Heads Up! This Was Google’s Apple Moment

It looked like the X Games, but it was the most significant product launch of the decade so far. For the first time, Google did what Apple has done thrice, with the iPod, iPhone, and iPad. Granted, Apple announces products that ship immediately, while Google merely allowed a few thousand I/O attendees to pre-order a beta version that wouldn’t ship until next year; but don’t let the mechanics distract you from the heart of the matter. Google Glass isn’t just a new product, it’s a whole new product category, and it has every chance of being every bit as revolutionary as Apple’s Big Three.

Of course, like every revolution, it brought the nattering nabobs of negativity out in force. “We struggle to imagine Google Glasses reconciled with normal life,” carps Gizmodo. That line’s going to sound as embarrassingly tone-deaf in five years as these hilarious quotes from iPhone naysayers do today. Wearable computing, in one form or another, is the future. How extraordinary is it going to be? Some people suggest it could actually save Research In Motion. Now that’s amazing.

But a company that took most of a year to build an email app for the PlayBook isn’t going to lead the way. This category is so new that Google’s fail-fast, permanent-beta, make-it-up-as-you-go ethos is really the only viable direction. And we’re only in its infancy; has anyone else noticed that those big thick glasses look a lot like Neurosky’s brainwave sensors? Thought-controlled heads-up displays, anyone?

Do I sound excited? Well, sure, yeah, I am–but I’m also kind of terrified.

You see, at first the skeptics almost seem to have a point. Google Glass is in no way a replacement for a phone. At least not yet. Of course, neither was the iPad, and that did pretty well, but who’s going to be the big initial market for Google Glass, beyond the die-hard early-adopter?

Well, there are a lot of possible applications. Travel, for instance; a heads-up display is a lot more convenient than a phone when you’re wandering a strange city, and being able to tether to your phone and actually share what you’re seeing with friends and family in real time would be terrific. Industrial uses. The elderly. Augmented-reality games. But you know who I think the first big market for Google Glass will be?

Law enforcement. Imagine a heads-up display that automatically parses every license plate and recognizes every face in sight, and tells the wearer about any outstanding warrants. Charles Stross has been predicting this for years: “Police in the UK are already experimenting with real time video recording of interactions with the public – I suspect that before long we’re going to see cops required to run lifelogging apps constantly when on duty, with the output locked down as evidence.” In places where the integrity of the police is questionable–which is to say, most of the world–this could help stamp out corruption, too.

Of course, this will lead to an enormous spike in the amount of video data in the world that needs to be tagged, categorized, sifted, and mined. If only there was a company out there that was really, really good at search…

Well, hey! Win-win-win, right? More efficient law enforcement, less corruption, lots of business for Google. So why am I scared? Because Google Glass is–probably both inadvertently and inescapably–a giant step towards the panopticon society I’ve been worrying about for some time. The future is here, and it’s awesome…and soon it will be watching you. Be concerned. Be very concerned.