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Several models of smart glasses available on the market in 2015

List of smartglasses:

Smart glasses, or smartglasses, are wearable computers and a head-mounted displays that project and overlay digital information onto displayed reality. This information is projected either on a display very close to the user’s eyes or directly onto his retina. The user then sees the virtual elements as if they were an inherent part of displayed reality. The reality is thus mediated, augmented, or altered[1] by the computer generated information without disturbing the user's normal field of vision.

Some models of smart glasses are nothing more than a displaying devices. They had to be connected either with a cable or a wireless connection to the processing unit (e. g. a mobile phone) that prepares the virtual information to be displayed. The latest models are stand-alone computers that can run and install applications just like a normal computer can. The connection to other devices is only required for data storage, sometimes Internet connection, or for any other way of further expanding the features of the smart glasses device.

The big advantage of smart glasses over a smartphone, is for example that the user may control them handsfree. Smart glasses usually offer some kind of gestural interface, speech recognition, eye tracking, or sensors that register the movement of the device on the user’s head, e.g. tilting the device. Most of the devices also feature a manual way of controlling them, such as small joysticks or touchpads. Devices that need to be connected to a processing unit as mentioned above, are controlled through it too. For this, a smartphone is often used. Experiments with brain-computer interface control[2] have also been experimented with, but so far this method is not used in commercial products.

The most prevalent ways of using smart glasses

Smart glasses are mostly used as Portable media player, GPS, activity tracker, recording device, hands-free communication device, visual and memory aid/prosthetic, capturing and sharing of audio-visual memories ('Cyborglogging', for more about Cyborglogging, see the Souisveillance and life-logging section below), sharing mediated reality, art, education, therapy & treatment (e.g. vision correction, phobia treatment, addiction treatment), tool for professions requiring precision and attention (medical, industrial, military).

Summary of technical aspects

Smart glasses mainly consists of these elements: a display unit, a processing unit, and other connected peripherals (battery, memory, sensors, camera, microphone, speakers, touchpad etc.)

The display unit delivers the data created by the processing unit and the resulting audio-visual information is then presented to the user.

The device uses mirrors or prisms to display the projected information in front of the user’s eyes, this is the case of Vuzix M100 or Google Glass. The display image ‘floats’ very close to the eyes. This creates the illusion of looking at a bigger display that hovers 3 metres away in space in front of the user in the direction he is looking. It can also be displayed directly onto the user’s eyes. This is achieved with an optical beam source, usually a laser diode is used. Such technology is still under experimentation and might be a subject of health issue concerns.

The processing unit is basically a computer modified to run the operating system of the glasses. The interface of the operating system is similarly altered.

Notable devices

Google Glass, EyeTap, Microsoft HoloLens, Vuzix M100, Epson Moverio BT-200

Enhanced Capacities

Smart glasses have the capability to amplify and even bring new cognitive abilities to the user. Manufacturers focus primarily on entertainment and communication features though. Other enhancing features are low-priority or are only available for some devices through the usage of third-party apps as manufacturers tend to target general public first and offer a wide-ranging product rather than a single-purpose one. Even devices targeted at enterprises promote leisure activities first, Epson Moverio Bt-200 product page refers to enjoying content several times.[3] The enterprise edition of Vuzix M100 promotes the hands-free aspects and easy access to information.[4] Microsoft HoloLens, a device primarily aimed at video games players, specifies enterprise applications on a separate page.[5] It promotes collaboration, product showcasing with virtual reality, and educational applications.

As much as with other devices, the span of enhanced capacities is very broad. The following list describes various capacities that smart glasses may hypothetically enhance or introduce as new. The distinction is made between capacities that are normally available to a healthy human but are further amplified, and capacities that are completely new and only available through the usage of smart glasses.

Amplified capacities

  • Memory
    • personal assistant notifying the user of upcoming events, deadlines, meetings etc.; remembering and later recognition of faces of people the user may know; text autocomplete feature when user writes something down
  • Attention and perception
    • recognition of people and objects in the surroundings; warning the user of possible environmental dangers; help with navigating unfamiliar places; help noticing important signs; displaying relevant information about objects in the surroundings (opening hours and sales for stores close-by, public transportation timetables, traffic situation); blocking distracting or unwanted visual elements[6]
  • Intelligence and language abilities
    • offering solutions for mathematical problems; translating texts or speech in real-time; looking-up related encyclopaedic data on the fly

New capacities

  • New senses
    • night vision, thermal vision, richer visual experience by expanding the colour spectrum
  • Human-Computer communication
    • hands-free way of controlling other devices by gestural, voice or eye tracking interfaces
  • Sensory substitution
    • substituting one sense with other. For example, the vOICe vision technology[7] converts what the user sees into sound. This way, a visually impaired person can use their hearing as a substitute for their sight.

