Can wearing connected eyewear put you at risk?
Google Glass is one of the most hotly anticipated new technologies for 2014. Early adopters, known as ‘Glass Explorers’, already praise the internet-connected eyewear’s potential for surgery, fi refi ghting, identifying criminals and much more. However, there are some concerns that wearing Google Glass may compromise the safety and health of its users. A Californian woman’s recent tra c citation for wearing Google Glass while driving reignited debate about the safety of using the device behind the wheel.
Aside from driving, we asked Google Glass explorers, app developers and others – all in the US due to the restrictions of Google’s Explorer programme – to weigh in on the safety and potential health risks of using Google Glass. (Google didn’t respond to requests for comments for this article.)
Is it safe while walking or cycling?
Glass Almanac blog editor and Glass Explorer Matt McGee has walked and cycled while using Google Glass. In general, he says he believes it’s safe. “Glass’ navigation helped me get to some new places while I was walking through Philadelphia and San Francisco this summer.
It was great to use the navigation and get where I wanted without having to look down and risk colliding into people or who knows what,” McGee says.
Cycling is “a little trickier”, McGee says; “you’re moving 10- to 15mph and potentially near tra c. So I occasionally have to stop the bike if I need to do something with Glass. But it’s really fun.” On the other hand, Rich Chang, CEO and partner of NewFoundry, a Google Glass app developer, says that walking or cycling while using Google Glass is potentially unsafe.
“Many people are already not paying attention while crossing the street because of smartphones and MP3 players.
Adding something that provides visual input is a recipe for increased accident risk.” As for cyclists, Chang notes that Google Glass “a ects peripheral vision and reduces concentration overall”. Cyclists could cause accidents, too, he adds, if Glass fell o while they were riding and they tried to prevent the device from breaking. Meanwhile, David Berkowitz, CMO for digital- and technology agency MRY and a frequent speaker on wearable technology at events such as South by Southwest (SXSW), describes crossing a New York City street while wearing Google Glass as “one of the scariest, riskiest things I’ve ever done”.
He adds: “People have to learn to be careful, just like they need to learn to put their mobile phones away while crossing the street. That email or Spotify track can wait.” However, Berkowitz says cyclists can benefi t from wearing Google Glass if they use the device cautiously.
“A face-mounted display such as Glass can provide helpful, if not vital, information to cyclists, such as maps, tra c- and weather alerts, and your speed,” he says. “Bike messengers, meanwhile, could use the hands-free, voice-activated mode to learn delivery information and to call customers.”
Google Glass Explorer Charles Webster, who has an MSc degree in industrial engineering from the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana, says he doesn’t feel that wearing the headset while walking is inherently unsafe. Webster says he appreciates that Google Glass serves up information about restaurants, shops and historical buildings and sites as he approaches them on foot.
Like McGee, Webster often uses Google Glass to capture photos and videos of things he sees along his route.
What are the health risks?
Wearing heads-up displays such as Google Glass can contribute to eye fatigue and may cause visual confusion, according to ophthalmologist and entrepreneur Sina Fateh, who has fi led more than 30 patents related to heads-up displays. “The problem is you have two eyes: the brain hates seeing one image in front of one eye and nothing in front of the other,” Fateh told Forbes in March 2013.
Heads-up displays can cause such problems as binocular rivalry, visual interference and a latent misalignment of the eyes that results when both eyes don’t look at the same object. The head of the Google Glass project, Babak Parviz, told Forbes that his team takes the potential side e ects of wearing Google Glass seriously.
A professor of ophthalmology at Harvard Medical School, Eli Peli, has been researching the impact of head-mounted displays for 20 years and has been consulting with the Glass team for two years.
Peli told Forbes that Google Glass has “a more advanced design for safety and comfort than any of the previous head-mounted displays I’ve evaluated”.
Because Glass has a minimal impact on the wearer’s fi eld of vision, there’s little chance of putting the user at risk of bumping into objects, Peli said. The advanced design of Google Glass means those who wear it while walking won’t be distracted, some experts say.
McGee has yet to experience any pain or discomfort from using Google Glass, but a few other Explorers have told him they can get a headache if they look at the screen for too long. “I think the longest straight time I’ve ever spent looking at the screen is probably about two minutes,” McGee says. “It didn’t cause me any trouble, but I can see how looking at it for longer might be a problem since it’s so close.”
Does it cause brain cancer?
Some have raised more serious concerns: frequent, long-term Google Glass use might cause an increased risk of brain cancer. The jury’s defi nitely still out on this one, however. The Federal Communications Commission sets the maximum Specifi c Absorption Rate (SAR) for mobile phones at 1.6W per kilogram.
In documents fi led with the FCC in February 2013, Google said its headset had a 1.34W per kilogram SAR, within the FCC maximum. On the other hand, it’s worth noting that Google Glass is designed to be worn on the head, as opposed to smartphones, which are used only near the head during a phone call.
“It’s controversial whether electromagnetic radiation exposure has health risks, such as a higher risk of brain tumours,” says Matt Katz, medical director of radiation oncology at Lowell General Hospital. “I would think if Glass was within FCC guidelines, it wouldn’t be an issue.”
Theft, security and privacy Apple has made iPhones more di cult for thieves to hack via iOS 7 security enhancements and the iPhone 5s’ biometric fi ngerprint scanner. Could thieves, always looking for lucrative, easy targets, soon be setting their sights on Google Glass users? (Currently, Google Glass Explorers pay $1,500 for the privilege, although the headset is expected to retail for less.) Although it’s too early to say whether Google Glass will be the next hot target for opportunists, there’s reason not to be unduly concerned.
Google was granted a patent in 2012 for an anti-theft system that disables the headset in the event of unnatural or sudden movements. The movements could relate to Google Glass being snatched o a wearer’s head, for instance. The system can also determine whether the wearer is the Google Glass owner; if not, the headset can be disabled. The anti-theft system can also sound an alarm and contact the police if it’s stolen.
Once Google Glass is commercially available, it could stir serious security-related public-safety concerns, says Sedgrid Lewis, an Android app developer with more than 15 years of security- and crime experience related to technology.
“Security experts are wary that Google Glass users will be secretly snapping pictures in public places such as airport terminals or banks,” Lewis explains. This could let users obtain images of physical layouts that could help them plan terrorist attacks or robberies. Google Glass could also be “rooted”, Lewis says, enabling the owner to bypass its security features.
“People could then record video footage or audio without the lights fl icking on the glasses. This could lead to all types of privacy concerns.” Like any portable device, Glass presents potential security risks to businesses, given how easy the device is to lose and the sensitive information that can be stored on it, says Nicko van Someren, chief technology o cer at Good Technology.
It’s also di cult to authenticate the legitimate users of Google Glass or other wearable devices due to the limited user interface, says van Someren. “This makes devices such as Glass more risky from a security standpoint, since thieves might access information on the devices.”
Only as unsafe as its owners
McGee notes that the default mode for Google Glass is o /standby. Plus, if you wear it correctly, it sits above eye level. “It’s never blocking your vision and it’s never interrupting you with information when you don’t want it,” he says. “Even if a call or text message comes in, or maybe a tweet, the alert is audio- only and easy to ignore.
Glass never turns on and demands attention on its own.” There are scenarios in which using Google Glass is unsafe, McGee says, but they’re due to the scenario itself and how Glass is used. He adds: “The problem isn’t Glass, it’s the person. Microwaves aren’t safe if you do dumb things with them.” Webster agrees: “Google Glass is unsafe to use for the same things for which tablets and smartphones are unsafe. I wouldn’t watch a cat video on a tablet or smartphone while driving. The same is true for Glass.”