I had two transformative yet very minor optical experiences last week, both kicking off in the space of 2 hours: I got contact lenses, and I began experimenting with Google Glass.
The two are interlinked, because I couldn't use Google's bleeding-edge wearable tech with my comfy Ray-Ban eyeglasses.
If I was going to use Glass, I'd need contacts.
I have very bad vision: -9.5 or thereabouts. I've had glasses since I was 6. I also have astigmatism. I last had contacts in 1991, when I was still in high school. That was more than 20 years ago, and the technology's clearly changed. LensCrafters, which I have newfound appreciation for, took me from an eye doctor appointment all the way to walking out the door with a trial set of disposable contact lenses -- taking into account astigmatism and proper cornea curvature -- in a little over an hour. From there, it was a straight cab to Google's offices in Manhattan's Chelsea neighborhood, where I was meeting my fellow Glass inductee, Bridget Carey.
I had a bunch of very mixed feelings, hustling to get contacts just to try Glass. It felt like the beginning of some subtle body modification. I identify with myself through my glasses. Also, glasses just feel a lot different from contacts: in terms of peripheral vision, depth perception, and the overwhelming feeling of immersion that came over me with contacts on it was a completely shifted experience. I looked at my hands a lot, at screens, at small leaves in trees. Everything looked bigger.
The Google Glass orientation was, comparatively, less invasive. I fitted the Glass nosepiece, logged in to my Google account, and learned how to operate this along with Bridget, taking turns at wandering around a giant room filled with little video game tutorial-like exploration stations. The Glass screen just hangs above the upper corner of your right eye.
Actually, if I had to tell which experience was the more optically disruptive one, I'd say it was getting contacts.
The shield of the lens
Google Glass has no lenses, but it does come with two snap-on inserts: a sunglass visor and a clear shield. The clear one interests me. Maybe it's just for outdoor use, or maybe it's for someone like me, who feels exposed and wants to hide again.
Getting contacts felt like it exposed me. Again, I forgot how much I identify with my glasses, how they make me who I am. At the office, people looked at me and didn't really recognize me, or said I looked tired.
Some liked the transition, but others saw behind it, that I looked tired, or maybe was squinting. I felt like I was in a vulnerable state.
Google Glass didn't make me feel any more comfortable, because it only loosely approximates frames: it's half a set of glasses, and it makes my face look very different.
With the sunglasses on, I'm an '80s cyberpunk film escapee; with the clear inserts, I resemble a Norwegian pop star or a research chemist.
Maybe the clear plastic pop-ins would work for extreme events like Glass-enabled racquetball or off-road biking. For me it served a different purpose: shelter. While I felt completely exposed with Glass on, the sunglass insert made me feel hidden. The clear lenses had a similar effect: I felt more secure. Maybe it reminded me of my old self.
Fashion, or something less visible?
Sure, Google Glass will be built into other glasses, and there will be prescription models, too. But maybe it's best as a near-invisible technology, not an overt cyborg fashion statement, which it is now.
It raises the question for me: how far is Google willing to go with fashion and Glass? When we eventually get Warby Parker eyewear or prescription glasses with Glass accommodated -- something Google promises will happen -- what will be the day we ask ourselves how much we'd pay extra for tech that doubles as fashion? How much would I pay for a coat that also has a remote control in it, or sneakers that also have a pedometer? The answer, usually, is not much -- unless that extra tech can deliver something truly incredible. At the moment, Glass feels like too much facial vulnerability for too little gain. What becomes the tipping point?
Maybe Glass should be achieving another goal: becoming invisible tech, something that doesn't impose. What I love about most smartwatches that I've seen so far is how relatively discreet they are. No one notices a Pebble or a Martian watch unless you point it out. It blends in, becomes part of you. Google Glass is a standout, a deliberate statement. It intrudes and practically verges on becoming your identity. I am not Scott: I am Glass-Guy.
Your glasses and Google Glass: Transformation and self-identity
The question I hear a lot about Google Glass is, "Will it work with my regular glasses?" It's a question I'm curious about, too, but I still don't have a clear answer. Google says current versions of Glass aren't meant to work with glasses. But they actually do.
I have glasses, and prescription sunglasses, and it turns out that it actually works, sort of. It perches above my frames, like a pair of 3D glasses. I can see the screen with some twiddling. Glass can end up tipping to the side, and I need to prop it up with my fingers, since the nose piece isn't seated on my nose any longer. No, Google does not recommend this use. But I used it in a pinch at a kid's birthday party when I was too tired to put contact lenses on again, and it was fine.
Still, the real goal for Glass should be to integrate seamlessly into whatever eyewear you choose. 3D movies wouldn't have had any adoption level if those glasses couldn't slide over your own. Most people don't want to buy new glasses just to use Glass, or go through weird contact-lens installation like I did. I don't foresee a future of laser eye corrections just for Glass. Not yet.
To be invisible again
On the train yesterday, I had my regular glasses on. Things were smaller, reality a little wobblier. Objects flatter, field of vision narrower. After three days, I finally didn't have to venture out with contact lenses on and augmented reality headgear.
It felt nice. Glasses are my personal protection, a sense of identity I hide behind. Google Glass inevitably becomes a little part of yourself. And my face having undergone that many transformations in a single week unnerved me. Now, with my regular glasses on, sitting on the train and typing on my iPad, it felt nice to be invisible for a little while.
I was myself again.