Wearable tech and the futurists’ conundrum

Originally published on the Washington Post.

The future is moving so fast that sometimes even the futurists are unprepared for it.

A student at Singularity University, where I serve as vice president of innovation and research, asked to wear Google Glass to class. Their request set off a lively discussion. The student inquired about using the device’s recording capability to document her experience.

The institution, home to some of the world’s most notable futurists, allows its students to record lectures for personal use when approved by the lecturer. But Google Glass adds a new dimension—any interaction at any time can be recorded without the knowledge of the people who are being recorded.  On Monday, VentureBeat reported that it could be possible to take pictures using Google Glass with no more than a wink. California law allows consent to be obtained before a conversation can be recorded, but there is no restriction on recording video provided there is no audio. So, the school didn’t know how to respond.

Our faculty debated their concerns about student privacy, class dynamics, intellectual property, and content control. Would someone continuously recording an event change the classroom dynamic, causing others to be guarded in what they said and how they behaved? Would this cause faculty to refrain from controversial and off-the-record remarks? Would this undermine the fun, drama, and spontaneity of the program?  And what if some of these videos ended up online?

Several faculty members argued that the school had to embrace the future rather than battling it, so it needed to allow the new technology. Singularity University CEO, Rob Nail had the final word. He said, “We should just treat Glass as another video recording device—students can use for their own purposes, but must get approval from captured individuals before using anything they record.”

Singularity University isn’t alone. Soon – very soon – organizations around the world will likely find themselves engaged in the same debates. They will need to develop clear-cut privacy policies. Augmented reality devices are on track to become more powerful, less detectable, and the cost for the technology is very likely to fall. Expect this technology to be everywhere with a growing number of players in the space.

We should just treat Glass as another video recording device

Take the Epiphany Eyewear that Silicon Valley startup Vergence Labs recently announced. These glasses can take pictures and record or stream video to a smartphone or computer tablet. They are practically indistinguishable from regular prescription sunglasses. The frame embeds a high-definition video camera, microprocessor, rechargeable lithium-ion battery and up to 32 gigabytes of flash storage. A tiny button on the glasses’ arm allows recording to be turned on or off, and another button located on the top of the frame instantly adjusts the darkness of the sunglass lenses.  A mobile app that comes with the device allows direct live streaming to a social network such as Facebook. You can share concerts, movies and University lectures. All for a cost of $499 for the top of the line 32 gigabyte version.

A Japanese startup, Telepathy, Inc.,  unveiled a wearable device at the South by South West (SXSW) Interactive conference in March. The device records video and displays computer and video images. The company demonstrated the device, called Telepathy One, which adds a virtual 5-inch display that is projected in through a glass on the right side of the face. These glasses provide similar features to Google Glass, but are more elegant and streamlined.

When there is technology to be copied, you can trust China to join in the game. Baidu is reportedly developing a Google Glass knockoff product called “Baidu Eye.”

It also won’t be long before these technologies are integrated into contact lenses and retinas. Students won’t be asking for permission before wearing their augmented reality devices. Instead, they will become like our smartphones and computer tablets. We will be checking up on e-mails, seeing social networking updates, watching movies, and sharing what we see with our friends instantaneously.

Debates are, of course, happening outside Singularity University about the implications for privacy from such devices. But the reality is that no matter what policies are enacted, nearly all activity in public will be recorded. So, whether we like it or not, if innovation continues apace, privacy, as we’ve always known it, is on track to become a thing of the past.

If innovation continues apace, privacy, as we’ve always known it, is on track to become a thing of the past.

Vivek Wadhwa