Relevant issues

Privacy concerns

The always present camera which is probably the most controversial aspect of smart glasses raises important questions about other people’s privacy. The camera and storage technology is advanced enough to offer relatively good audiovisual quality and storage capacity while being fairly affordable. This gives the users means to record everything they point the device’s camera at. This allows people who can afford and know how to use these devices to collect and store more information about others in great amount. The power of individuals to control what happens with their personal information is diminishing. More so for those who choose not, or don’t know how, to adopt/access these new technologies and services[8]. This widens the digital divide and hinders the powers of those who can not, do not know how, or choose not to use these technologies[8].

For example, Google Glass devices record via a voice command or by manually turning the recording on by touching the touchpad.[9] However, this announces that the recording is turned on only at the beginning when the command is issued. This is good in terms of privacy concerns but the user still can start the recording covertly beforehand. The need to issue a noticeable command first can also be circumvented by using the Wink app.[10] This app, which is not officially available on the Google Glass app store, but it is easily obtainable elsewhere, allows the user to start and stop the recording by mere winking. And if the person being recorded this way has no evidence of them being recorded, they have no power to stop the activity.

In addition, the image recognition abilities of such devices can be abused to search for and display personal information about the people the user is looking at. But regarding this to be invasive is questionable. If this personal information is publicly available online, then it can not be considered private. However, by meeting someone first, you give them an unspoken agreement to "look you up on Google"[11] or to search for your name on Facebook[12]. Be it between two people who just met on a party, or between an HR recruiter looking for potential job applicants. Still, there exists a certain precedent. But by looking up strangers by just looking at them, even though this would only return public information that they themselves put on the Internet, makes one feel uncomfortable by this very notion of not giving this, perhaps unspoken, permission.

Privacy is perhaps the only aspect general media pay attention to every time smart glasses are mentioned. (For specific examples, see the Public and media impact section.) Those concerns are justified but perhaps exaggerated by the fact that the device is always present on user’s heads and thus other people can not be sure whether it is recording or not. It is also always pointed in the direction the user is looking, so people can’t really discern, whether they are being recorded or not.

Sousveillance, life-logging and smart mobs

As an antonym to surveillance, sousveillance,a term coined by wearable computing pioneer Steve Mann, should work against it, to create a 'citizen undersight.'[13] In the age of affordable wearable technology, and recording devices in particular, there is no reason for general public to not have such devices on them constantly[14]. However, this is not for spying on each other but rather to monitor the situation should the user run into conflict with authorities. The idea is rather anarchistic but Steve Mann raises some very interesting points. If the power in the society is, due to constant supervision, in the hands of the elite, then we can now, thanks to affordable wearable technology, supervise the said elites as well. In this way, the power distribution is equalized.

These recorded 'memories' do not degrade as they would do when stored in human memory. The stored information is no longer volatile, but permanent. Additionally, the user does not have to manually start and stop recording, there are no taking-picture-now moments. Like dashcams in cars, such devices record constantly. This is not only useful for sousveillance but also for Glogging,[15] short for Cyborglogging[16] or capturing moments in life one could easily miss.[17]

Group of individuals constantly connected via wearable or hand-held technology, smart mobs as Howard Rheingold[18] calls them, may be both support and a threat to liberty. Smart mobs empowered by technology communicate and cooperate at levels never before seen. Equipped with smartphones and the access to the Internet, they overthrew governments during the Arab Spring, for example.[19] Yet the adoption of even more devices and consumption of more virtual services in exchange for personal information gives oppressive governments more control over the population as well[8].

