Rose-tinted fantasies not at all better than the real thing


INNOVATION TALK:LAST MONTH, Google gave the world their vision of the future, almost literally. Project Glass was unveiled in a stylish concept video that created an enormous wave of anticipation. It showed off the latest ambitious piece of Google kit as experienced through the eyes of a New York hipster – a pair of spectacles that function as a sort of always-on, contextually aware smartphone, worn on the face.

Notifications and text messages drop into view, photos are snapped with a quick verbal command, maps appear when in need of orientation, phone calls are like talking to someone in your mind – it’s everything an Android or iPhone can do, but without the hassle of, you know, holding a phone. It might seem like something straight out of sci-fi, but Google suggests the first models will be available sometime next year.

However, something about the concept video left me quite underwhelmed. I call it the Minority Report Syndrome – the unexpected legacy of the fair-to-middling Steven Spielberg/Tom Cruise sci-fi action film from way back in the pre-iPhone world of 2002. Amid all the mind-reading crime-stoppers and flying cars was an instantly iconic depiction of a futuristic computer interface, with floating panels and translucent screens, all controlled with touches and swipes and Tom Cruise’s furrowed brow.

Since then, any interface that uses elements vaguely reminiscent of that scene gets the obligatory Minority Report comparison.

But those fancy computer interfaces that the Cruiser swiped all over the place didn’t actually have to work – they just had to look cool. There’s a reason touchscreen interfaces work best with devices you’re already holding rather than on vertically mounted screens in front of you. It’s called “gorilla arm syndrome” – the fatigue that sets in if you have to keep lifting your arms up for prolonged periods. In practice, all those future cops would be suffering repetitive strain injury in their shoulders if they had to keep whizzing through evidence on screens like that.

There’s a similar reality-gap problem with the Google glasses. In their eagerness to show off everything that might be possible in the future, Google has seriously oversold the near-term potential of the device. There are, currently, some non-trivial limitations on these devices – battery life, weight, projection issues and aesthetics all spring to mind.

Above all, having information pop up in your field of vision just isn’t all that practical. In fact, it’s somewhere on the spectrum between distracting and positively dangerous, depending on what you’re doing when that text message comes through.

(Bear in mind, also, that two entire business sectors – contact lenses and laser eye surgery – are predicated on people’s desire to stop wearing spectacles. That’s a lot of people who don’t like wearing glasses.)

So while the Project Glass video passed the cool gadget test with flying colours, I expect the actual device to be considerably less useful than the clip suggests, leading to a lot of disappointed early-adopters.

But my scepticism isn’t limited to the technical problems that Google glasses will have to overcome. It is more grounded in the fact I was watching a concept video at all. If companies are working on this sort of stuff, why don’t they just keep schtum and ship it when it’s ready? What are concept videos trying to achieve?

Nokia has come up with a few such videos imagining a Finnish-infused future, including one from 2007 featuring smart spectacles that’s remarkably similar to the Project Glass video. Microsoft, too, has a fondness for concept videos, such as the leaked one on the much-hyped Courier tablet that never shipped, surprise surprise, as well as a very polished short called Future Vision from last October that looked like a series of Minority Report out-takes.

In both those cases, the gulf in usability and desirability between what Nokia and Microsoft promise to offer in the concept videos and what they usually produce is stark, to say the least. One of the main reasons I’m suspicious of companies that go in for these videos is that by releasing them, companies are not just depicting unrealistic visions of the future but are also exaggerating their own technological prowess. They are trying to project an image of their own ability that can’t be challenged by practical limitations or users’ experiences.

This gets to the kernel of my problem with concept videos. They all share one common denominator – a noticeable absence of real-world constraints.

Real innovation comes from tackling constraints, not ignoring them – the imagination required to come up with a concept video is worth nothing without the commitment and ability required to actually make that vision real. Innovation relies not so much on flights of fancy as on iteration, application and engineering solutions to real-world problems.

Making concept videos, like designing technology for Minority Report, means avoiding all the effort and hard work of overcoming real-world constraints. Only by working at those problems can a company ultimately ship real-world products that delight just as much as the videos do.

Sometimes that’s not as much fun as imagining what the future will hold, but it’s a hell of a lot more magical when it happens.