Are Smartphones About to Be Replaced by Smartglasses?

Carolyn V. Murray

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Image by Peter H from Pixabay

When it comes to new technology, I have to confess, I’m the very definition of a late adopter. I don’t need any product the first year it comes out, nor the second. Oftentimes, not even the fifth. I do have a smartphone now, purchased three years ago, which was pretty much after four-fifths of the country had already bought one. I tend to hold off until a new item proves itself to be indispensable.

So, it was with some interest that I just noticed that that the futuristic technology of smartglasses has already arrived. And I’m curious – given how so many technologies seem to be strange, unnecessary, or too expensive when they’re first introduced, and ten years later are used by everyone – will smartglasses fall into the same pattern? Let’s take a look.

What are smartglasses (which are often called AR glasses)?

We’ll start with what they’re not – they’re not virtual reality. You won’t put these glasses on and be transported to Westworld or to a parasailing adventure. You’ll see the same world in front of you that you see right now. But there will be a screen superimposed over it. That is why they’re called Augmented Reality (AR). They don’t distort or change your vision, but they offer a multitude of options of added information and services.

That screen leads to almost every function of smartphones and then adds a few more intriguing levels. You can listen to music, make phone calls, take pictures and videos, ask questions of Alexa or some other vocal assistant, use the GPS for driving and walking, check Facebook and Twitter, play computer games, receive texts and notifications, and even watch Netflix.

You can also use them while traveling to translate foreign language menus and store items and use them while shopping to quickly pull up product reviews. But so far, it sounds as if they’re just an equivalent alternative to the smartphone – with a much smaller screen. What are the advantages?

A few practical and seriously cool strengths of smartglasses

They’re hands-free.

If you use them while driving, you don’t have to glance away from the road to look at GPS information, not even for a split second - it’s right in front of you. There are no wires, no plugging, unplugging, and no risking tickets in cities that have no cell phones while driving laws.

More importantly for me, I’ve had this borderline carpal-tunnel like pain for the past few years that I keep under control with rubber ball fascia hand massages. But the pain flairs up most often when I’m gripping my phone. And I’m not on my phone as often as most people because I prefer the larger screen of my laptop. But I hold the phone often enough and long enough to know that it has become a major contributor to my hand pain.

I also know that one of the reasons my eighty-two-year-old mother can’t use a phone (or take pictures anymore) is because of the stroke she had about ten years ago. The buttons of a phone are too small and her fingers are too unsteady. But smartglasses have some real potential here. Particularly the ones that will use eye gestures to switch between tabs and windows, in addition to responding to vocal commands.

Video conferencing

It zoomed into our living rooms in a big way this past year. But for many, it couldn’t quite replace the camaraderie and social interaction of a true office space. But AR technology is capable of taking video meetings to the next level and projecting the image of participants into the room you’re in, in a way that feels almost like a hologram. How does that sound to you – comforting or invasive?

I can think of one wonderful use for this type of conferencing and that’s visiting with family and friends, many of whom will be geographically separated from one another even after all pandemic lockdowns have ended. For isolated seniors, whether in nursing homes or not, this could be a priceless way of feeling the presence of their family around them.

Teaching and training tools

Have you ever had a specialist come to your home, be it for a cable, computer, or electrical problem, just to have them flip a single switch, and try to keep a straight face, while they charged you for an hour’s labor? You can actually use these glasses to show the problem to someone else from a long distance and get immediate instruction or feedback on how to fix it yourself. Let them bill you five or ten bucks for the consult – it’s a lot cheaper than the home visit.

An even more valuable teaching tool using smartglasses will be in a professional setting, where trainees, interns, apprentices, and residents can have a distant expert looking “over their shoulder,” asking the right questions, and correcting their mistakes. Doctors, mechanics, even bomb squad training can benefit from incorporating smartglasses into their programs.

Do you have a drone?

Well, at least one brand of smartglasses available has added drone controls to its list of tricks. Okay, this actually sounds like a lot of fun. Not only would you be able to control the drone’s actions but also to see the bird’s eye view visuals of what the drone is filming. Sign me up! Oh, wait, I don’t have a drone.

I also don’t have a smart house. But should you have one, those smartglasses can be connected to control those home devices. Stove – off. Porch lights – on. Temperature – just the way you like it.

Not so fast. What are the drawbacks?

Dangerous driving distractions

GPS is one thing, but scrolling through Twitter is quite another. I suppose it’s going to be possible to confine visual distractions to one lens and to keep the other clear. Also, if all your outgoing texting is handled by vocal dictation, that’s many degrees safer than looking down to manually input your message. Still, these AR screens have the potential to occupy a portion of your attention and your brain – how much is an unknown right now.

Privacy issues

We’ve all had that experience of chatting with someone in front of our phone or laptop and then the next day, advertisements start popping up all over the place about that topic. Paranoia? Coincidence? I just know that it has happened to me and to others and it’s very difficult to explain. These smartglasses are going to be collecting an incredible amount of information about our lives, our movements, the people and things that we look at, our interests, and our decisions.

Also, because smartglasses can record conversations, how often will we be violating the privacy of others if we turn that recording on as a reminder to ourselves of a particular discussion, or to record class notes, or simply because we forgot to turn it off? And as others learn to identify smartglasses, how uncomfortable or reluctant might they be about the prospect of having their conversations recorded or their images secretly photographed by the blink of an eye?

Annoying technology

I saw one review of a user who was able to get early access to one of these smartglasses. She was at a large party and her notifications and text messages kept appearing on the screen. She finally had to turn them off for the event. It was a big distraction that pulled her away from the celebration and it felt a bit rude to her, as if she wasn’t giving the people around her, her full attention.

Also, many people are already feeling overwhelmed by information overload. Will smartglasses plug us further into that mountain of incoming news just as a lot of us are seeing the value in reducing the daily avalanche of information?

Also, while Google has said that the experience of looking at their smartglasses screen should feel as if you’re looking at a 25-inch screen that’s eight feet away. Still, eye fatigue has been a common complaint for those using the glasses for several hours. They seem likely to cause problems if the user attempts to wear them during all waking hours.

The verdict?

Are you inclined to give them a try? For most people, the opening prices for this new tech is going to be the primary obstacle. Those will come down, they always do.

Smartphones have not replaced laptops. A lot of people own both and love each one for its particular strengths. Will smartglasses be an addition or a replacement for either of these established devices? I recall a visit to a London metro station where a warning was posted on the wall saying that three hundred cell phones had been snatched out of people’s hands the past year, just outside that one station.

Of course, anything can be stolen, but smartglasses feel a bit more secure. You’re much less likely to lay them down on a table or a counter and have them disappear. I definitely see the advantages while traveling. (Not to mention fast and easy translations.)

Will I buy a pair for myself? Not any time soon. I’m the late adopter, remember? But ask me again in five years. Maybe by then, I’ll be calling them indispensable.

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At the moment, I'm highly interested in the ways in which we can cope and thrive during, after, and despite a global pandemic. My background is in sociology, education, and creative writing. If you were to scroll through the tabs on my laptop, you'd find music, travel, politics, longevity, and brain health.

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