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Google's Goggles: Is The Future Right Before Our Eyes?

What would the world look like seen through Google's eyes? (AFP/Getty Images)

Like flying cars and time travel, eye glasses with computing power have long been sci-fi fantasy, relegated to Terminator movies and the like. Now it appears that Google may be a few months from selling a version of their own.

Google glasses — which may be released as a "beta" product — could put smartphone capabilities such as GPS maps, weather, time, Web streaming and more inches from your eyeball.

There have a been rumors for months that Google's secretive X Lab in Mountain View was hard at work developing goggles or glasses that would bear the Google name.

They will reportedly overlay graphics, ads and images into your field of view. They should feature some level voice control, while navigation around the tiny screens could also come from a tilt of your head. And while Google's electronically endowed glasses may not be fashionable at first, they could eventually change the way we all see the world.

Imagine a facial recognition program in your glasses discreetly reminding you of the name and title of an acquaintance. Or picture a walk through a museum with an electronic docent embedded in your glasses, recognizing the art you are looking at and whispering in your ear.

The implications — things like Minority Report-style advertising — are mind-boggling. While you might love to have facial recognition glasses at a cocktail party, you might not like it so much if businesses and clerks used them to identify you and size you up as you walked into a shop.

Google says it won't comment on rumors about these glasses. But even if Google doesn't actually build a wearable computer into your shades sometime in the near future, devices like this are coming. Two small firms, Vuzix and Lumus Optics, already have working prototypes of similar devices.

Vuzix built its glasses with funding help from DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. The company hopes to start delivering glasses to the military and to industry this year. Vuzix aims to release a product aimed at consumers in 2013.

Lumus — which is based in Israel — says it's already working with a number of top consumer device makers on its prototype.

Software companies, including Google, already offer apps on smart phones that can recognize and provide information about objects in the real world, from historical landmarks to real people. Augmented reality apps haven't taken off in handhelds, however, the way they might be expected too if they were part of our natural view of the world.

(If you don't know what augmented reality is, don't worry. You have already seen it in action. Those first-down lines on your TV during football games are probably the most famous example.)

A whole number of diverse and still-developing technologies will need to come together and work well in concert for these kinds of glasses and apps to work well.

They'll need lightweight, translucent glass or plastic that could work as a lens and a screen. They will need incredibly precise geo-location technology and tiny gyroscopes. The cameras built into into these glasses will need to be sharp. Finally, the voice recognition will have to work to make them practical.

The technical challenges are huge. Last year Tom Caudell, who coined the term "augmented reality," told me he thought glasses like this were still years away.

But, then again, maybe not.

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Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish. Like flying cars and time travel, eye glasses with computing power have long been sci-fi fantasy, relegated to "Terminator" movies and the like. But now, it appears that Google may be a few months from unveiling at least a beta version of their own. Google Goggles would put smartphone capabilities - GPS maps, weather, time, Web streaming and more - inches from your eyeball. For more, NPR's technology reporter Steve Henn joins us. Welcome, Steve.

STEVE HENN, BYLINE: Hi.

CORNISH: So we should start by saying Google hasn't actually confirmed that this is happening. So why are people so sure it is?

HENN: Well, it's been reported by The New York Times and a tech blog called "9 to 5 Google," and also for a long time, people have thought the glasses would be the next big thing, the next technology platform. I mean, you've heard of three screens, right? Your PC, your smartphone and your TV. This really could be the fourth. But for these glasses to work, a whole bunch of different technologies need to come together and work well, like lightweight, translucent glass or plastic that can work as both a lens and a screen.

You'd need tiny gyroscopes in the screens. And in the last few years, we've seen a lot of these little different technologies get a lot better. So folks have been expecting this.

CORNISH: And, of course, it's a super-secret project. I mean, it's being developed, reportedly, by Google X, which is the top secret lab of Google. But what do we know at this point about what these glasses might look like or how they might work?

HENN: Well, in terms of fashion, they'll probably not going to be...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

HENN: ...you know?

CORNISH: They will be as geeky as we think they will be is what you're saying?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

HENN: Yes. They will be exactly that geeky. They'll have pretty big frames. You need to pack a lot of stuff into the frames. And people might walk around acting kind of ridiculous with them on, but the way they'll work is they'll use augmented reality. And even if you don't realize it, you've probably seen this. You know those first down lines in football games...

CORNISH: Mm-hmm.

HENN: ...that magically appear? It's basically taking that idea and applying it to the rest of the world through your glasses. So you'd have these graphics that would lay on top of the world.

CORNISH: So some of the examples I saw, as you're walking down the street and you look at a restaurant with these glasses on and, like, information about that restaurant might pop up out of the corner of your eye, literally?

HENN: Yeah. Exactly. And we're already seeing some of these. So, you know, a couple of years ago, there was a famous app for the iPhone where you could hold up the iPhone and look at the stars in the heavens and then click on them and find out more information about that. Basically, that's the idea, but - for everything. And instead of having to hold up your phone, it would be built into the glasses, just an inch from your eye.

CORNISH: So the sci-fi nerd in me is so excited about this, but the, like, you know, privacy activist is horrified. Given what we're feeling about all these software developers and their privacy policies, isn't there a real danger with this kind of invention?

HENN: Yeah. You know, I think there could be, but interestingly, I think the real danger isn't going to necessarily just come from the big companies collecting information about us. I mean, a lot of that is already going on. But with technologies like this, I think what you're going to see more of is little brother spying on you, not Big Brother. I mean, for these glasses to work, they all have to have cameras built into them. So one of the concerns, reportedly, at Google is how will people know when folks around them have these glasses on and are actually recording them?

You know, the facial recognition technology already exists, that allows folks to snap your picture and ID you off your Facebook page. I had a researcher do that to me once last year. So there's the potential that all of this sort of what we used to think of as almost high-tech spy fantasy is in everyone's hands.

CORNISH: Steve, if these glasses were to one day become mainstream, it could have a profound effect on how we view the world, literally. So what's the talk out there about the long-term impact of this technology?

HENN: Well, I think, short term, we might all walk around wearing these glasses kind of acting like idiots, you know, just reading things that aren't there, playing games with virtual monsters that no one else can see. But I think people are right that in the long term the effect could be profound. You're talking about a technology that could make all human knowledge about the world accessible as you walk through it. So it's conceivable that you look at an object or a plant or a person and you have the computing resources to find out the stories about that person or that place. I think it could profoundly change the way we live.

CORNISH: Steve, thanks so much for explaining it to us.

HENN: Sure thing.

CORNISH: That's Steve Henn, NPR's Silicon Valley correspondent. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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