Is Google Glass failing our children?

Following on from my initial exploration of Google Glass, I was keen to see what my kids would make of this device. As anyone who has seen a toddler using an iPad will know, some technology is just so intuitive that kids take to it like a duck to water. So I wondered what challenges Glass would throw up for a child, whether they would reflect my own challenges and frustrations in getting familiar with this device. After all, I had to undo decades of engrained user interface practice, whereas my daughter only had a few years of computing under her belt. Sharing Google Glass with my daughter turned out to be just as exciting and eye opening as I had hoped, but what really surprised me was the rather sobering reflection it led to, about just what kind of future we are leading our children towards.

Firstly, a word of warning. Officially Google Glass is not supposed to be used by children under 13 years of age, whose eyes are still developing. This was disappointing to find out, as I was looking forward to what my kids might make of it. I actually stumbled across the age guidance on the Google Glass Help site, there was nothing on the Glass box to indicate a danger to children, although I later found an FAQ card inside the box, in tiny print, with the age guidance on. Like many people who buy a gadget, I tend to try the device first and read the booklets later. I blame Apple for shipping mobile devices that ‘just work’! Google really need to stick a “13+ years” on the box. Smallprint just doesn’t cut it, this is kids’ eyesight we’re talking about. Otherwise we will end up with lots more uninformed parents posting  videos like this one I found on YouTube, once Google Glass hits the retail stores.

Google do not give any background to their age restriction, however the Children’s BBC site CBBC has interviewed a professor from the Royal College of Opthalmologists, who suggested that the reason for the restriction would be due to the unknown effects of Glass on developing eyes, and that the age of 13 was likely used just because no research has taken place yet. He stated that children’s eyes are actually fully developed by 7-8 years, and that children basically have their adult eyes by then.

Based on this advice and after a discussion with my wife, we decided to let our daughter, who is nearly nine years of age, have a go on Google Glass, but only after her younger brothers had gone to bed, otherwise there would be hell to pay!

So, after a short demo on how to use the voice controls, I let my daughter loose on Glass. It seemed that she picked up the speech and touch interface quicker than I did. After about 20 minutes she was flying: telling me the weather for the rest of the week, looking up King George IV facts, taking photos and video. Echoing my own problems, she had trouble with the voice recognition. King George the Fourth repeatedly brought up results for King George Falls, an impressive waterfall in Australia. On the plus side, the beautiful waterfall photos in the search results were easy and simple for her to scroll through. By coincidence, last week she was doing Internet Searching in her ICT class at school, and was using King George IV as a test subject, so she was able to report back to her teacher a big #googleglassFAIL on that note!

Ultimately though, she thought the device was totally cool and was excited about the prospect of walking around while looking at the web. I explained the idea of augmented reality, that if she was walking around wearing these then she would be likely to see ratings and reviews while going past restaurants or shops, for example. This really excited her as the potential of Glass really hit home: a personal shopping assistant!

We talked about how Glass might be used in school for demonstrating that you can perform a certain task, like this class have done, and about the privacy issues with hidden cameras. She concluded they could be both good and bad at the same time, making the example that they could be used to catch video of robbers in a bank raid so the police could catch them, but they could also be used by strangers outside school, more ominously. Nothing that a kick in the nuts wouldn’t sort out, she told me! We agreed that maybe Glass could make a sound or flash a light when taking photos or video.

My daughter also wondered out loud if everyone will be wearing these in 5 or 10 years time. Will they become the norm in the classroom, the high street or the workplace? Time will tell, but I am sure that Google will give it their best shot. One thing I have no doubt of is that this incredible technology, whether in the form of Glass or some other wearable device, will play a key role in our childrens’ futures. My daughter’s experimentation with Glass reminded me that as software engineers and technologists, we have a responsibility to safeguard people, especially the young and vulnerable, and to try and ensure that technology evolves in an ethical manner.  But it feels to me like we are collectively failing in that duty. Google Glass and its augmented reality services are closely tied into excessive and invasive personal data collection, and its spy camera technology does nothing to alert subjects that they are being recorded. This needs to be challenged.

Often technology moves so fast that discussions around ethical impacts only take place once it is already in use, as is the case with Google Glass. Conversations are taking place far and wide, and it’s vital that we keep these going. If we do nothing then we are not just failing upcoming Glass users in the short term, but are failing the entire next generation of internet users ahead of us, for whom wearable technology will be the norm and whose online lives are only just starting to take shape.

Inside the Glass box it says, “You are a pioneer, a founder and an architect of what’s possible. You are a Glass Explorer. We have an exciting journey ahead of us, and what happens next starts with you.”

There are ten thousand Google Glass “pioneers, founders and architects” out there, whose feedback and ideas are already helping to shape the technology landscape for the next generation. These people share completely in that responsibility to help shape “what happens next” for the better. I sincerely hope that this army of pioneers, and the wider technology community, will try to influence that future and make it a better place. One where our children will be free to use technology to create, learn and explore, rather than just to consume and be exploited for their data and images.

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