Through the Looking Glass

I remember the first time I saw a cellular telephone. It was on some television show where some fabulously wealthy guy had one in his car. It was this massive brick of a phone that was good for two things – making phone calls and hand to hand combat. There was no texting, no GPS, no social networking, and I’m not even certain this model had a display. If it did, it was probably much like a LCD calculator you’d find in the dollar store these days.

Then things started happening. Cell phones started to shrink and more people started to get them. It was only a few years ago that I remember people making fun of cell phone users. “Oh, you have a cell phone. You must be such an important person,” they’d say, the snark positively dripping from their lips. “Whaddya have a cell phone for? Who’s gonna call you?” The insults went on. Back then, you could send rudimentary text messages, but most people didn’t. The entire point of the phone was to use it to talk to people.

Thus the merry making and insults continued at the expense of the early adopter. I’m not even sure I recall when I got my first cellular phone. I’m pretty sure I was in my very early twenties and I know my parents helped finance it. Either way it was a Nokia something or other and, while smaller than the brick phone, would still open up a guy’s skull if you hit him over the head with it. I remember that it had a snake type game on it, but you certainly didn’t want to play it. Even then, as cell phones started to grow in popularity, people gave me grief.

“Jeez, Dan. What’s with the cell phone. You need to be on-call 24×7?”

“God, Dan, I like leaving my phone at home when I go out. That way no one can call me when I’m not home.”

Now, well… I know this homeless guy who comes into the library fairly often. He sometimes borrows the library phone for a quick call here and there. Why? Because he can only afford so many minutes on his prepaid cell phone and he’s trying to conserve them. That’s right, there are homeless people with mobile phones. That’s how common they’ve become. Today, if you made fun of someone for using their cell phone everybody, and I mean everybody, would look at you like you shat yourself at a White House dinner. It’s like making fun of someone for wearing pants.

So what’s the point?

Easy. Breezy. Beautiful. Project Glass.

The point is this, two words – Project Glass.

Also known as Google Glass, also known as Google Glasses and occasionally known as “Ooooo! I wanna try those!” I’ve read a lot about these things and, to be perfectly honest, I’m impressed. Even if these are just an attachment for a smart phone, they could completely change the way we use our devices and how we interact not only with our devices, but how we interact with the very world around us. Take a picture without looking away from your subject. Bring up information on the thing you’re looking at. Bring up a virtual trail of bread crumbs to lead you to the nearest pub. It’s coming, and for some, it’s already here.

Yet I’m already starting to hear a familiar chorus from not-so-long ago.

“Man, those things look weird.”

“I don’t know, I don’t think I’d wear that out in public. They’re ugly.”

“Jeez, they’re not even glasses. People are going to look stupid walking around with those on.”

Really? Did we, as a technological society, learn nothing from cell phones?

First off, take a look at the current incarnation of Project Glass. What you are looking at is the brick phone. This is the functional, but far from pretty, design that will get a job done but, in the end, it’s an industrial grade solution. It took years from the dawning of the brick sized cell phone to get to pretty and shiny like you see in the iPhone or the Galaxy S3. That’s how progress and technology works. The first version is designed by engineers, subsequent versions are designed by designers. The brick phone was a marvel of industrial engineering. Angles! Hard corners! Rough, pebbled surface for better grip! Hard plastic for the shell and rugged buttons for the numbers! It was just as pretty as a number-pad used to access a locked door at NASA. Hell, both were probably designed by the same engineers.

After a while, they started bringing in designers. Designers and engineers don’t typically get on well because engineers favour function while the designers are interested in form. Sooner or later they hash out their differences and you get a lovely phone with rounded corners, and no, I’m not talking about an iPhone. That old Nokia candy bar phone I had way-back-when had rounded corners. After you get some designers and engineers working together for a few years on a project you get beauty and function. In the case of cell phones you get iPhones and Samsungs and HTCs and so on. Beautiful phones that are delightful just to look at, let alone use.

The current incarnation of Project Glass has very little, if any, influence from a designer. They are glasses frames with some computer stuff stapled to it. They are plastic and stainless steel and probably two steps removed from the original prototype, and that’s crediting that they’re even that far removed from the original prototype.

Do you really, honestly believe that when these things are released into mainstream society that they will look like what you see today?

Of course not. You’re looking at around a year for developers to figure out how these things work and how to use them. Then you’re looking at another year to get them out into the market. So we’re about two years out on your own pair of smart specs. By the time you get your hands on them, they’re going to look like…


Like glasses.

Sure, your smart specs could look like these… But only if you wanted them to.

You’ll not be able tell if that person sitting across the table from you is taking your picture and cross referencing it to various social networks. You’ll have no idea that the lady you’re talking to on the street just got a text message. You’ll not even blink when you see someone wearing a pair of smart glasses because by the time you see them out in the wild they’re going to look exactly like glasses. Some will look like sunglasses; others will look like standard bifocals. There will certainly be a few styles here and there absolutely designed from the outset to draw attention to the fact that they’re smart glasses.  Still, see that word I used there? They will be designed to look like that. Designers will get involved and you will have something 100% different than what you’re seeing today.

When the CEOs handed some cell phones to the designers and told them to “do something about this,” they knew that people didn’t want to use brick phones. They knew that people like pretty and shiny, beautiful and soft, and something personal. I think we can agree that a brick is none of those things.  So corners got rounded. Displays were tweaked. Antennas were hidden. Think back, remember when your cell phone had an antenna that you could see? Some of them even had antennas that you pulled up and out of the phone for better reception? Those were ugly, stupid, and took time to fiddle with. So the designer, not an engineer, hid the antenna in the body of the phone. If you asked an engineer about hiding the antenna they’d probably tell you it’s a stupid idea. It’ll cut your reception and transmission by factors of some number used to measure reception and transmission rates.

But it didn’t take long for you to get very attractive devices.

So if you’re looking at those smart glasses and thinking, “Boy, I’d love to get a pair of those but I don’t want to look like an idiot walking around while wearing them.”

Don’t worry. You won’t.

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