The latest “OMG I’m living in the FUTURE” craze is a concept from Google called Project Glass. Basically, instead of having to dig in your pocket or purse for your phone all the time, you could wear it on your face, in the form of peculiar-looking “glasses.”
The idea of augmenting reality is nothing new to fans of science fiction. Many writers have played with the idea of computerizing the most dominant of the five senses. Here’s a brief sampling of some off the top of my head:
- “Terminator vision” – Terminator (1984) The movie series played with the perspective of the cyborg by coloring it red and overlaying random bits of data and text, literally showing the processing that the robotic brain was running in a mimic of 1984 computer technology. It speaks to the validity of the concept that Terminator vision continued past the initial installment and even evolved (the T-X in movie #3 had a more updated display). Unfortunately, this feature is limited to only the machines in this series. Somebody better go back (or forward?) in time and give John Connor some Google glasses.
- Battlefield awareness monocle or “BAM” – Orphanage (2004)
In Robert Buettner’s military sci-fi series, soldiers in space combat wear battle armor a la Starship Troopers to fight aliens (naturally). One of the features of this armor is a see-through “monocle” that overlays one of the eyes of the soldier. This is very close in form to Google’s idea (minus alien-killing battle armor). Unfortunately it is also exclusive to a particular group – the military – rather than society at large. And as much as people want to keep up with the latest technology, I don’t think the general public is prepared for conscription. Or alien pseudocephalopods. Wimps.
- BrainPal – Old Man’s War (2005) It’s hard to talk about modern military science fiction without mentioning John Scalzi’s bestselling series. It’s even harder to talk about virtual augmentation in military science fiction without doing so. In this series, the visual add-ons are just one feature of having a computer integrated with your brain. The BrainPal computer feeds data to the senses through text overlay as well as sound. Again, it’s a modification for soldiers fighting aliens (naturally), although as the series develops there is more suggestion of the technology working with “unmodified” people as well. The BrainPal is a natural extension of the smartphone into the brain, in much the same way that Google’s is phone-for-your-eyes. It’s even a trademarked, branded product. This is Google’s ultimate fantasy – literally getting inside the head of the user.
- The eyePhone – Futurama (“Attack of the Killer App,” 2010)This recent episode of the sci-fi cartoon series is a great parody of iPhone users and smartphone users in general. The eyePhone is an implant inserted into the eye socket that projects a computer screen a few inches in front of the user’s face. Unlike the other entries on this list, the eyePhone episode benefits from coming out after the rise and heavy-duty use of smartphones by the general public. It’s a feature marketed to consumers rather than reserved to a niche group (cyborgs, soldiers) and is exploited in the same way smartphones are today – viral videos and “followers” are both essential to the plot of the episode. It’s less of an overlay on real life and more of a phone screen for your face, but has features like video recording and – amazingly – making phone calls.
Augmented reality? Science-fiction has got it down. These are just a few examples that I gathered off the top of my head, and there are many more out there. How Google’s concept will ultimately compare to these is undetermined, since it’s still in development. But how might hypothetical Project Glass glasses function in our here-and-now? Good question – I think I’ll have to write another blog post for that one.