Cecilia Abadie has been in the news a lot this week. She was pulled over for speeding in California, and she was issued an additional citation for operating a motor vehicle with a video screen visible to the driver. That screen was the eye piece on her Explorer Edition Google Glass.
Following the letter of the law, this citation is valid, though Google Glass is a product which could help reduce driver distraction.
And now we stand at a legal crossroad. Laws can be handled with some flexibility, and many situations like this can be chalked up to “officer discretion”, but it’s not an institution known for rapid evolution. Changes to cultural perspectives in legal matters sometimes require generational time frames.
When positioned against the visceral pace of technological improvement, it can often feel as if new laws are obsolete before they’re even implemented. Previous generations enjoyed more staged evolution to the tools they used. A person might go most of their adult life without radical changes to how work got done. Now we can expect a near fluid progression, sometimes software and hardware updates delivering near daily minor alterations to how our technology functions.
And now Glass is caught in the crossfire.
The perception of Glass is that it blocks your eye. Those who haven’t spent much time with Glass will judge it by the same standards we judge smartphones: a screen which temporarily cuts us off from the world immediately around us to improve our ability to communicate farther than our natural senses. Glass augments this relationship, by moving the data we interact with closer to our natural senses, and by blocking our natural senses less than traditional computing.
The screen on Glass is transparent, you can easily look through it unlike a smartphone or smartwatch, and when looking at the screen, it gives the illusion that the info you’re looking at is at a TV viewing distance away from your head. It’s “out in space” in front of you. When people first put on the headset, it’s funny watching them try to close focus, only to realize that doesn’t work. The visual interruption is insanely small. It stays right above your eye, so muscle memory tunes very quickly to flicking up and back to whatever might be in front of you. As a comparison, it’s little different than flicking your eyes down to see how fast you’re going in a car. When you consider it’s the year 2013, you’d think information like that would be valuable enough to keep up at eye level, but no you still have to take your eyes off the road just to see your speed.
This design aesthetic transfers over to audio as well. Bone conduction feeds audio alerts directly into your brain without blocking your ear. After reviewing a pair of bone conduction headphones, I feel this is one of the safest ways to interact with audio when you’re out and about.
Lastly, commands are issued via voice controls. You aren’t entering info on a smooth featureless glass surface (like the dashboard of a Tesla). Sending commands via touchscreen requires a majority of your visual and tactile attention. While issuing a voice command requires some focus, it doesn’t interrupt as much as using a touchscreen.
But now we’re stuck. The law says no screens in cars. This means all of those devices which might help us improve the integration of technology into day to day interactions and make operating a motor vehicle less dangerous. Not just Glass. Any eye level computing.
Of course, these laws don’t apply to certain solutions like GPS units, though given a choice, I would still prefer to have turn by turn fed to Glass than on a small screen stuck to my windshield…
I’m a big fan of the It Can Wait campaign, and I look to products like Glass as potential first steps in reducing accidents caused by distracted driving. For these products to work however, the people who write our laws, interpret our laws, and enforce our laws have to stay on top of these technological trends. For Ms. Abadie’s sake, I hope the judge sitting over her court appointment in December is at least somewhat tech savvy…