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Tom Simonite

A View from Tom Simonite

Google Glass Court Case Shows Limits of Its Smarts

In an L.A. court, a woman claims her Google Glass device switched on accidentally when she was pulled over by highway patrol.

  • December 5, 2013

Google’s wearable computer, Glass, made its first metaphorical court appearance Tuesday when Californian Cecilia Abadie pleaded not guilty to a traffic citation for speeding whilst wearing the spectacle-like device. The details of her plea are a reminder that despite its novel form, Google Glass is like other mobile devices in being awkward and demanding around humans.

Abadie, described by USA Today as a “software developer and tech true believer,” was pulled over by a California Highway Patrol officer on a San Diego freeway in October. She was cited for both driving at 20 miles per hour over the speed limit and for driving with a video feed running in her vision.

Abadie doesn’t deny wearing Google Glass at the time. But she blames the second charge on the gadget’s design: it is switched on by tilting your head upwards. Abadie says she made that motion when the highway patrol officer walked up to her window, and that prior to that her device had been off.

It’s an example of a more general limitation of Google Glass and other wearable devices. Although compact enough to occupy prominent positions on our bodies and interpose intimately in our lives, they can’t make much sense of it. That’s partly due to software not yet being capable of understanding what a person is doing and partly due to the limitations of battery technology.

Google Glass has the head-tilt-to-wake function because of its very poor battery life, only a “couple of hours” if a person captures a few videos, and about five hours with lighter use. Users are expected to turn Google Glass on and off as needed to make it last longer through the day.

So-called smart watches also have battery life problems and, just like Google Glass, also lack the awareness of a person’s immediate context that could make them most useful (see “So Far, Smart Watches Are Pretty Dumb”). Despite their novel form factors, wearable displays like Google Glass and smart watches are going to require just as much – perhaps more – effort from their owners to manage and control.

That probably means more cases like that of Abadie – some involving serious accidents – with people getting caught out or distracted by so-called smart, wearable devices that still require humans to do the thinking. Abadie’s case will be heard in January.

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