Google Founder Sergei Brin wearing Google Glass
If you’ve seen me talk at any of the many events I’ve presented at in the last six months you’ll have noticed that at some point in my presentation I’ve mentioned Google Glass – the latest technology development by advertising giant Google. I say advertising rather than search or technology to describe Google as it is pretty much an advertising company these days.
Google Glass is one of the most high profile pieces of wearable computing to have hit the headlines in the last 12 months. The basic premise behind the glasses is to overlay digital information onto our real world view through the special glasses worn by the user. As potentially farfetched as the technology might sound, it is real and is being offered to a limited number of users in the US right now.
Google pioneered a similar system several years ago called Google Goggles (try saying that after a few drinks!), a downloadable app for your mobile. It does a very similar thing to Google Glass. When you hold up your mobile phone’s camera to certain items, it shows additional information on the screen alongside whatever you happen to be viewing. The classic example is using the app in Piccadilly Circus to see information relating to underground stations, food and places of interest around you. Google Glass is just an evolution of this idea and technology.
If you think about the amount of information that Google now has in its databases, it is actually not that hard to make something like Glass work, provided we all have decent internet speeds available on the move. All Google Glass needs is;
- User location data
- It can get this from the Android operating system it owns or, in some towns in the US the free Wi-Fi that it offers.
- Places data
- Google Maps and Earth have billions of pieces of location information and are maintained by a team of hundreds of developers and data experts.
- Google+ data
- While not particularly well used at this point, Google is throwing everything it has to make this THE social network. The more users who use this in the coming years, the more information it will have about us, our connections and interests.
Now that we’ve had time to see the technology in action and watch videos of how the glasses might be used in the future, it’s time to ask why Google is doing this. Is the development of Google Glass by its billionaire owners something to truly improve our lives or is there something more sinister at play?
As highlighted above, Google has billions of pieces of information in each of its many, many databases. It also has reach, scale and speed to link these pieces of data together in near real time. There are very few companies in the world which have this goldmine of data and also the technological expertise to piece it together. The revolutionary thing about Google Glass isn’t the linking of the data; it is the way that it is delivered to the user through a wearable piece of kit.
An invasion of your vision?
Having seen the prototypes of Google Glass it does look like a seriously impressive piece of kit. The idea of getting so much information in front of you without having to use a hand held device like a mobile phone or tablet is brilliant. If I could use one today I probably would. I am also sure many, many, many others would as well.
My thoughts until very recently, were that Google Glass was created as another product sale. Create something so revolutionary that everyone wants one, sell millions of them and make a healthy profit doing so. It’s worked very well for Apple in the last decade.
IAB predicts audience targetting growth by 2020
But, is there something more potentially devilish behind Glass? My views changed recently when I saw a tweet from Google’s recent event at Kings Cross which said that by 2020, personal advertising will be worth more than search advertising. Given search is almost ALL of Google’s business at the moment that is a massive threat. So how could Google counteract this?
If Google knew who you were, where you were and what you were looking at, how powerful would that be to advertisers? If Google really is an advertising company then surely it makes sense for them to put advertising messages or images into the users vision in the same way it does with search, Gmail or even Adsense?
If Google knew all of the above and had a platform available to allow advertisers to bid on ‘you’ in real time, then this would be massively powerful. Powerful for advertisers and very powerful for them. To give advertisers the ability to bid on people whose history, likes and location could potentially all be levers to adjust bids, is potentially much more valuable than just a few words in a search string.
Given that AdWords is starting to reach saturation point in some industries (due to ongoing increases in CPCs) the move to personal advertising, given everything that we know, is almost inevitable. It is also a necessity for Google as AdWords revenue is likely to start to decline in the coming years and the shareholders need to be kept happy.
According to the PR surrounding Glass; “There are no plans for advertising on this device – We’re more interested in making the hardware available.” As well intending as this sounds, the potential advertising revenue to be generated from the showing of ads in real time to audiences or individuals could be too tempting – especially for shareholders.
Is it scary to think that we could just be reduced to a list of user profile IDs to be bid on by advertisers somewhere in the cloud? To some yes. Would the man in the street want their information to be available to allow advertisers to bid on them, either indivdually or as a group, and show them relevant adverts? Probably not. But then again, this is already happening with Facebook, LinkedIn and others so what’s the difference? The real time ‘in your face’ aspect of what could potentially happen with Glass is what could be most uncomfortable for users.
Let’s say it started raining in the town you were in. If an advert suddenly appeared in your vision offering 25% off umbrellas in your local Tesco (or M&S if you had a different profile) would that be a welcome advert or not?
Perhaps in your face, or eye advertising could be too much for some. Perhaps Google will offer an ad free version of their product? Pay thousands of dollars for your Glass and you won’t see adverts. Opt for the free or low cost version and allow yourself to be bid on by anyone in the Glass Display network. Could the digital divide be widened by the company who have long pushed to keep the internet free and open?
The future of Google Glass at this point is completely unknown. The product is still very much in beta release in the US and hasn’t even made it to these shores. Even Google itself doesn’t really know what apps will be developed. Glass is seen as another platform, like Android, rather than something Google itself controls. Will the product even be a success? At this point it is way too early to say. For those born in the 1980’s, we have seen similar ‘revolutionary’ technologies come and go in the last few decades (anyone for the Sinclair Car? HD DVDs?) so if this didn’t become popular then it wouldn’t be a surprise.
But if it does become a successful product and one which gains mass adoption in a similar fashion to say the iPod or iPad then we, as digital humans, need to be careful how and when we use this technology. It would be easy to get swept along with the great features it could provide but we also need to seriously look at the social implications such a piece of equipment could bring. Privacy, security and safety all need to be looked at by individuals and society at large to decide whether this really is the next step in computing, or just a scary money making device which will negatively change the way we interact forever.