Sight is the most important, but also perhaps the most conservative of our senses. In recent years, we have experimented with molecular cuisine and fragrances, and we have got accustomed to the touch of new materials of seemingly magical provenance. Our eyes have been assaulted with lots of new sights, but never messed with the way technology messes with the rest of our senses, making us smell, taste and feel different things than those with which we actually come into contact.
Now, technology giants such as Google and Facebook are staking claims on our eyesight, hoping to change the way we see the world. Make no mistake, Facebook's acquisition of California-based startup Oculus -- unlike Sony's virtual-reality helmet project - is about that, not video gaming. Mark Zuckerberg made it plain when he posted this: "After games, we're going to make Oculus a platform for many other experiences. Imagine enjoying a court side seat at a game, studying in a classroom of students and teachers all over the world or consulting with a doctor face-to-face -- just by putting on goggles in your home. This is really a new communication platform. By feeling truly present, you can share unbounded spaces and experiences with the people in your life."
Zuckerberg's plans are about creating a new reality for the eyes, no more and no less. Google, with its Google Glass project, is moving in the same direction. Wearing the gadget puts you in a world where all you see is instantly shareable, directions become part of your visually perceived path, unknown objects are instantly explained and memorable moments recorded to be replayed. That is definitely not the way we see the world now, with our built-in analog hardware.
This concept may be a tougher sell than any of the previous gadget revolutions. Google has not marketed Glass yet, but it is already scrambling to address potential customers' concerns. In a recent post on the project's blog, the company sought to debunk the "top 10 Google Glass myths". Here are some of these: "Glass is the ultimate distraction from the real world"; "Glass is always on and records everything"; "Glass does facial recognition (and other dodgy things)"; "Glass covers your eye"; "Glass marks the end of privacy."
One would think that, with the Internet of Everything expanding all around us, privacy concerns are a thing of the past. Yet the notion of wearing a connected device on one's eyes still freaks people out, and so does the notion of seeing something other than reality all the time. Google's response to most of the myths is that its product is not always on, not intrusive, just there for the user to call on when needed. That may be a calming thought, but with an alternative -- or merely enhanced -- reality just a voice command away, the way we see the world will change more radically than ever before.
Since Google has been playing with the idea and finding out about people's fears and objections for quite some time now, it is working hard on introducing Google Glass into familiar, low-tech setups. It has made deals with VSP global (to supply prescription lenses and offer the product through a network of 30,000 eye doctors) and with Italian eyewear maker Luxottica (to offer attractive designs and sell Google Glass through Luxottica's retail network, including Lens Crafters and Sunglass Hut stores). Once Google Glass hits the market, it will not be a new gadget but an extension of a harmless, old-world one: eyeglasses.
As Facebook works on an even more ambitious eyesight enhancement project, it will have to break down even more serious psychological barriers: In this increasingly surreal world, people hold on to remaining links with the physical reality.
Why not, however, hit dedicated gamers first? They are, by nature, escapists. Before it goes on to help Google change the world as we see it, Facebook will get its first taste of competition with a company that makes physical products: down-to-earth Sony, which merely wants a future for its game console, the PlayStation.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.
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