All Tech Considered
5:19 pm
Fri February 24, 2012

Google's Goggles: Is The Future Right Before Our Eyes?

Like flying cars and time travel, eye glasses with computing power have long been sci-fi fantasy, relegated to Terminator movies and the like. Now it appears that Google may be a few months from selling a version of their own.

Google glasses — which may be released as a "beta" product — could put smartphone capabilities such as GPS maps, weather, time, Web streaming and more inches from your eyeball.

There have a been rumors for months that Google's secretive X Lab in Mountain View was hard at work developing goggles or glasses that would bear the Google name.

They will reportedly overlay graphics, ads and images into your field of view. They should feature some level voice control, while navigation around the tiny screens could also come from a tilt of your head. And while Google's electronically endowed glasses may not be fashionable at first, they could eventually change the way we all see the world.

Imagine a facial recognition program in your glasses discreetly reminding you of the name and title of an acquaintance. Or picture a walk through a museum with an electronic docent embedded in your glasses, recognizing the art you are looking at and whispering in your ear.

The implications — things like Minority Report-style advertising — are mind-boggling. While you might love to have facial recognition glasses at a cocktail party, you might not like it so much if businesses and clerks used them to identify you and size you up as you walked into a shop.

Google says it won't comment on rumors about these glasses. But even if Google doesn't actually build a wearable computer into your shades sometime in the near future, devices like this are coming. Two small firms, Vuzix and Lumus Optics, already have working prototypes of similar devices.

Vuzix built its glasses with funding help from DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. The company hopes to start delivering glasses to the military and to industry this year. Vuzix aims to release a product aimed at consumers in 2013.

Lumus — which is based in Israel — says it's already working with a number of top consumer device makers on its prototype.

Software companies, including Google, already offer apps on smart phones that can recognize and provide information about objects in the real world, from historical landmarks to real people. Augmented reality apps haven't taken off in handhelds, however, the way they might be expected too if they were part of our natural view of the world.

(If you don't know what augmented reality is, don't worry. You have already seen it in action. Those first-down lines on your TV during football games are probably the most famous example.)

A whole number of diverse and still-developing technologies will need to come together and work well in concert for these kinds of glasses and apps to work well.

They'll need lightweight, translucent glass or plastic that could work as a lens and a screen. They will need incredibly precise geo-location technology and tiny gyroscopes. The cameras built into into these glasses will need to be sharp. Finally, the voice recognition will have to work to make them practical.

The technical challenges are huge. Last year Tom Caudell, who coined the term "augmented reality," told me he thought glasses like this were still years away.

But, then again, maybe not.

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