– i have sounded all things with my sight; / and i struggle and shriek ere the daybreak, being driven to madness with fright – h.p. lovecraft – nemesis –

Google have announced a new development, Project Glass, based around augmented reality goggles/glasses which can add Google functionality (maps, searches, sharing, etc.) onto the real world. Here’s their speculative trailer:

A little more on the project here and here.

As a twitter conversation I’m having while I write this is affirming, the trailer has…issues:

@cryurchin @lddurbin Totally a fan of this idea until the guy asked for directions from the bookshop front door to the music section.
— Nick Hall (@NickXHall) April 4, 2012

@NickXHall @cryurchin it’s the douchebag test. If people like the device after having to endure a douchebag (ab)using it, it’s a winner.
— Lee Durbin (@lddurbin) April 4, 2012

Well quite. And I suspect that, even if they’re not put off by ukeleles and pointless searches, many people will look at this clip and think (as I did, when the protagonist is poised at the top of the subway steps with half his vision obscured by text and images) “man, that looks dangerous.” But I’m still enamoured of this whole idea, just maybe not for day-to-day use like a smartphone.

I hinted in an earlier post that it might be cool to use augmented reality to tag familiar surroundings in order to build a memory palace, and I’m still fascinated by that idea, but today I think I’ve realised a use that could be even more exciting: Imagine reading a book and having these glasses reading and registering the same text with you, what could this allow? The first and most obvious thing to include would be something like Word Lens translations:

But with that kind of technology in place you could also use verbal commands (as seen in the Google video’s Siri-esque interface) to save quotes from passages, to bookmark pages, to look up words, to overlay commentary, and even to annotate the white space with some dictations (it’d keep your books clean, if that’s your thing, but then every time you looked at that page again up they’d come for you to use, and it wouldn’t even matter what edition you used which could make working in the library then returning home with a photocopy much less onerous). It strikes me that the glasses being able to quickly recognise a page of text in this way could have all sorts of uses; there’s real potential for creative application from an author as well as research (children’s books that come to life would clearly be great, as the iPad is already demonstrating, but 3D models of diagrams, video demonstrations, audio commentary triggers etc. could all work, and be just as easily triggered by a Kindle or iPad page as by anything printed). An e-ink screen and a set of these things could really address the last two reservations I have about e-reading (swiftness of annotations, lack of colour on a relatively affordable device), whilst bringing more of what can be great about e-reading to physical books for kids where the tactile interface of print might still be beneficial for early-age development.

A final thought: You’re in a new city, and all you really know is that your favourite author lives there. You follow her/him on Twitter and you know that they’ve spent some time tagging the city. Go to their Google Glass page and follow their feed, put on your glasses, and then start walking. As you move around the place a combination of building recognition and geo-tagging allows your celebrity guide to walk you roundtheir city, giving directions to their favourite places or places that inspired their works (maybe just giving you a few clues so you enjoy the discovery), telling you about great bars, great events, or where they grew up. Spending a few hours living in William Gibson‘s Vancouver, Mark Z. Danielewski’s New York, or even weeks touring Arundhati Roy‘s India or Patrick Keiller‘s UK would certainly be something I’d be interested in, in fact walking round New York with a combination of artists’, actors’, directors’, writers’, museums’, and galleries’ feeds telling me a different story to the guide books is something that I could lose myself in for days.

As much as I hate that advert, I think these things could be beautiful.

Editor’s Note: Matt Hayler is a Teaching Fellow at the University of Exeter researching the philosophy and psychology of reading on screen. He blogs at http://4oh4-wordsnotfound.blogspot.com and you can follow him on twitter – @cryurchin


  1. Ultimately, we’ll be doing all this via a chip which communicates to (or in) our brain. It’s going to be very interesting. 😉

    In other news, Australian scientists will be implanting the world’s first bionic eye in a month. Amazing empowerment for people who have lost their sight.

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