Constant recording can be against certain in-house rules or state legislation. Google Glass was banned in several casinos[20], cinemas[21] and bars[22] either to protect the copyright laws, or privacy of the patrons. (See Public policy)

Advantage over non-users

Using smart glasses may amplify cognitive capacities of its user. This creates an advantage over people who do not have the device[23] and thus further widening of the existing digital gaps or even creating new ones may be fostered. On the other hand, the same devices may serve as a tool for social inclusion of variously handicapped people (e. g. people suffering from neurodegenerative diseases, sensory impairments etc.). Certainly, the latest smart glasses models are far from being effective and comfortable to really give its user notable advantage, but let us suppose that we arrived at a point in the future, where the capacities listed in the taxonomy above are effectively enhanced. A user with smart glasses will be able to remember and recall more, instantly recognize faces[24], be able to control electronics in their surroundings hands-free, know where he is thanks to the connection to GPS, retrieve information about his surroundings by mere looking, record or even slow down the movements of someone typing their PIN, block out advertisement and change or edit any unwanted visual elements he chooses.

The list of advantages could go on, but it gives one the idea of what can be achieved by wearable technology. The digital divide alone is no longer in question here, we are looking at technologies that affect day-to-day behaviour of individuals. More so, they can do it very quickly and, when the technology matures, for a low cost as well[25].

And it is not only the cognitive aspects of these devices that divide society.[26] Currently, they are expensive and some are only available to a closed group of adopters (see Google Glass Explorers program in the Google Glass entry). Many of these issues mentioned here arise from this inequality of affordability.

Cognitive dependency after long-term use

Seeing as the possible enhancements can be very beneficial for the user, it is plausible to say that the user will not want to part with the device for longer than is necessary. Steve Mann, a wearable computing pioneer, has experienced these effects before. He thinks himself ‘naked and vulnerable’ without the EyeTap device he constantly wears[27]. If the device not only makes cognitive tasks easier but also make the user better at them, why would he want to not use the device as long as possible? This prolonged usage and subsequent dependency on these devices may result in users not being able to carry out cognitive tasks without them, though. They will simply grow so accustomed to them, that they 'forget' how they used to do these tasks originally, without being assisted by the technology. Same as with any other technology (e.g. clothing, glasses) we grew accustomed too, we will feel confused or perhaps vulnerable without it.[28]

Alleged assaults on people with smart glasses

These incidents are rare, but they got the attention of the media because they are related to controversial technology.

Steve Mann, whom I mentioned earlier, was assaulted while on vacation with his family in Paris. At first, the employees of the restaurant tried to stop him from entering and asked about the Eyetap device he had attached to his head, but they eventually let him enter after Mann presented the documents describing the device as well as a letter from his doctor (the device also aids his vision). While he and his family were eating, another man, claiming to be an employee, tried to grab and swipe the glasses off of Mann’s head. Because it is permanently attached to Mann’s skull, the device got damaged and started recording the incident. Mann gives an entire account of this experience on his personal blog.[29] Media portrayed this as an 'attack on a cyborg',[30] some called for a McDonald’s boycott.[31] Also, this was not the first time Steve Mann was stopped and questioned about his EyeTap.[32]

Other incidents related to Google Glass

A woman from San Francisco claimed to have been assaulted in a bar while she was wearing her Google smart glasses as a part of the Google Glass Explorers program for early-adopters.[33]

Kyle Russell, an editor for Business Insider, was mugged of his Google Glass while covering the anti-gentrification protests aimed against Google and its employees who were displacing lower-income families in the targeted neighbourhoods.[34]

Incidents caused by, allegedly, arrogant participants of the Glass Explorers program, let to the creation of the derogatory expression 'glasshole' to describe such people.[35]

Absent-mindedness while using smart glasses

There are concerns that the usage of smart glasses would have the same distracting effect as using a smartphone, for example. Using smart glasses while driving was banned in several states of the USA based on the same reasoning the legislators used to ban the usage of phones.[36] In case of Google Glass, which Google designed as a device that should free the user from the distracting smartphone, lobbyists were hired to appeal to the decision, saying that the device should not be considered distracting as the driver does not have to look down to check on it.[37]

This absent-mindedness, except when it is connected to attention demanding activities like driving[38], is not very well documented phenomenon in literature. It is backed by anecdotal experience[39], however. Nick Bilton, an editor for The New York Times, recalls his experience from the Google conference on which almost everyone was wearing a pair of Google Glasses. At one point, he “saw a group of five people wearing Google Glass, all silently staring off into space.” Google acknowledges this in their Google Glass Explorers DO’s and DON’TS manual as well.[40] Among them are advices such as 'ask for permission when recording others' or 'don’t stare off into the prism for long periods of time.'

