Could Google Glass Arm Activists in the Digital World?

WASHINGTON – Google Glass has become the must-have digital device for tech-savvy people, but some hope that the Internet-ready eyewear can provide innovative ways for anyone to engage in political advocacy and grassroots activism.

Google Glass is a wearable computer with a head-mounted display that lets users take photos and videos, search the Web, send texts, and use apps. The visor responds to voice commands and can also be operated via a touchpad located over the user’s right temple.

Glass takes mobile technology to the next level. Users do not have to pull their phones out of their pockets. They do not have to unlock it and go to the app they want. Instead, users can simply just say a command and the device will take a picture or record a video.

Since the company unveiled Glass in 2013, the wearable technology has been available to only a select few VIPs and developers, or “explorers,” as Google calls them, who want access to the device to design applications. The company says there are currently 10,000 so-called explorers.

The device went on sale to the general public on April 15. Google sold out of the device, which it made available on its website for $1,500, by the next day.

Speaking at the Cato Institute, Peter Ildefonso IV, web and database programmer at the Leadership Institute, said wearable technology allows everyone to become a documentarian by letting users capture more footage while moving around freely, without being “as obvious.”

“These devices are so discreet that many people won’t notice you’re wearing them until they directly focus on you,” Ildefonso said. “This is one huge benefit of these devices in addition to how quickly they can be accessed.”

Ildefonso believes that Glass, and other types of wearable technology, could become a powerful tool for activists by layering the devices’ features on top of what they are doing, whether walking around a protest or sitting at an event.

“Not only we can increase the number of activists, but also we can make those members more effective by training them on tools that they can use on the field,” Ildefonso said.

Glass has a number of critics. They criticize the unappealing design of the Internet-connected eyewear, and raise privacy concerns about people being recorded without their consent. Others complain about its role as a status symbol for the tech elite.

Glass has stirred up controversy, with several high-profile confrontations in San Francisco between users and skeptics making headlines. In particular, these altercations have become more prominent as part of a larger backlash against tech companies, such as Google, Twitter, and others, and gentrification in the city.

A study conducted by market research firm Toluna indicated that a majority of Americans are not interested in purchasing Google Glass due to concerns about personal privacy. Almost three-fourths of respondents said they would avoid wearing Glass in public, citing concerns about being mugged.

The tech giant has taken steps to convince consumers that its product is more than a niche gadget for techies.

The company is working with Italian eyewear maker Luxottica, owner of Ray-Ban and Oakley, to produce and sell more appealing versions of Glass down the road. Google has also written a guide on how not to be a “glasshole” by respecting other people’s privacy and avoiding being “creepy and rude.”

Ian Spencer, partner and chief technology officer for Red Edge, a firm that designs and develops advocacy websites, apps, and ads, said that Glass has both its pros and cons compared to mobile phones.

“Glass is sort of an extension of mobile phones…the hardware inside of it is basically the same as in cellphones,” Spencer said. “The biggest advantage over a phone is that it is always available within your vision. A phone buzzes, you pull it up, you look at it – it isn’t in your field of vision.”

Red Edge has developed an app that provides users with information about a government agency when they are near a federal building in Washington. The “augmented advocacy” app also provides users with information cards, including the head of the organization, the taxpayer money spent on the department, and contact information for the agency.

“We’re looking for opportunities to make normal folks more aware of issues that are arising and giving them the power to take action right there and then,” Spencer said.

Peter Tariche, an applications developer at Generation Opportunity, said Glass could be also used to advance privacy. He said a company in Amsterdam has built an app that can detect surveillance cameras and map other Glass users in the area.

“There’s going to be a lot of policy questions…on how we can make sure that this technology can continue to move forward and make humanity better but at the same time make sure that legislators aren’t stopping innovators from doing that,” Tariche said.

For now, Google Glass is limited by both its hardware and software. Spencer said Glass has several limitations: the device has a limited battery life, it requires to be tethered to a network for Internet access, and it looks “silly or off-putting” to some people.

Despite its potential, Spencer said he would not recommend buying the current version of Glass because it is not practical for the average user.

“Glass is Sputnik. It is something that is not actually useful,” he said. “Future iterations that are coming down the pipeline very quickly will truly make it a transformative technology.”