The End of Wonder: Google Goggles and the Future

Photo by Diego Maranan (Flickr user Jegg). Used under Creative Commons license.

The first time I walked into Union Square in New York City, I fixated on what appeared to be a massive digital clock screen. Its gray background made it appear utilitarian, as if it were supposed to offer some sort of service to the masses bustling about their lives in its shadow. But, contrary to that idea, the numbers were changing at an incomprehensible speed and didn’t seem to bear resemblance to the actual time.

Committing to examine it daily on my way to the subway, I finally did spot a pattern. The numbers furthest to the left were clearly telling the current time. This previously escaped me because it operates on military time, and I felt rather foolish for occupying myself wondering whether a clock was a clock.

But still, only about five of the 15 digits were comprehensible, no matter how much I stared. The three numbers in the center were moving too fast to be read, and the right side of the clock was baffling in that it appeared to be counting backward.

And why did anyone need to adorn a 15-story building that held — among other things — a Best Buy, with a massive clock-like instrument readable from a mile away?

Ever tried to carry on a conversation with someone whose every statement is a declaration of fact? Those awkward dinners and silent sidewalk glances are unfortunately universal experiences.

Luckily, most people simply don’t have the time, ability or will to stuff their heads full of such abundant and diverse knowledge.

But the pursuit of know-it-all status is about to become far less demanding. Google is planning to release physical glasses that will act as Google Goggles. Currently, the Internet giant produces a mobile application of the same name that allows users to scan or photograph their surroundings or a specific item. The app pulls up relevant information. For instance, a user could scan the front page of The New York Times and the app would display links to the paper’s home page, as well as to each of the front-page stories.

And it works remarkably well. As of now, the app can conquer two-thirds of the noun universe. Out of people, places and things, Google Goggles can currently reliably recognize places and things. The last part would require further development of facial recognition software and a new branch of privacy law. Still, eventually the Goggles could put an end to the eternal “Where do I know that person from?” problem.

How will the Goggles work? They will scan the images the viewer is seeing and use wireless technology to Google the items or places in the image. The Goggles will know the wearer’s general location, of course. Information from the search will then be projected for the wearer to see and interact with — a technology known as augmented reality. Goggles will come with audio functions and motion sensors, also, and presumably the wearer will use one of those technologies to interact with the search results.

The glasses are reportedly not for constant use, but Google says they could be used frequently — think about the time spent looking at a smart phone.

For instance, instead of standing in awe of how the great pyramids were built in ancient Egypt, a Goggle-wearer could simply stare at them and read about how the workers managed to craft a wonder of the world.

Google Goggles — the Android app — didn’t initially solve my Union Square questions. Scanning the giant clock turned up nothing. However, I learned through conversation that the entire block’s facades were part of a grand public art project. The clock was to be viewed in tandem with an adjacent building that sported what appeared to be a geyser — complete with steam — of maroon and gold textured vinyl.

Photo by Flickr user Lost Albatross, image used under Creative Commons license.

What I was missing was the single bar that descended from the geyser’s epicenter. The whole installation is known as “The Metronome,” a project designed in 1999 by Kristen Jones and Andrew Ginzel. The previously confounding clock was explained. The left side counts forward from midnight and the right side counts backwards. They meet in an indistinguishable mess in the middle.

I was satisfied to have solved the prolonged mystery that confronted me daily, and it provided a great topic of conversation when I met a friend for dinner in Union Square or gave someone directions to my summer residence — it’s impossible to take the instructions, “Exit the subway and turn left by the giant digital clock and accompanying geyser,” in stride.

But, to put it simply, Google Goggles endanger both my personal investigation and the social interactions that resulted. That isn’t to say Google Goggles go against the company’s well-known motto swearing off evil. They have the potential to provide a valuable service that is at once practical and almost unfathomably futuristic.

Google Goggles will be tough to turn down. They are very much a new type of wonder, but on a different level than the wonders of the world, such as the Egyptian pyramids.

They could make people forget how to perform those basic human functions that lead to knowledge. A curiosity that leads to asking questions and discovering more about the world is a fruitful endeavor. Walking down the street and being bombarded with information, which can be viewed or ignored, will more often lead to ignorance.

It’s basic human nature — we want that which we cannot have and don’t pay particular attention to what we do have. Life’s daily mysteries inspire us to strive for something, even if it is the minute personal victory of understanding a giant digital clock. The wonders of the world lead to a much higher pursuit — understanding cultures and people on a new level.

Those numbers on “The Metronome” are still going. And passersby are still likely to look up and try to figure it out. Most puzzling is the purpose of the three middle numbers that are at the convergence of backward and forward. They never offer a concrete answer. Those blurred numbers, in my mind, constitute the moment. And the moment is best viewed without distractions, through one’s own eyes.

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