Think Using Google Glass Is Awkward? Early Phone Calls Were Worse.

What's to come?
May 14 2013 8:15 AM

OK, Glass, Don’t Make Me Look Stupid

Lessons from the phone and the Walkman on integrating new technologies into society.

In a hotel room in Boston on March 11, 1876, Alexander Graham Bell succeeded in making the first telephone call with his assistant Tom Watson after long, experimental night sessions.
On March 11, 1876, Alexander Graham Bell succeeded in making the first telephone call with his assistant Tom Watson

Photo by Keystone-France/Gamma-Keystone/Getty Images

A man sitting alone at his kitchen table pauses before eating his breakfast. He looks at the empty room before him. “Meet me in front of Strand Books at 2,” he says aloud, then takes a bite out of his bagel sandwich. It is not a condition of the mind that has this man speaking to a person who isn’t there. It is a text message. This is the opening scene of Google’s first concept video for Glass—a mobile device that you wear on your head like glasses. The words the man had spoken appear before him in the device’s lens. As he eats, he sees the message float away to his friend.

As the concept video implied, Glass doesn’t come with any sort of hand-held keyboard. It is activated with an upward tilt of the head. From there, you can use a small touchpad on the side of the headset to perform some basic tasks—like taking a photo. But most commands must be uttered aloud, after the user says, “OK, Glass.” The big idea behind Glass is that it will free the world from constantly looking down at smartphones. To achieve this hands-free freedom, though, people will have to get used to issuing voice commands to their devices in public. Although some of Glass’ functions can be controlled with its touchpad, and Google may add more physical gesture controls in the future, talking is a big part of using Glass. Google apparently believes that this will eventually become commonplace. But will it?

It’s too early to know for sure, but Google Glass isn’t the first technology to face this kind of social barrier.

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When the telephone was invented, people found the concept entirely bizarre. So much so that the first telephone book, published in 1878, had to provide instructions on how to begin and end calls. People were to say "Ahoy" to answer the phone and "That is all" before hanging up.

In The History of the Telephone, published in 1910, Herbert Casson wrote: “The very idea of talking at a piece of sheet-iron was so new and extraordinary that the normal mind repulsed it. … People who talked for the first time into a telephone box had a sort of stage fright. They felt foolish.”

Ultimately, the telephone proved too useful to abandon for the sake of social discomfort. It was also something people could to get used to in their own homes. They didn’t have to overcome the awkwardness in public (neighbors eavesdropping on party lines notwithstanding). That was a barrier another device would have to deal with 100 years later.

It was one of the very first electronic devices that people would regularly carry around with them: the Sony Walkman. The idea of wearing headphones in public in 1979 was unheard of and largely considered silly—not unlike the idea of wearing Google Glass is today. Paul du Gay, co-author of Doing Cultural Studies: The Story of the Sony Walkman, says that even Sony wasn’t sure there would be a demand for the device. But the company had a plan to prove the Walkman could make it over the social acceptability barrier.

“When they launched it,” du Gay said, “they actually called in a load of journalists and told them they were going to be launching a new product. Then they took them into a major park in downtown Tokyo.”

At the park, groups of people emerged, all wearing Walkmans. There were children doing different activities, du Gay said, like roller-skating. There was even a Buddhist monk in the mix, walking around and listening to music. The spectacle was an attempt to send the message that wearing headphones in public could become a regular thing.

Some of the criticisms the Walkman faced are eerily similar to those that Google Glass faces today. The sentiment, du Gay said, was “Is it going to cause accidents when people are walking into the road and getting knocked down because they’re listening to this thing? Or not answering people’s questions or not hearing cries for help? All the kind of standard stuff.”

Of course, the Walkman did take off. The more that people saw others wearing headphones, the more likely they were to wear them. One of the social hurdles was understanding how to interact with people who were wearing headphones, or figuring out how to talk to people if you were wearing them yourself.

But society tends to find ways to adapt to new technology, according to Blair MacIntyre, a computer science professor at Georgia Tech. He cited the conventions we’ve developed, like taking out an ear bud to have a conversation with someone, or leaving our headphones on to signal that we don’t want to talk.

On the other hand, not every technology lends it self so readily to adaptation. Consider the Bluetooth earpiece. Like Google Glass, it tends to make a person look like she’s talking to herself. And although these earpieces aren’t uncommon, they’ve never made quite made it into total social acceptance. The technology has been around for more than a decade, but its users still have to point at their heads and mouth that they’re on the phone to let others know they can’t talk. Still, this hasn’t stopped people from using Bluetooth ear pieces altogether.

A lot of people have asked whether Google Glass may be the new Segway—a much-heralded technology that can’t quite overcome the silliness barrier. But maybe it will end up more like an acceptable, but slightly goofy, peripheral—the Bluetooth earpiece of the future. Glass can indeed be connected to a smartphone via Bluetooth to use the phone’s 3G or 4G data capabilities when Wi-Fi isn’t available. In fact, Glass can’t currently send text messages without such a connection. (The man in the concept video, presumably, had a phone in his pocket.)

Like all of the technologies that came before it, the proliferation of Google Glass will ultimately depend on its usefulness. It will have to add value that our smartphones are lacking if people are going to adopt it. But for the foreseeable future, people will likely continue to pull out their phones and send texts the old-fashioned way when they want to tell a friend to meet them at a bookstore. Except maybe for those Bluetooth users who already are comfortable looking a bit ridiculous in public.

This article arises from Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.

Keith Collins is a freelance reporter and programmer from Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter.

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