When you don't have a person's name, the key to identifying them becomes becomes facial recognition. We all know how facial recognition works at Web sites such as Picasa and Facebook. Every day, millions of people tag photos, voluntarily building a gold mine of information for anyone who needs to quickly identify everyone in society. We often think of the FBI or CIA as being the organizations that need to have such information. But now we are only small step away from empowering everyone who can afford a pair of Google augmented-reality eyeglasses tied via Bluetooth to a smartphone. There are three main steps for Google to make these eyeglasses into the must-have gadget of all time:
- The glasses must be available in a wide variety of styles so that it's not apparent they're augmented-reality devices. If people recognized them as such, a societal panic would ensue: "Hey, stop looking at me with those glasses, or I will smack you to the ground!"
Coming up with multiple attractive styles is not easy. These glasses must contain a decent battery and Bluetooth connection. This is a key area where I fear Google may fail, by being overeager to bring a not fully realized product to market. Witness Google TV 1.0 two years ago.
- Facial recognition must be good. It is obviously impossible to get very close to a 100% match in a mobile setting. Capturing someone's face from an angle, when that person is wearing a hat, talking or moving his or her head, is not easy.
Nobody will demand or require a 99% match in fluid conditions. However, if you're sitting across the table from someone in a job interview, in a bar or at a cafe and you have a fairly stationary "fix" you should expect a fairly fast "match" that will yield whatever information is available on the Internet about that person.
- There must be some useful and immediate information available as a result of the facial recognition. I think Google already has a good start here today. All you need to do is to click on "Images" in your Google search toolbar, and you will have a match, depending on how famous the person is and how common the name is. I imagine that we remain in the infancy of matching faces to database information. It is in perfecting this nexus of databases (the hard info with the faces) where Google should excel.
Privacy concerns will immediately fly to the top. Keep in mind that the fundamental privacy is only as good as the underlying databases. These glasses only enable the quickest identification of a person so as to match the person with publicly available data. Other than the tool -- the glasses -- the only new "glue" will be the matching of the faces with the data. Surely trying to fight this trend will be like trying to prevent water from running downhill. Imagine if civilians and authorities alike were using these kinds of glasses with this information before 9/11. Could the horror have been averted? So when will Google make these augmented-reality glasses available? I have no idea, but it seems possible that Google will provide some form of further public demonstration in conjunction with its annual i/o developer conference June 27-29. That said, I hope Google doesn't actually make the product available until they have passed the "Steve Jobs perfection test" (i.e., that they don't release the product until it works flawlessly). Once these glasses have become available and assuming they don't suffer from the Google 1.0 syndrome, they should become a huge success. Who wouldn't want to know almost anything about people around them, simply by looking at them? Scary, nosy, disarming ... it has the potential to change everything in our social relations more than any other product in history. Price? Again, I have no idea, but it seems reasonable that at least in the earliest days this kind of product could easily command $500-$1,000. Competition? A lot of people could make the glasses. Cellular phone makers such as Apple ( AAPL), Nokia ( NOK), Samsung, perhaps Microsoft ( MSFT). Most likely, some crude variant has been in production by military contractors for years. Compatibility? Google likely will make it available to connect with Android smartphones and tablets first. Why be in a hurry to become compatible with Apple, Microsoft and Research In Motion's ( RIMM) BlackBerry? This has the greatest probability of driving sales of Android. Perhaps Google would say that it would be compatible with Apple, Microsoft and BlackBerry "in the future." In the meantime, everyone would run out and buy Android. Bye-bye, smartphone and tablet competition. Google's advantage comes in the form of owning Picasa and its dominant position in cataloging and cross-referencing seemingly all information in society. That's why Google is the company most likely to succeed with marketing augmented-reality eyeglasses right now. Unless they hurry a product to market before it's perfected, that is. At the time of writing, Wahlman held shares of Apple and Google.