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WEARING OUT: Google Glass (top); Szotek (bottom left); the “Wearable PC” in Japan.
Google glass: Tolga Akmen/Zuma Press/Newscom • Szotek: handout • Wearable PC: Yoshikazu Tsunoyoshikazu Tsuno/AFP/Getty Images
WEARING OUT: Google Glass (top); Szotek (bottom left); the “Wearable PC” in Japan.

In our faces

Technology | OK for specialized tasks, wearable computers are meeting social roadblocks

Issue: "Blurred Vision," April 5, 2014

In February an Indiana surgeon removed the remnants of a stubborn abdominal tumor with the help of a “wearable computer.” Fitted with Google Glass, a $1,500 titanium headset bearing a tiny camera and transparent display, Paul Szotek operated on his 45-year-old patient while glancing at an MRI of the tumor on the headset display. The surgery was the first in the state using Google Glass, and one of the first across the United States. “This Star Trek-style technology could really have a major impact on how we practice medicine,” said Szotek.

While surgery presents a useful niche for wearable computers, Google Glass and its ilk haven’t exactly taken society by storm. On the contrary, some people hate them.

Available in colors like red, black, or blue, it isn’t as if Google Glass lacks style—unlike some tacky, bulky, Bluetooth headsets. Google is testing Glass with a limited number of users in hopes of proving its capabilities and building anticipation among the public. The headset is innovative: Using voice commands, the wearer can take a picture, record video, check Twitter, and send email hands-free. He can get Wikipedia definitions or turn-by-turn road directions based on what he sees in front of him. And more Glass apps are in the works.

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Despite media-assisted hype, the public hasn’t been charmed. People who’ve worn Google Glass around town say the headset makes bystanders noticeably uncomfortable, even eliciting outright anger in some cases. Why? Because no one wants to be secretly recorded or photographed by the creepy gadget geek sitting on the other side of the train. Perched on your neighbor’s face, Glass suggests this person is more interested in googling you right now than having an actual conversation.

The social backlash to Google Glass might be a reaction to the ubiquity of social media. In a world where every word or grimace is already in danger of being instantly broadcast on Facebook or Instagram, the last thing people want is a pair of internet-connected glasses invading their dinner party.

Perhaps society only needs time to adjust? In the meantime, wearable computers will likely work well in specialized contexts, like surgery. In a similar vein, a company called BAE Systems is developing a transparent helmet-mounted display to provide soldiers with real-time mission information during combat.

Japanese researchers recently announced an ear-worn device they hope will become the next trendy gadget. The “Earclip-type Wearable PC,” equipped with a small speaker, microphone, gyro sensors, GPS, and Bluetooth, would link to smartphone apps and retrieve information from the internet. The user would control the device by facial movements—raising an eyebrow, clenching teeth, or clicking the tongue. I hope you don’t plan to get one.

Eye on email

Krieg Barrie

Would you like it if people who send you emails knew when and where you’ve read them? Now they can, thanks to a San Francisco company called Streak. Using the free Streak Gmail extension for Google’s Chrome browser, someone can see whether the emails he sends to friends or clients have been read, what time they were opened, and what city the recipient was in. Recipients aren’t notified that the email was tracked. —D.J.D.

Daniel James Devine
Daniel James Devine

Daniel is a reporter for WORLD who covers science, technology, and other topics in the Midwest from his home base in Indiana. Follow Daniel on Twitter @DanJamDevine.

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