Google’s new camera-embedded eyeglasses to change video entertainment, raise privacy questions
Ever since he was a kid, Henry-Alex Rubin has been waiting for Google Glass. Not so much Google’s new camera-embedded eyeglasses that everyone’s talking about, but the fulfillment of a dream the filmmaker, who was nominated for an Oscar for “Murderball,” has long harbored: a camera you can turn on at will, that records the world as you see it from your own eyes.
Next year, when Google begins selling Glass to the masses, that dream becomes a reality for anyone who can afford the device. When Glass debuts, the way we tell stories and watch others tell them may start to change in significant ways. And not just for the people who upload their life moments onto YouTube: Feature films, documentaries, television programming, videogames — many areas could be disrupted, if not by Glass right away, then over time by the technologies that power it.
Rubin — whose latest film, “Disconnect,” about the Internet and the ways people abuse it, came out this summer — is an early champion of Glass as a tool for creating film and video.
“This is the most exciting idea in filmmaking since the invention of video,” he says. “It may even be more radical than the videocamera.”
Of course, not everyone is so excited. For every discussion that revolves around the potential for Glass to change the way video entertainment is filmed, distributed and watched, there is a counter-conversation that takes on a more concerned tone of voice. There are considerable fears circulating from social media to newspaper op-eds about seeing personal privacy violated, and people filmed whether or not they like it (or know it). Myriad movie houses, bars and hospitals have already publicly declared themselves ready to ban Glass. Some states are considering forbidding the device from cars. Google even barred it from its shareholder meeting in June.
The insult that describes someone who abuses the device in an intrusive manner has quickly become a part of the Silicon Valley lexicon: “Glasshole.”
This dichotomy of promise and peril is being keenly acknowledged in the entertainment industry. Even as executives and filmmakers talk about the impact it could have on the craft itself, they dread how simple and surreptitious it could make movie piracy.
“The film business is right to be excited about Google Glass on the one hand and concerned on the other,” says Steven Rosenbaum, CEO of Magnify.net, an online-video platform startup. “You can’t separate the two. It will open us up to a lot of new (opportunities), but it could also open up a lot of problems.”
Even if history consigns Glass to the pile of intriguing fads that never catch on — that is, even if it’s disdained as ungainly or is washed away by a privacy backlash — the idea of wearable computers will be with us for good.
Apple, Samsung, Microsoft and others are working on their own accessorizable processors. Some of them may be worn as a wristwatch, or embedded in clothing. In time, according to a report by Forrester Research, they could appear inside a contact lens or worn as a tattoo.
In the case of Glass, there are two wearable computers: One is a tiny and barely perceptible camera worn at the level of sight, switched on and off at will, and offering intuitive control of the shot without constraining body movement. The second is a technology just as potentially disruptive: augmented reality. The Glass eyepiece contains a screen that can display photos, videos, maps, emails, social media feeds and a wide array of other second-screen content. It’s a screen that never needs to be fished out of a pocket or purse, and is navigated by voice or a touch of the device.
But wearable computers and augmented reality are technologies that have been discussed and developed for decades. What’s new about Glass is that it’s the first device to combine the two in a consumer-friendly way.
They make for a more intimate, immediate and accessible version of the interface we have on our smartphones. And they appear to be on the verge of becoming as mainstream and ubiquitous as those phones.
“People record things you wouldn’t typically see in films,” says Drew Baumann, a software developer who is creating apps for Glass and who is founder engineer for Fullscreen, a startup that helps YouTube creators make money from their videos. “It’s really a convenience thing. You’ve never been able to use video at such a personal level before. Recording what you see is just a voice command or a click away.”
Baumann, who has been sporting Glass for at least eight hours a day, noted that wearable cameras may not change existing forms of movies and television as much as they will allow for new formats. One example is something that might be a cross between a celebrity Twitter feed and a reality TV show — with popular entertainers uploading clips that give glimpses into their lives, a scenario that weirdly resembles the fictional portal in “Being John Malkovich.”
“Everyone wants to know what celebrities are doing,” said Baumann. “Glass makes it so easy for that to be shared.”
Of course, Glass also makes it easier to capture video of people without them knowing they’re being watched. And it can be combined with other technologies like cloud storage and so-called “big data” (the burgeoning market of extracting meaning from the ocean of data on the Internet) to infringe on personal privacy in new, disconcerting ways.
These concerns carry well beyond the tech industry. Congress, noting Google’s privacy lapses in the past, sent the company a letter asking it for information on how it would handle such issues, as well as the potential for misuse of technologies like facial recognition. Canada, Australia and fi ve other countries have made similar requests. The National Assn. of Theater Owners is mulling policies that may require Glass to be checked at the door of movie theaters to protect against the rampant piracy it could produce.
Google, for its part, has said user privacy is a top priority, and that it won’t allow face-recognition capabilities in the device. CEO Larry Page said at a June shareholder meeting that he believes privacy concerns will fade in time. That sentiment prevails among those who have used Glass.
