Glass and other wearable computers are fast becoming a consumer product, but what are the potential implications for journalists?
Wearable technologies have been exciting the technology world for decades, but this year the field is on the verge of becoming a practical, mainstream reality.
Google Glass has had the most hype around it since Google began dropping hints and promotional videos, inspiring tech fanatics with the possibilities that a real-life ‘head-up display’ could bring.
“From a journalist’s point of view, the one [wearable] that is an entire change in what you can do is Google Glass,” Alex Hern, the Guardian’s technology reporter, told Journalism.co.uk, “and, more specifically, the camera on the front.”
At present Glass is only available to developers and “Glass Explorers”, as Google likes to call them, but some early adopters have been experimenting with Glass in a journalistic sense.
A key proponent of Glass for journalists has been Vice producer Tim Pool. During last summer’s protests in Istanbul, Pool reported from the scene wearing Glass – filming events, taking photographs and looking out for information as he traversed the rubble and barricades built by protesters.
In that case, it was the voice-activation that made an important difference in how he was able to cover events.
“It was this combination of wearing it and voice-activation,” Pool told Journalism.co.uk. “I’m imagining the journalist on the ground and they’re talking to a producer and everything seems calm, then something happens and, all of a sudden, gunshots in the distance and you say ‘okay Glass, hang out with…’ and you’re broadcasting live in seconds.
“In journalism one of the most important things, particularly in breaking news is being able to react quickly.”
New York-based documentary maker Hannah Roodman used Google Glass for Project 2×1, a film documenting the lives of two very different communities in the Crown Heights district of Brooklyn.
The use of Glass and the different perspective it gave viewers, as well as the more subtle approach to film-making that helped to relax the subjects, brought a more realistic element to documenting the West Indian and Hasidic Jew communities of the Crown Heights area, she said.
“I think Glass takes you to a place you can’t go by yourself or with a regular camera,” Roodman told Journalism.co.uk. “For instance, as a film maker, I’m not going to get the same quality and personality of a church pastor as he addresses his congregation. I’m not going to be able to get that intimacy that Google Glass captures when he’s up there on the altar.”
Equally, she said, Glass allowed her team to capture elements of people’s lives that would have been impossible otherwise. The gender segregation of Jewish prayer and religious study would have placed severe restrictions on a mixed gender team and, as worship is a private affair, invading a synagogue with steady cams and boom mics would not necessarily capture the most natural service.
“When I’m putting my camera in someone else’s face, trying to capture them, there’s a sense of objectification,” Roodman said. “We did film both with Google Glass and with regular cameras, but the experience of participation on the part of the film subject to capture his own world, empowering them with the device, changes their perception and behaviour and makes them feel more comfortable.
“We witnessed that time and time again, that people might have felt uncomfortable or a little bit out of their element when we were around them with the regular camera but when we wanted to allow them to sink back into their regular routine and rhythm we left the room and said ‘wear this, we’ll be standing on the sidelines or not even here, so do your thing’.”
Both Pool and Roodman encountered problems using Glass in their work however, namely the restrictions that battery life and storage space place on the ability to film and work.
“Short battery life was a major issue that constantly dragged it down,” said Roodman, “we’re out filming but it’s bit been a half hour and it’s dead. We have to go recharge and miss oppportunities. But the device is in beta and that’s what people need to realise, that it’s going to change.”
Pool equated the battery life of Glass to “a third or fourth of that of a smartphone” and of the 16 gigabytes of storage available, around 11 are usable, he said, giving users around an hour to an hour and a half of filming time in his experience.
As such, he always made sure to carry external batteries to plug Glass into, one of many ‘hacks’ to tailor Glass closer to his needs in the field.
“Most of the apps that are publicly available are cloud services that are about giving you information,” he said, such as email or social media that, although practical, are still quite basic in terms of the potential that Glass could hold in the future.
“When I was in Turkey – standing around and police are firing tear gas and rubber bullets – I hear a chime, I look up and there’s a tweet, someone tweeting relevant information about what’s happening on the ground,” he said.
“I don’t have to look down and check my phone. It’s minor, what exists right now. I think, again, the key is going to be once they open up this Glass Development Kit and people start experimenting. Then who knows what we’re going to see.”
Pool has already hacked his Glass device to run some native Android apps, and has been experimenting with the possibilities of combining the two, rather than using Glass as just an information delivery service with a camera.
“You have to use a bluetooth keyboard though,” he said. “I have a tiny, pocket-sized bluetooth keyboard and mouse that I use to control Glass because there’s no input device. Then I can use any one of these streaming apps to broadcast to livestream.com and it will go live directly from my glass headset.”
The possibility of live-streaming from a versatile, portable, head-mounted camera has previously been restricted to the military but because of battery issues this “isn’t something Glass is built to do right now”, Pool said, and the process of setting up the stream is too long-winded to be practical.