Cybernetic security

Recent, not yet thoroughly tested technology, is susceptible to hacking. Especially so when such devices have to be connected to the Internet to fully function. For example, Google Glass had a vulnerability that allowed the attacker to force open communication with the device by just making the user see malicious QR code.[41] Google addressed the issue and patched it by a software update, but this demonstrates how a new technology can be vulnerable to attacks. The wireless communication can be intercepted, the voice recognition commands can be eavesdropped. The device can also be simply stolen and if the data is not protected in any way, the sensitive information can be easily obtained.

While these security risks are similar to those already existing, the increased scrutiny of them can force developers to pay closer attention to security in the future[42].

There are also security risks that are working the opposite way. One can use smart glasses to breach security too. A group of researchers from the University of Massachusetts Lowell create an app for Google Glass, that is able to record and recognize typed passwords by analysing finger movements[43].

The technology may also enhance civil defence and enterprise security. Emergency response teams and the civilians using wearable devices like smart glasses, can communicate more effectively, navigate dangerous areas better, share positional information. In case of an emergency, civilians can get updates on the situation, get information how to protect themselves and avoid the danger. Such technology (e. g. smartglasses implementing a special security guidance app authorized by respective agencies) might become a common part of a "security kit" for civilians.

Similar applications can be adopted by law-enforcement and security staff. Face recognition features can inform them about wanted fugitives, help them cooperate together and with civilians better, or get updates on the threat from nearby surveillance systems. In fact, the face recognition technology is being tested in several places of the USA.[44]

However, an implementation of such technologies into emergency response procedures requires prior experimental studies in order to ensure actual efficiency and minimal health risks for users under those emergency conditions. Especially potential positive either negative behavioural changes and changes in cognitive capacities caused by usage of such devices are of the main concern in this context.

Health risks

Specific absorption rate, or SAR, is a fiercely debated issue, especially so in the area of wearable devices. One point has to be made clear first, the electromagnetic radiation these devices emit is non-ionizing, yet studies on the harmful effect of EMR are inconsistent[45]. And in the case of wearable devices, that are supposed to be near the body of the users for a prolonged periods of time considerable longer than a cell phone, non-existent. But the possibility of prolonged cell phone usage to cause cancerous effects is likely.[46] The same could be the case for wearable devices, more so when worn longer on the head, as it’s the case for smart glasses.

Every personal wireless device is required to be tested for SAR. In the case of Google Glass Wi-Fi antenna, the SAR is 1.42 W/Kg.[47] While the US limit on SAR is 1.6 W/Kg[48] and Glass is thus not considered harmful, this still raises questions whether prolonged usage of Google Glass, especially when the Wi-Fi is on, could be harmful.

There is a possibility that prolonged exposure to LED-originating light, especially its blue part of the spectrum[49], can cause damage to human retina[50]. The study took into account LED lights for domestic lighting, which is significantly more powerful than smaller LEDs present in displays of wearable devices, thus drawing conclusions for smart glasses here may not be relevant. However, the LED displays in smart glasses work on the same principle and emit the same kind of light spectrum. Prolonged usage, while not properly researched, may pose increased risk of macular degeneration.[51]

Other health related effects are shared with other devices with light emitting capabilities. There’s a potential risk of epileptic seizures due to flickering at certain frequencies[52]. Bright light is also affecting the melatonin levels and the quality of sleep[53].

Enhancement or treatment

Let us begin with an example to demonstrate the distinction between what is considered enhancement and treatment. Suppose we have someone with a visual impairment. It is perfectly justifiable both morally and financially to give such a person prescription glasses to make them see better and thus improve their life. We consider this to be a form of treatment. The person is, compared to a healthy individual, ill. They have a biological handicap that affects the quality of their lives, which we can treat and we do so often while using social resources (i.e. health or social insurance) to cover the expenses.

The problems arise when we start using technology and knowledge originally devised to treat ill individuals to enhance healthy ones, e.g. using smart drugs to make their memory perfect. Suddenly, there is a debate whether the social resources should be allowed to be used for someone who is in fact healthy, but wishes to improve the quality of their lives further.[54] Is their claim on these social resources justified? And is the distinction between enhancement and therapy even defensible? Colleton[55] gives several arguments on how elusive the line between enhancement and treatment is.