The display inside Glass is invisible to those standing directly in front of someone using it to capture video.
Among the consumers willing to pony up $1,500 a pop for Glass while the product is still in beta mode — Google calls them “Explorers” — are select individuals the company is leaning on to help it figure out all sorts of interesting applications. One such Explorer, Georgia Tech U. professor Irfan Essa has been advising Google on the many ways the technology can be utilized in a film production environment, including allowing a director to frame a scene by glimpsing video of sightlines from Glass-donning actors during rehearsal.
Google will further explore experimental filmmaking via a recently announced partnership to equip film schools that will put Glass in the hands of students looking to innovate.
Throughout the history of film, cameras have grown smaller, more portable, cheaper and more ubiquitous. Along the way, they opened up new possibilities for creators. As 16mm handheld cameras became commonplace, independent filmmakers experimented with new, often unconventional fi lming techniques and ways of telling stories that in time became industry norms.
The arrival of videocameras unleashed a wave of new documentarians. More recently, digital videocameras like the Flip, and later the smartphone camera, spawned a legion of novices to create not only avant-garde films, but also YouTube channels, sometimes attracting millions of regular subscribers.
The Glass camera has a resolution of 720p, a fuzzier image than the 1080p of the iPhone 5 camera. In time, the Glass lens will become advanced enough to film in higher resolution without becoming bulkier.
But until then, the device is more likely to appeal to amateur documentary filmmakers like those who contributed video to the 2011 docu “Life in a Day,” which drew on thousands of vids submitted from all over the world, and videographers shooting footage at events like mass protests or natural disasters.
The Eyes Have It
A key aspect of Glass for professional filmmakers is that the camera sits about an inch to the side of the eyeball, simulating eye contact in a way most video cameras can’t.
“From the beginning of my career, I’ve always been obsessed with eye contact,” said Oscar-winning director Errol Morris, who invented the Interrotron, a camera that’s part teleprompter, part two-way mirror, to introduce a deeper intimacy into interviewing. “Even with Skype, you’re not looking into the eyes of the person you’re talking with. The Interrotron is a way of addressing that problem.”
Morris said he hasn’t used Glass, but he sees the value of a camera worn on the head. “If you have an opportunity to put the camera right in front of the eyes, you could have your cake and eat it, too.”
The camera is only one of the innovations of Glass. The head-mounted display, a transparent screen positioned in front of the eye, can show information, real-time translation and images taken from other cameras. For filmmakers, that screen can simplify the director’s task by showing battery levels, light meters, audio waveforms and different camera feeds.
“In a situation where I need to pay attention to multiple cameras at the same time, it could be enormously helpful,” Rubin said.
For the audience, Glass has the potential to be yet another screen for the distribution of content, but for now, only the kind that can be delivered in small bursts. There are a handful of deals with content companies, from CNN to Conde Nast titles like Vogue to provide simple content apps — dubbed “Glassware” in Googlespeak — that deliver news headlines or can breeze through photos.
“Glass is not designed to watch a movie; there are other things for that,” said Starner. “But Glass is designed for updates and quick snippets. It’s a new way of thinking about distribution.”
Glass could also bring changes in consuming entertainment by adding a layer of information to a viewing experience or by making it more interactive.
In the same way people have come to use a tablet or smartphone as a second screen to find player statistics at baseball games or to monitor Tweets during awards ceremonies, they can use the Glass display at live events, during TV shows and while watching movies.
William Uricchio, an MIT professor who heads the school’s Comparative Media Studies department, says wearable screens like the one in Glass could eventually introduce multiple narratives, and allow the viewer to easily choose among them while watching images on a larger screen.
“Most of us grew up with the Aristotelean idea that a story is a single narrative,” Uricchio says. “Videogames started to change that by encouraging people to choose or construct their narratives.”
Having an intuitive interface directly in front of the eye — one that’s always connected to the Web — could one day change things even more. “The cinemagoing experience will stay with us,” says Uricchio. “On the other hand, we are starting to have the ability to tell stories in different ways. If you want, you can have a richer and deeper engagement.”
Films and television programs are also going to have to compete harder for their audiences’ attention with user-generated video. The vast majority of video uploaded to YouTube is hardly worth watching, but the tiny fraction that is has already taken up a substantial portion of many people’s daily video consumption.
If Glass catches on, and if its wearable camera makes taking videos even more ubiquitous than it is with smartphones, then the more compelling moments it captures could turn YouTube into even more of a video powerhouse than it’s become in the past few years.
That doesn’t mean people will lose interest in old-fashioned filmmaking. It means there will be more forms of video entertainment.
“Culture is layered,” Morris says. “A lot of the past will still be with us, along with the new. People will still go to theaters and watch movies on projectors.”
In fact, whatever changes Glass ends up bringing to the way we make and watch video, what’s not original is that much of that change will stem from a trend that has been happening for decades: cameras getting smaller and more ubiquitous.
“Movies (and TV) from the beginning have always depended on technology,” Morris says. “Technology has changed everything over the years. How could it not be otherwise?”
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