7 Potential Problems With Google's Glasses

Google reportedly will offer augmented reality glasses by the end of the year. But are you ready for the pitfalls?

Thomas Claburn, Editor at Large, Enterprise Mobility

February 22, 2012

6 Min Read

From The Cool To The Ridiculous: CES On Display

From The Cool To The Ridiculous: CES On Display

From The Cool To The Ridiculous: CES On Display (click image for larger view and for slideshow)

Google is said to be preparing to sell glasses with a built-in heads-up display that present information culled from Google services to the wearer.

The company won't comment publicly on the project, which according to the New York Times, is being spearheaded by Google engineer Steve Lee and Google co-founder Sergey Brin.

But reports published by 9-to-5 Mac and the New York Times suggest that Google's wearable augmented reality accessory will rely on Android software and cost between $250 and $600, about as much as a current smartphone.

Presumably, either a cellular data plan will be required or the glasses will communicate with the wearer's Android phone via Bluetooth or over a Wi-Fi connection. Bluetooth, which operates at low power, seems to make the most sense.

[ Google has been criticized for bypassing browser privacy controls. Read Google's Privacy Invasion: It's Your Fault. ]

The glasses are said to include a low-resolution camera for capturing information about the wearer's location. Relevant information derived from image processing and location data will then be overlaid on the wearer's field of view.

Google's glasses are likely to build upon existing Google image processing technology like Google Goggles, which can identify objects for identification and letters in various languages for translation. Just imagine the utility of gazing at a pair of golden arches and seeing the words "McDonald's" come up on your glasses display screen.

The user interface is said to be driven by head gestures, which at least will avoid the annoyance of people muttering verbal commands to their glasses.

Google supposedly will begin selling the glasses before the end of year, initially as an experiment. In other words, there's no business model at present, which means no ads.

As an experiment, Google's glasses are bound to be great fun. But expect some problems before Google, or anyone else for that matter, figures out how to make augmented reality glasses that provide real value.

Here are a few potential pitfalls:


The outcry over people beaming images back to Google's data centers will be deafening, far worse than complaints about Google's monitoring of Web browsing habits. Google engineers are said to be actively discussing the privacy implications of the glasses. But the company's history of repeated privacy blunders suggests controversy is inevitable.

Google has the technology to enable facial recognition with its Google Goggles app, but has avoided doing so for fear of privacy problems. And that's the real shame here, because augmented reality glasses should be able to do things like present the name of the person you're looking at. That kind of technology will be available eventually, at least to police departments. But as a society, we're not ready for it.


Augmented reality is cool. But putting the technology into a pair of glasses isn't strictly necessary. Everything your Google glasses might be able to do, your Android phone will do better, particularly given the assumption that the glasses will be intended for periodic rather than constant use.


For several hundred dollars, you'll get what? Services already available on your smartphone. Augmented reality makes a lot of sense if you're, say, a NASA astronaut who needs to see Space Shuttle schematics in your visor while you're on a space walk to make repairs. Augmented reality makes less sense for consumers. A more cost-effective solution might be a smartphone scaffold for mounting your phone on your baseball cap.


There's already enough FUD about mobile phones and brain cancer. But even the most scientifically-minded are likely to balk if Google's glasses rely on anything more powerful than Bluetooth to transmit and receive data. And that's to say nothing of the potential health effects of visual distraction and impairment. No one wants their last thought to be, "Hey, Google Maps says I'm walking across Highway 101... "


And if there are health risks, there will be liability problems. People will wear Google's glasses while driving, despite explicit warnings not to do so. They will collide with elderly pedestrians and someone will get hurt. Someone will end up going cross-eyed. There will be lawsuits. And some politician will hold a hearing. Add the cost of an insurance policy to your Google Glasses bill.

Battery Life

Battery life continues to hinder the utility of smartphones, tablets, and notebook computers. And in these devices, you can generally feel the weight of the battery. Glasses need to be light to be comfortable, so the battery will necessarily be small. As a consequence, the glasses are unlikely to be useful for very long, unless they require a separate tethered battery ... and that would ruin the experience. The ideal augmented reality glasses will be able to run perpetually on sunlight. We're probably several decades away from that kind of photovoltaic and processor efficiency.


Head-tiling will not be enough if the glasses are to offer services beyond navigation. The glasses will either have to convert hand gestures to commands or accept voice commands. So add a microphone, which adds another layer of privacy problems and engineering requirements.

The glasses will also have to be extraordinarily responsive--when you turn your head you won't be happy with information related to where you were looking three seconds ago. That will mean either a very fast network connection--something many mobile carriers can't manage consistently--or displaying as little data as possible for the sake of speed and to appease mobile carriers, which already consider you a data hog.

Of course, the glasses could run on Wi-Fi networks rather than cellular networks. But that would limit them to being novelty items for augmented museum tours.

Google's glasses sound promising. But it's probably safe to say that you can wait for version 2.0.

As federal agencies embrace devices and apps to meet employee demand, the White House seeks one comprehensive mobile strategy. Also in the new Going Mobile issue of InformationWeek Government: Find out how the National Security Agency is developing technologies to make commercial devices suitable for intelligence work. (Free registration required.)

About the Author(s)

Thomas Claburn

Editor at Large, Enterprise Mobility

Thomas Claburn has been writing about business and technology since 1996, for publications such as New Architect, PC Computing, InformationWeek, Salon, Wired, and Ziff Davis Smart Business. Before that, he worked in film and television, having earned a not particularly useful master's degree in film production. He wrote the original treatment for 3DO's Killing Time, a short story that appeared in On Spec, and the screenplay for an independent film called The Hanged Man, which he would later direct. He's the author of a science fiction novel, Reflecting Fires, and a sadly neglected blog, Lot 49. His iPhone game, Blocfall, is available through the iTunes App Store. His wife is a talented jazz singer; he does not sing, which is for the best.

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