When we give a short-sighted person from smart glasses that not only treat the visual impairment the person has, but also gives them instant access to the Internet, GPS and the ability to see at night, the distinction falls apart completely. Daniels[56] gives several examples of similar problematic scenarios. When one person is short due to a tumour induced growth hormone deficiency and the other because of their genes alone, but both these deficiencies have their origin in a set of genes we can identify and affect with the help of genetic engineering, who gets the treatment and who gets enhancement? Both persons are by no fault of their own unhappy with their lives and can feel better with the use of the right technology.

However, we still hold to the distinction for the sake of categorization. Although, we are very much aware that this will change in the future, after we come up with a better solution. If we categorize the device as an enhancement, we try to say that their manufacturer intended them to be enhancement first and foremost. If the device also permits to be used as a form of treatment, we specifically mention that in the respective category. The exact opposite applies to devices meant to be treatment first, and enhancement second, such as OrCam, a wearable device designed to help visually impaired people.

Public and media impact/presentation

The portrayal of smart glasses devices in the media is full of extremes. On one side, the generated hype around these novelty devices was strong enough to create immense interest in them and make consumers, reviewers and corporate managers as well[57] to overestimate the possibilities this technology could bring. On the other side, we can see the disillusionment from the more technology-versed group of reviewers that had the opportunity to actually try and test out these devices. These two opposite views are then reflected in the society and the media.[58]

Of course the devices aimed to serve as a tool in the industry does not generate this commotion, because they are not marketed towards the general public and are rather conservative in the selection of offered features. The biggest public and media impact is made by the consumer-oriented devices manufactured by corporations like Google, Microsoft or Apple, that market their products towards a broader audience.

The most notable impact was undoubtedly created by the spectacular announcement[59] of Google Glass. Google announced that the device will be at first exclusive only to those they will pick. This created a feeling of entitlement around those who got to wore the glasses. The expression 'glasshole' was created to address Google Glass users that behaved impolitely. Combined with the novelty the device brought with it, the interest of the public and the media was substantial. The reviewers called the glasses to be at best average in its technical parameters and did not share the overall enthusiasm because it was clear that the device is not finished.[60] Others saw it as a revolution[61] in wearable computing. Later, when the hype faded away, jokes and humorous memes about Google Glass started appearing. (These specific cases can be found in the Google Glass entry itself.)

The public assumed more guarded stance towards smart glasses marketed for general use. It was not a failure though, Google learned from the shortcomings and will take its time to better the product. The market for smart glasses was revitalized as well, the public now has interest in this technology bigger than before.[62] Some say the entire market with wearables is now a big bubble that is soon to collapse, others argue that the idea of it being a bubble just stems from the fact that these devices are novel and that their creators need to experiment with them to see what the consumers will actually like first.[63]

Public policy

The broader introduction of smart glasses, mostly Google Glass due to its general user audience, resulted in changes in legislation. Especially devices with recording capabilities are starting to be regulated because the legislators fear that they may threaten privacy or they already do because they are categorized as recording devices by a law already in place.

Google Glass was banned while driving in several states of the US as it was deemed to be too distracting.[64] Because of the privacy concerns, it was banned from casinos[65], movie theatres[66], bars[67] and museums. Ukrainian government prohibited the sale of the device because it violates the 'spy devices' law.[68]

Electronic devices, especially wearables such as mobile phones, are required to be tested for specific absorption rate. This is the rate at which the human body absorb the energy emitted by an electromagnetic radiation source. The European Committee for Electrotechnical Standardization and the U.S. Federal Communications Commission regulate the amount of energy a wearable or a hand-held device can output. For the USA, the SAR is required to be below 1.6 W/kg[69], the European Union limits it to 2 W/kg.[70]

LEDs for domestic lighting are regulated by the IEC 62471-2006.[71] Although the regulation does not apply to LED displays in portable or, for that matter, wearable devices. Applications that emit more light in the blue part of the spectrum should be carefully considered.[72] Prolonged exposure to high-energy blue-light, which LEDs emit in great amount, may lead to retinal injury[73]. Further, specific studies of the health effects of LEDs in wearable technology are needed.

Related technologies/research/projects

Smart glasses combine several technologies, both hardware and software based.

  • Speech recognition
  • Gestural interface
  • Displays
  • Projectors
  • Depth sensing cameras
  • Lenses
  • Batteries
  • Third-party software


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