Computerized eyewear pioneer sounds Google Glass alarm

Every new technology inevitably leads to worry. When first-person shooter video games were popular, people worried those games would make you more violent (a concern that persists to this day). A few years ago, people wondered if the Internet made you dumber and then whether Facebook was making us lonely.

More often than not, these concerns get dismissed or at least tabled until more data comes to light. But when someone who has spent decades with a particular technology says he has concerns, it’s worth taking note. And that’s what’s happening with Google Glass.

Steve Mann, a professor in the department of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Toronto, has spent the past 35 years developing and wearing computerized eyewear to improve his natural view of the world: He’s often dubbed the world’s first human cyborg. So if anyone can offer some insight into Google’s wearable computing project that puts smartphone-like functions inside a pair of eyeglasses, it’s him.

Steve Mann and his computerized eyewear through the years

Mann has gone to great lengths to create and develop his eyewear, called the EyeTap. He says he created a small network of radio links to transmit wireless data from his devices in the 1980s, back when wireless networks didn’t exist and a blazing transfer speed was 56 kilobytes per second. He’s also spent his life with gadgets strapped to his head that look like something out of a 1950s sci-fi movie, earning him many strange looks. And even with glasses that are now a little sleeker, he has still endured his share of public grief. Sadly, this culminated in an experience in 2010 when Mann said he was physically assaulted in a Parisian McDonald’s for wearing the EyeTap.

Will Glass rot your brain?

So what is Mann’s biggest concern with Glass? It’s certainly not about how it will make you look, but how it might make you feel. If proper precautions aren’t taken, computerized eyewear has the potential to affect how your brain processes sight, Mann wrote in a recent article for IEEE Spectrum, the flagship publication of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

Google Glass features a display area in the upper right corner of wearable eyeglasses.

Glass places an unobtrusive display area in the upper right corner of your right eye. This is where you’ll see alerts, weather updates, and images from video calls. The problem from Mann’s perspective is that this view is unaligned with the rest of what your eyes are taking in, and the display area may appear to float in space, appearing farther away from you than it actually is.

Over an extended period of time, this set-up could cause eyestrain, Mann warns. More concerning is that using Glass as a viewfinder for live video could “very well mess up the wearer’s neural circuitry.” That’s because you’d be looking at two unaligned versions of a moving image right in front of you. A better option, Mann says, is to make sure the Glass displays the same perspective as the eye does.

Google was unavailable for comment at the time of this writing.

The idea that a new technology will ruin your health just by wearing it smacks of sensationalism. But then again, we’ve all probably experienced weird sensations when messing with our vision whether it’s trying on someone else’s prescription eyeglasses or just feeling a little dizzy after watching a 3D movie.

As for Glass’ smartphone-like functionality, Mann is a little dismissive of Google’s efforts. Mann says various incarnations of his EyeTap have been able to filter out bright lights to see what’s beyond them or detect infrared signatures that indicate whether a parked car’s engine was still warm or if a vacant chair was recently occupied. That’s some serious Terminator-style functionality compared to what might become just another delivery platform for Angry Birds.

What’s good about Glass

Concerns aside, Mann does think a lot of good can come from Glass. If everyone had a pair of computerized eyeglasses, injustices such as police abuses would be harder if not impossible to cover-up, Mann suggests. Of course, publicizing abuses is already happening thanks to smartphones and cheaper digital cameras. Take an incident at the University of California, Davis in late 2011 when university police pepper-sprayed a group of students participating in an Occupy movement protest.It’s hard to see how a product like Glass would expose or deter abuses any more than an iPhone.

The bigger issues for Glass, at least right now, is whether you can stand talking to someone who has a camera sitting on their forehead all day. As for the eye strain concern, we’ll have a better idea of that once more people are trying out these devices in the real world.

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