Looking Up: Local Data and the Real World

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Google's Sergey Brin wearing Google Glass at New York fashion week.Perhaps it’s true, as a recent study by BiTE interactive indicates, that only 10% of Americans would be interested in wearing Google Glass. Conceptually, Glass still represents an important marking point in the history of our relationship with the Internet. This is because Glass creates a literal and perpetual overlay of Internet-based information on top of the world around us.

The overlay is literal because the Glass user interacts with a digital display that is projected directly onto the visible world. As this reviewer describes it, Glass is like “picture-in-picture for life.” What’s more, Glass is perpetual, because as long as you’re wearing the device, you have constant ongoing access to its services, meaning that you are connected to the Internet at all times. The result is a collapse of the division between Internet life and “real life,” a collapse we’ve been moving towards for some time now.

You might say it’s just an interface; the information itself isn’t any different. But new mediums enable new messages, and Glass will almost certainly change the way we think about focusing the vast resources of the Internet on highly local, highly immediate use cases. Google is focused right now on perfecting the interface and its basic functions, such as picture-taking and performing search queries. Once it’s open to the app developer community, however, Glass will really take off.

As I say, Glass is important almost regardless of the number of people who actually buy it and use it. It’s the most dedicated hardware design to date for the type of augmented reality interface we’ve already seen in tools like Yelp’s Monocle interface and the Layar app. Even more than these smartphone-based tools, Glass represents a literalization of the idea that the places we occupy and the objects that surround us on a daily basis can be illuminated by linking them to relevant online data.

As with Glass, actual usage of tools like Monocle and Layar isn’t really the point. These tools simply illustrate the larger concept, though not necessarily in the most usable manner. I don’t see too many people looking at the world through a smartphone display these days. In fact, Dutch company Layar seems to have pivoted in recent months from an open platform for augmented reality “layers” provided by a developer community to a service dedicated to helping consumers engage with print advertisements, perhaps realizing that smartphones are not the ideal augmented reality interface.

Similarly, Glass may be overpriced or simply too odd for many consumers, but it still represents a manner of thinking about the interconnectedness of the internet and the world that is an inevitable outcome of current trends. With smartphones as our constant companions, we already spend a vast amount of our time looking down to look things up.

Layar’s pivot neatly illustrates the two ways data can be overlaid onto our immediate surroundings. The first is achieved by interrelating the display view on an interface with geotagged data. So, for instance, Yelp’s Monocle takes the geographical coordinates of businesses in Yelp’s database and associates them with physical locations viewed through a smartphone display. It will be interesting to see whether Glass is able to achieve a more ambitious version of the same idea, given that a wearable device could potentially understand the world in three dimensions, and given the fact that Google’s already dominant position in real-world data gathering gives it the potential to dream up some remarkable applications. To take a trivial example, Glass could potentially tell you the exact location of any item in a particular Home Depot and lead you straight to it. Of course, we wouldn’t necessarily need Glass to produce such a tool, but with Glass we are probably more likely to see things like this attempted.

The other type of overlay involves interaction with data embedded in the objects around us, such as QR codes, traditional bar codes, written language, iconic images, and the like. Here the range of possibilities is only beginning to open up. For a few years we’ve had apps like eBay’s RedLaser, which lets you scan barcodes for purposes of comparison shopping. And then there’s Buycott, a new app built by a young developer in Los Angeles that tells you whether a product at your local store has ties to Monsanto or the Koch brothers. That particular app might only appeal to people of a liberal bent, but the concept of special interest data overlays has vast potential.

Damian Rollison is vice president of product and technology at Universal Business Listing, a company dedicated to promoting online visibility for local businesses. He holds degrees from University of California, Berkeley and the University of Virginia, where he worked at the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities. He can be reached via Twitter.

Damian Rollison is Director of Market Insights at SOCi.