With Spectacles, Snap Inc. (the company formerly known as Snapchat) has made great strides in delivering a piece of wearable tech that's apparently fun, useful and functional. Relatively cost-effective and approachable compared to similar products like Google Glass and GoPro, this is a device with great potential for users to capture first-person moments from their lives.
However, in addition to the vast potential in wearable tech, there still remains a great number of unanswered questions — many still lingering from Google Glass's release a few years back. Others stem from the general prevalence of smart devices, yet they only stand to be asked louder with products like Spectacles. One has to wonder if we've found the answers for how, why and when we choose to engage with this type of technology.
Blurring the Distinction Between "On/Off"
An increasing prevalence of wearable recording devices like Spectacles may make many people wonder when they are "performing" for the camera — or if the camera is ever off. Spectacles indicate to passersbys when they are recording with a visible white wheel of lights on the corner of the lens when active. Still, devices like these remove many of the blatant physical cues indicating when a user is recording, such as the action of holding up a phone or camera. They also allow for people to avoid many of the social norms that would normally limit the usage of such technology.
"I've been to gatherings where folks are like, 'We're all going to agree that we're not going to use our phones,'" recalled Professor Andrew Phelps of the RIT School of Interactive Games and Media. “I think that those technologies, because of their wearable nature, can sort of break that wall. It's weird to say to somebody 'Don’t wear your glasses.'”
Phelps thinks devices like Spectacles could heighten people's sense of constant possible surveillance, already prevalent because of smartphones. "[Wearable tech] are not necessarily always on, but they have the capability to be always on," noted Phelps.
"Where is this going to go? Who's going to see it?"
Such an increased prevalence of, and awareness to, recording devices may make any current trepidation to being photographed or videoed that much more pronounced, as well as any stage fright while in the process of being recorded. Phelps would be dismayed if it eventually became normal behavior to act as if you were constantly being recorded, always worrying "Where is this going to go? Who's going to see it?"
Professor Mike Johansson of RIT's School of Communication remains unsure if such wearable devices will make an impact any bigger than that of smartphones. For Spectacles in particular, he pointed to how they will likely be more socially acceptable than, say, Google Glass was, due to their casual "sunglasses" aesthetic. "Google Glass did make others in the room uncomfortable because they were a new technology, looked quite different and if the person wearing them was not a friend or acquaintance you had no way of judging if they were likely to be recording you," said Johansson.
The implicit capability for stealth with such devices is at the heart of many questions regarding this tech, especially those revolving around where they can be used. "I suspect there will be some discussion about their use in places where recording is frowned upon or outright banned — movie theaters, classrooms etc," predicted Johansson. "In other words: people setting boundaries about whether they can be worn at all in certain situations."
Daniel Ashbrook, a professor at the B. Thomas Golisano College of Computing and Information Sciences, noted how Google Glass was the subject of much controversy because of how difficult it was to discern if someone was recording or not — something Snap appears to be trying to address with the aforementioned wheel of white lights on the corner of the lens. However, he was intrigued by the notion of people acting as if they were indeed always "on."
"There’s a great episode of either RadioLab or This American Life about a guy who spent years recording his life — just audio — and eventually realized that he was always 'on' and always 'performing,'” he said.
Becoming a Tourist in One's Own Life
There is also the concern that technology like Spectacles could enable people to be more concerned with documenting life experiences rather than participating in them. Johansson pointed out how this is already is issue, because smartphones similarly facilitate this type of behavior. "Will smart glasses such as Snapchat Spectacles make this worse? Quite possibly," he said.
In the eyes of Ashbrook, this dynamic has existed even before smartphones or wearable technology. "There’s always been a tension between documenting and experiencing," he noted. "As soon as photography was good enough for 'normal' people to use, this was a problem."
"There’s always the person who spent their entire vacation writing in their diary about their vacation."
Phelps referred to the countless memes of people photographing things instead of actually looking themselves, as he saw that to a certain extent newer technology has further enabled such behavior. "But there were always people that were going to do that. There’s always the person who spent their entire vacation writing in their diary about their vacation," he said.
For Phelps, gauging how wearable tech is being utilized will not only come down to its prevalence, but why people are choosing to engage with the likes of Spectacles and the exact form of enjoyment that comes from it.
"I know people that go on vacation and organize photo shoots of various places, because that is what they love to do," explained Phelps. "If that’s their thing, great."
It's when one feels compelled to employ such technology only because of external social pressure to document memories that Phelps saw issues. "You enjoy something, but you then feel the need to document it and put it forward as a way to validate it. That’s where we get into trouble," he said. "If you’re putting it on Facebook because you want to make other people jealous, because you’re having Mai Tais for breakfast, that’s not enjoyment. That’s something else."