“If I’m on the ground somewhere and the world is changing and there’s important news,” Pool added, “I’m going to make sure I’m using the tools that will best tell the story and document the moment because that’s really what’s more important.”
That said, Pool is developing his own software for Glass to make it more practical for his own purposes that he hopes to launch when Google release the Glass Development Kit.
One such idea would have Glass constantly recording, but only saving one minute at a time.
“That way you’re not actually reporting anything until you decide this is the minute I should have had filmed,” he said. “So if you’re standing around and that initial breaking news happens then you tap the side and then you actually have that.”
The Vuzix M100, however, is a pair of smart glasses already available for public purchase and which comes with Android software installed.
A recent review in Tech Radar described the Vuzix M100 as being able to stream video direct to a computer, but the general functionality was “extremely limited” and, like Glass, best left to developers in this early phase of development.
Compared to cameras like a GoPro, a sturdy standard of affordable, wearable cameras, the possibilities for head-mounted cameras in journalism are particularly intriguing when they are lighter and easier to use.
A recent project by the Wall Street Journal, in which a camera was mounted on the head of multimedia producer Jarrard Cole, gave a “personalised tour of ‘Obamacare'” in an interactive, first-person film exploring the issues of the new healthcare legislation.
The camera rig may look impractical but was assembled with a “cheap DSLR” and “about $40 worth of equipment”, Cole told Journalism.co.uk at the time, and showcased further storytelling benefits of the first-person perspective that may be more widely accessible as prices drop and further applications are tested.
“It could become a common and best practice feature in citizen journalism or in journalists facilitating this kind of work in the field,” Roodman said. “I immediately think about all these revolutions and protesters. There are a million places where this device could go and give people access to witnessing stories they would never normally see.”
An issue of ethics
Pool’s use of Glass in Istanbul was facilitated by the fact that “most people didn’t know what it was and didn’t say anything” he said, but in the UK Alex Hern anticipates some serious difficulties with using Glass to cover protests.
“Right now journalists have a relatively well understood social contract between us and between the public,” he said, “which says that, essentially, we use big cameras and if we point those cameras at you in a public place you should probably be aware that you might be on telly,”
Secondly, continued Hern, when filming members of the public for an interview or a situation where an individual is “pinpointed” by the camera, the subject will be asked permission or given the opportunity to refuse.
“Google Glass presents the option of journalists ignoring all of that,” he said. “You can go about your normal day, you can vox pop people just by having a conversation with them.
“Every single person, if you’re covering a protest, you’ve got everything they say recorded, you’ve got their faces recorded and you’ll probably be close enough that, no matter how masked up they are, you’ll have something identifiable.”
Journalists with experience covering recent protests will understand the stigma surrounding filming or photography at such events, an association Hern said can be traced to police efforts in gaining information from photographers to support their investigations.
“The problem with Google Glass is that, even if you’re not recording, you are now wearing something that is synonymous with a panopticon,” Hern said. “Synonymous with being recorded everywhere, with being on camera whenever that person is looking at you.”
The social repercussions of Glass have already begun in some areas. Hern told of some bars and restaurants in San Francisco where many patrons who don’t have Google Glass are uncomfortable about being in the same place as those that do.
“On a really fundamental level, they’re quite creepy,” he said. “There is one small light saying whether or not you’re being recorded, the person on the other end of Glass has a miniature computer in front of them all the time which they can control by voice and by touch, and its really hard to know what they’re actually doing on it at any one time, even while you’re talking to them”.
In 2012, wearables pioneer Steve Mann, accused staff at a McDonald’s in Paris of assaulting him by allegedly trying to remove his EyeTap device, which is screwed into his skull and can only be removed with special tools.
McDonald’s denied the accusation of a “physical altercation” but Mann claims damage to his EyeTap caused the images to be permanently stored on the device rather than overwritten, as would normally be the case.
So although Glass has the potential to identify a user as a member of the press, or at least someone who is constantly recording, this could be beneficial in terms of documenting events that may later be disputed.
“It is useful being able to record and store off-site – render unavailable for deletion – everything that is going on to you,” Hern continued. “It means that if you witness, say, police brutality, you definitely have a recording of that brutality and it cannot then be removed from your person, it’s been streamed off-site straight away.”
Wearable computing is still developing and the wider social and legal implications have yet to be explored. Users like Tim Pool will continue to experiment as the hardware develops and, as with any technology, the full panoply of potential uses are impossible to predict at this early stage.
“With Glass we’re looking at the earliest edition,” he said. “Who knows what we’re going to see. There are a lot of really, really strange and interesting things going on out there and we’re going to throw them all into the sieve, shake it as hard as we can and see which ones stick.”