The Trouble With Glass

 A few months ago, Google released their Project Glass  in beta form. Even though there are just a few thousand devices in circulation, some commentators have hailed Glass as a major technological leap forward. It is far from being a mass-market product, and its unusual looks may simply consign it to a niche techie device, such as the Segway. However, through Glass, Google are showing what is possible with next generation of computing; the wearable technologies and connected devices.

For those that have tried the device, it delivers an engaging immersive experience. However, detractors have pointed to issues around the short battery life (about two hours), failures in functionality and above all, the way that people look rather stupid whilst wearing them (see the Tumblr, White Men Wearing Google Glass). Significantly though, Glass has raised some major concerns around privacy. These concerns are two fold: privacy of those in proximity to the wearer and privacy of around data generated by the user themselves.

Within a week of launch, a photo app called ‘Winky’ was released, which allowed Glass wearers to take photos or video simply with the blink of an eye. Soon after, newspapers highlighted the privacy issue from surreptitious recording. This is a justified concern, but with the ubiquity of camera phones and CCTV, it is not a new one. However, with Glass the problem extends beyond just surreptitious photos. At the start of July a Congress Committee asked Google about the impact of facial recognition through Glass. Imagine, that as a wearer, I could use the camera to identify anyone who I passed on the street, and immediately search online or view their social media profile. So far, Google has not clarified if this is possible to do, suffice to say that the US committee described their response as ‘inadequate’.

The second issue, and one that has been discussed less, is the privacy of the user. The device is constantly tracking data such as location, searches or eye movements.  Put these together and you have a powerful set of data that is more personal than ever seen before. If that includes involuntary eye tracking, it effectively means that unconscious actions will also be stored. And it is data that is stored in The Cloud. With the recent NSA/Prism revelations, it is reasonable to assume that no data stored in this way is truly private. It creates something of a scary scenario.

But what of brands and Glass? As a highly immersive experience, the potential for marketing engagement might be considerable. Yet tools such as facial recognition, especially in the brand context, are controversial to say the least, and largely unacceptable to consumers. Generating vast amounts of data could considerably help understand user behaviours. What happens eye tracking in Glass is used when researching or purchasing goods? Marketers are already aware of the power of location for mobile marketing. But what could these eye movements tell them about their user? The reality is though, that this will prove unacceptable to users. If brands push the data boundaries too far, will they create a consumer backlash?

At this stage, Google Glass has no advertising channel, although some brands such as The New York Times have created content-based apps. However as more brands start to get on board with these devices, they are likely to consider how they can exploit the possibilities. Marketers love data, and as technologies proliferate into wearable and connected devices, more of it will be generated. It is important that brands both understand the potential privacy impact, and engage with users to make them aware of it. If marketers fail to do this, we may simply see consumers refusing to let brands into the space. So, with technology comes great responsibility.

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