My group of friends is undeniably tech-oriented but that doesn’t mean all of us share the same views on how technology should be used, especially in social situations. If you were to see us out at a restaurant it’s pretty much guaranteed that at least one of us is on our phone, probably Googling an answer to something or sifting through our social networking platform of choice. For most of us this is par for the course being with all of us being members of Gen Y however some of my friends absolutely abhor the intrusion that smartphones have made on normal social situations and if the direction of technology is anything to go by that intrusion is only going to get worse, not better.
Late last year I came across the Memento Kickstarter project, a novel device that takes 1 picture every 30 seconds and even tags it with your GPS location. It’s designed to be worn all the time so that you end up with a visual log of your life, something that’s obviously of interest to a lot of people as they ended up getting funded 11 times over. Indeed just as a device it’s pretty intriguing and I had caught them early enough that I could have got one at a hefty discount. However something that I didn’t expect to happen changed my mind on it completely: my technically inclined friends’ reactions to this device.
Upon linking my friends to the Kickstarter page I wasn’t met with the usual reactions. Now we’re not rabid privacy advocates, indeed many of us engage in multiple social networks and many of us lead relatively open online lives, but the Memento was met with a great deal of concern over it’s present in everyone’s private lives. It wasn’t a universal reaction but it was enough to give me pause about the idea and in the end I didn’t back it because of it. With Google Glass gearing up to increase its presence in the world these same privacy questions are starting to crop up again and the social implications of Google’s flagship augmented reality device are starting to become apparent.
Google Glass is a next step up from Memento as whilst it has the same capability to take photos (without the express knowledge or consent from people in it) its ability to run applications and communicate directly with the Internet poses even more privacy issues. Sure the capability isn’t too much different than what’s available now with your garden variety smartphone however it is ever-present, attached the side of someone’s head and can be commanded at will of the user. That small step of taking your phone out of your pocket is enough of a social cue to let people know what your intentions are and make their concerns known well before hand.
What I feel is really happening here is that the notion of societal norms are being challenged by technology. Realistically such devices are simply better versions of things we have natively as humans (I.E. imaging devices with attached storage) but their potential for disseminating their contents is much greater. Just like social norms developed around ubiquitous smartphones so too they must develop around the use of augmented reality devices like Google Glass. What these norms will end up being however is something that we can’t really predict until they reach critical mass which, from what I can tell, is at least a couple years off in the future, possibly even longer.
For my close knit circle of tech friends however I can predict a few things. Most of them wouldn’t have any issues with me wearing and using it whilst we were doing things together but I can see them wanting me to take them off if we were sitting down to dinner or at someone’s private residence. It could conceivably be seen as somewhat rude to wear it if you’re deep in conversation although I feel that might change over time as people realise it’s not something that’s being used 100% of the time. Things will start to get murky as Glass like devices start to become smaller and less obtrusive although the current generations of battery technology put Glass on the slimmest end of the spectrum possible so I doubt they’ll be getting smaller any time soon.
Essentially I see these kinds of augment reality devices being an organic progression of smartphones, extending our innate human abilities with that of the Internet. The groundwork has already been laid for a future that is ever-increasingly intertwined with technology and whilst this next transition poses its own set of challenges I have no doubt that we’ll rapidly adapt, just like we have done in the past. What these adaptations are and how they function in the real world will be an incredibly interesting thing to bear witness to and I, for one, can’t wait to see it.
One of my university lecturer’s had a reputation for talking for hours on end about his previous projects (Dr John Rayner if you’re interested). This wasn’t atypical of many of our lecturers since the majority of them had spent many decades in industry or research before becoming lecturer’s, but Dr Rayner was a curious exception to those who were just being a little nostalgic. He was a physicist turned engineer, which is strange because even though we share some common ground most of us would never think of “crossing the border” as it were. As such we routinely had him sub in when either of our physics or engineering teachers were absent and it was guaranteed that his class would somehow revolve around one of his previous projects. The twist was, even though we’d always think we were just wasting our time listening to him by the end we all understood the material we needed to be taught, even though he rarely delved into the theory required. One of the most interesting lessons we got from him was on the expectations of customers and how that will influence your designs.
He was working on a community housing project in one of the northern states and one of the concerns was water usage. They’d optimized basically everything apart from the toilets so it was left to him and his team to optimize the amount of water that they used. They had then designed a system that used around a tenth of the water of a conventional toilet, a considerable saving. However after passing initial testing (using an IEEE approved analogue for human waste, basically sausage skin filled with sawdust) they then sent them along for their real world exposure. Curiously whilst no one reported any problems actually using the toilet they weren’t well received. As it turns out the perception of so little water being used made most people feel uneasy about the toilets, thinking they hadn’t properly flushed or that they weren’t clean. Thus the design was reworked, although he was coy on the actual results.
This whole lesson came steaming back when I saw this article yesterday:
Researchers have demonstrated a prototype device that can rid hands, feet, or even underarms of bacteria, including the hospital superbug MRSA.
The device works by creating something called a plasma, which produces a cocktail of chemicals in air that kill bacteria but are harmless to skin.
The team says that an exposure to the plasma of only about 12 seconds reduces the incidence of bacteria, viruses, and fungi on hands by a factor of a million – a number that stands in sharp contrast to the several minutes hospital staff can take to wash using traditional soap and water.
The first thing that sprung to many people’s minds is how this could be used to eliminate the need for washing your hands. It’s an interesting idea since the use of this technology could be quite a bit more hygienic whilst saving water and towel waste. However whilst novel and indeed an elegant alternative it will take many years for such things to replace the norm, just because people won’t feel comfortable walking out of the toilet without washing their hands.
It’s a challenge that every engineer will face when they’re designing and building a new system. There are a lot of social and technical norms out there and going against them won’t do anything to help the adoption of your product. I think this is the problem that Google Wave has faced recently since it has melded so many different technologies (and therefore expectations of how it will function) that we’re no quite sure how to go about using it. The fact that it has no real physical analogue doesn’t help the matter either, and that’s why my Wave account sits unused for the better part of a month.
So it becomes the engineer’s challenge to understand the everyman and work with him, since they will become the ones using our creations. I used to look upon this as unnecessary rework but over time I grew to appreciate the familiarity that came with certain lines of products (thank you Microsoft ;)) making learning and utilizing them to their fullest so much easier. A good understanding of your users can be as valuable as a good understanding of the solution, and I’m forever thankful for the eccentric Dr Raynor for teaching me that.