Interview

“New social norms will have to be accepted”

The latest portable technology will connect humans from head to toe. But it could also endanger both our safety and our social lives, warns Wijnand IJsselsteijn.

Technologist: Are smart glasses that can constantly record video too radical to become mainstream?

Wijnand IJsselsteijn:Technology that connects people by giving them the capacity for omniscience and ubiquity generally tends to succeed because it meets basic human needs: social interaction, competence and autonomy.

T. What could delay its adoption?

W. I. I see three obstacles. The first is confidentiality. With these products you can film everything you observe, which could undermine trust in relationships. Imagine a casual situation that ends up as a video on the Internet. There’s also an asymmetry between early adopters and everyone else. Second, new social norms will have to be accepted before such ready-to-wear electronics are widely adopted.

T. Why?

W. I. Visual contact will be interrupted when users check information while they’re in the middle of a conversation. They will constantly be distracted, and that’s considered impolite. Mobile phones allow us to take a second call during a conversation, but not many people actually do that. The developers of Google Glass themselves worry about anti-social behaviour; they don’t want their clients to become “glassholes”!

T. And the third obstacle?

W. I. This relates to the cognitive consequences of this permanent state of distraction. People will use connected glasses or helmets while they cycle, ski, and so on. In addition to the risk of accidents due to the fact that they don’t see danger coming, the constant information stream doesn’t actually make us any smarter. Quite the opposite. Many studies have shown that people who jump back and forth the most from one medium to another are paradoxically the least well informed. We cannot efficiently process that much information simultaneously.

T. Do the glasses look good enough?

W. I. That’s the least of the problems. There are already a variety of frame styles for smart glasses. This was more of a problem back when portable technologies first came out and were associated with a real “geek” look.

T. What “killer apps” might speed up the adoption of this technology?

W. I. We’ll have to let ourselves be surprised. There are many applications in development, in addition to the more obvious ones for navigation and instant notification. For example, some apps already let runners race against their avatar. Children can build Lego sets with the instructions displayed in front of them, and their parents can cook while reading a recipe in real time.

Wijnand IJsselsteijn (professor, School of Innovation Sciences, TU/e, Expert on interaction between humans and technology)