Google Glass: No longer just the stuff of science fiction

The hubbub today about Google Glass, the search company's new wearable computer technology, got CBC business columnist Don Pittis thinking about a 2007 novel by science-fiction author Charles Stross, in which police officers are able to access information databases through their eyewear.

New wearable computer reminiscent of 2007 novel

CopSpace sheds some light on matters of course... There's the green tree of signs sprouting over the doorway of number thirty-nine, each tag naming the legal tenants.

That sounds a bit like someone describing how you might use Google Glass. A real-world image of an apartment building entrance, with an overlay of virtual information about the people who live there.

If that also sounds like science fiction, well, that's because it is. 

As well as my interest in economics, I have always been a reader of science fiction. I am convinced the two go together well — the best science fiction helps you disconnect from the present and imagine possible futures.

Today, Matt Galloway, the host of the local CBC Radio morning show here in Toronto, was enthusing about Google Glass. Produced by the world's largest search company, it’s a computer device that you wear on your face like glasses, and it’s now selling for $1,500 by lottery only. Even while lusting after them, Galloway wondered aloud about what possible use Google Glass could have.

"I don't know why I'd want something like that," Galloway told me later, "but I want something like that."

When I first heard about Google Glass last year ("Google glasses" back then), I didn't have to wonder what they could be used for. I knew. Galloway’s comments this morning forced me to rush around the house searching for a book by Charles Stross called Halting State.

Google founder Sergey Brin demonstrates Google Glass glasses at a New York Fashion Week event in September 2012. Google has announced a lottery that would allow people to purchase the $1,500 glasses prior to their wide release later this year. (Carlo Allegri/Reuters )

Stross is a supernerd, sort of an updated version of the similarly polymathic Neal Stephenson (Cryptonomicon). Although he can write accessible romantic prose (such as his Merchant Prince series), Stross is most spectacular in his dense, technologically aware science fiction, like Halting State. Anyone who wants a realistic portrayal of the near tech future should read it.

'Geographical information systems'

Stross, who has a degree in computer science (and one in pharmaceutical science – did I say polymathic?), used to write about Linux for a tech magazine. But he has the imagination to take us a few steps forward into a world where the virtual and the real have merged.

"When I sat down to write Halting State (circa 2005-2006), I decided to do some clean sheet extrapolation to figure out from existing industry road maps what sort of level of technology would be available by 2017 when the novel is set," said Stross in an email today.

He says this is the world where Google Glass is leading us.

In the world of Halting State, data storage is in practical terms infinite. Data is stored geographically, according to its location in the real world. Think of a Google map, where photographs of nearby locations are available by clicking on boxes that appear as an overlay on the map.

This is a real world science called Geographical Information Systems (GIS), and it is increasingly how information is stored today. The idea is that if the city wants to know how recently the water pipes on your street were updated, for instance, they look at a map-based computer system that may also show natural gas pipes, sewage pipes and electrical conduits on your street and maybe even the billing information for your house.

"CopSpace," as it’s called in Stross’s book, "is basically a distributed geographical information system mapped onto a police intelligence database, using the glasses to provide a heads up view of local crime-related features," Stross explains.

In Halting State — which concerns a bank heist within a virtual reality that has financial effects in the real world — Stross demonstrates some of the practical uses of a technology similar to but even more advanced than Google Glass. In his novel, Stross calls them "Specs," and as in the quote at the top of this article, geographical information overlays physical information in the police officer's field of vision, providing a directory of who lives where.

Staring at a computer

If the officer gets the right permission, he can look at more information about each of those tenants.

"This is the twenty-first century, and all the terabytes of CopSpace have exploded out of the dusty manila files and into the real world, sprayed across it in a Technicolor mass of officious labelling and crime notes," says Stross in the book.

The other thing CopSpace allows you to do is record what you are seeing in real time. Crime scenes, statements, important communications are evidence-logged and stored. This sounds farfetched — until you think of all the Russian drivers who are already doing it. Crazy crash reels on YouTube and the spectacular photographs of the recent meteor are a product of a "dash cam culture" where Russian drivers keep a continuous record of their driving as proof against corrupt officials.

So much for science fiction. Sorry, Charlie, it's hard to keep up.

But Stross has more. When you want your colleague (an expert? a supervisor?) to see what you are seeing, or if you want to observe the view from a remote device, you pass the view around.

"I think the utility (of Google Glass) to policing should be obvious," Stross says, reminding me that fellow science fiction writer Vernor Vinge (the inventor of "the singularity") has proposed contact lenses doing the same thing in a slightly more distant future.

Stross's Specs are a substitute for a cell phone, a hands-free camera, a verbal notebook, a heads-up computer screen and a link to all the information in private and public databases.

Google Glass isn’t there yet, but now that it’s actually appearing in the real world, you don't have to be a science fiction junkie — or a writer as imaginative as Charles Stross — to see the potential.