 'killer apps' for consumers, but in the workplace smart glasses can already increase productivity. The question of privacy and the 'nerd factor' is also less relevant at work. People don't care what they look like if it makes them (or their employees) more productive. Therefore we are likely to see smart glasses increasingly used in the workplace.
This should be no surprise, a number of technologies start in the workplace, where the benefits are often highest, for example mobile phones, computers and tablets. Therefore the recent move by Google appears quite logical. They may have focused on consumer applications when Glass launched, but they now rightly recognise workplaces as a more fruitful place to start.
So what does this mean for those concerned about privacy? Will smart glasses remain in the workplace, or will they eventually gain common usage? Or worse take us towards the dystopian future created in Dave Eggers's book The Circle, where the proliferation of personal video cameras together with the manta "privacy is theft" creates a police state. Despite the fear some feel, this is not the end of the road for smart glasses.
We are already seeing wearable cameras becoming the norm in many parts of life. Road users, and especially cyclists, are increasingly using portable cameras to record their journeys for use as evidence in case there is an accident. Or the London Met Police are currently trialling 500 cameras worn by officers to increase transparency and capture evidence. This is before we talk about the oncoming wave of low-cost drones.
We also see this in ski resorts, which increasingly look like film sets with the number of cameras protruding from helmets. Or if something interesting happens it is rare if someone has not reached for a phone to record it. Google Glass may have been too much, too soon for many of us, but for better or worse culture is steadily shifting. We are recording increasing portions of our lives and technology is augmenting more of our activities. Smart glasses will eventually be part of this.
We will steadily get used to workers wearing smart glasses. We may ourselves be one of these workers and experience the benefits directly. Alongside this technology will improve and so will consumer applications. An increasing number of work and recreation activities will benefit from being augmented by wearable technology. Culture will steadily shift and eventually someone wearing smart glasses will become as acceptable as it is today for someone to sit staring at a 4-inch display.
Therefore Google Glass may be regrouping to focus on the workplace, but this is just the beginning. Smart glasses for consumers will return, just not before we wear them at work first.