Google's Project Glass headman answers most pressing question: 'Why?'
The computer that 'lives on your head' will change mankind, it turns out
Hot Chips The creator of Google Glass sees his baby as being nothing less than the next step in human communications and humanity's "quest for knowledge."
"There are two main drivers for why we wanted to make Google Glass," Babak Parviz, who founded and heads up Project Glass at Google, told his audience at the Hot Chips conference this week at Stanford University. "One is that we wanted to have a pictorial communication device, and secondly to make access to various types of information much faster."
Despite the fact that he was making his presentation to an assembly of some of the world's most accomplished semiconductor engineers, Parviz stayed away from technical matters, and didn't reveal anything about Glass beyond what is already known. Instead, he focused on its possible impact on, well, everyone.
Parviz characterized Glass as the next step in communication. At the dawn of history, he said, "Basically what we did was we talked to each other, so we had to be in physical proximity of each other, carry our emotions through speech, and communicate – that was the only thing we could do."
Next came the invention of writing, which enabled sending messages long distance – an improvement, but slow. Enter the telegraph, he said, which was able to send text messages quickly over long distance. Then came the telephone – fast, long-distance, without the requirement for conversion into text, with the ability for instant back-and-forth conversation, but tethered.
The digital age brought email – essential a private, mobile telegraph – and untethered, aka mobile, phones. All well and good, but from Parviz's point of view, "What we haven't really had actually, to this day, genuinely, has been a device, a technology that has been engineered from the get-go for visual communication from person to person – and that's one of the main drivers of Google Glass."
Sure, he said, you can take photos with your smartphone and email them to a friend, he said, "But that is sort of an extension of taking a picture and putting it in paper mail and mailing it to someone else."
A camera-equipped computing device that, as Parviz put it, "lives on your head," will enable you to immediately live-stream what you're looking at to one or many viewers who can "experience [your] life at this very moment" while leaving your hands free. "This has a camera that sees the world through my eyes – and that's unique to this form factor," he said. "We don't have other electronic devices that can live with me as I live my life rather than be an intrusion into my life."
With the world of human interaction upgraded from mere speech to "see the world as I'm seeing it when I'm seeing it" pictorial communication, Parviz moved on to how humans have looked for information over the years, how they have sought out answers to questions they might have had. "A few thousand years ago," he said, "basically you were out of luck" if you didn't know someone who could answer your question.
Over time, however, as mankind became urbanized, you could maybe track down your local polymath would could answer your questions – but whether that smart person was actually correct, you had no way of knowing. After that came writing, scrolls, and books, and you could look things up in the library – a big improvement that ruled the roost for centuries.
As might be expected from a member of the Google[x] lab, Parviz identified the next major leap in mankind's search for fast, accurate information to be the internet in general and Google in particular. "Now if I want to know, say, the capital of Nigeria," he said, "I take my phone out, unlock it, then go to a search engine, say my question or type my question; I'll get some number of links back, I'll probably click on one of them. So within a minute or so I'll probably get the answer to my question."
That may be a lot more convenient than wandering around Athens looking for Aristotle, but it's not good enough for Parviz. "We're making it even faster," he said. "Much, much faster. Someday – and we're not there actually yet, and I don't know how long it's going to take actually to get there – but someday we're going to be at a point where as soon as you have a question, you can ask it and receive your answer right away."
Parviz didn't discuss who was going to vet the answers or whether there could be sponsored answers that would rise to the top. Neither did he discuss any security issues the questioner might have other than saying "We take security very seriously," but he did make a comment about the "quest for knowledge", as his presentation slide identified it, that we found simultaneously enticing, chilling, and risible.
"If we ever get there," he said of Project Glass' quest for instant answers, "this will fundamentally change the meaning of knowing things." ®
Parviz went to great pains to assure his audience that today's Google Glass is very much a version 1.0 product, and that future advances in optics, photonics, miniaturization, transducers, computing power, batteries, sensors, and the like will bring new capabilities that will "live on your face" in the future.
"This is an electronic device that's out and about," he said. "It doesn't live in my pocket. It sees the world and can eventually smell the world."
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