Will Google Glass lead to more road casualties?

In April Google released its first series of Google Glass prototypes. Two thousand copies of these augmented reality spectacles have been shipped to a selected group of volunteers, called `Glass Explorers´, who were prepared to pay $1500 and provide end-user feedback about the new gadget. Google Glass is a head-mounted display that includes an Android smartphone, which can be used for hands-free calling, augmented reality and photo and video recording. The device offers a small display near the upper part of the right eye, which serves as an overlay for augmented reality data. It has a camera, microphone, motion sensor and speaker and it is Wifi and Bluetooth connected with the cloud, in particular a number of Google services including Google Latitude (GPS-based overlays), Google Goggles (object recognition) and Google Maps (Navigation). All functions are voice-controlled (e.g. “record a video”, “send an email”, “share a photo”).

A full launch of Google Glass is anticipated in 2014. Large scale production will reduce costs of hardware well below $200, especially when sales are linked with mobile service subscriptions as is the case with existing smartphones. Hence, it is quite likely that Google glass and similar devices will become popular and fashionable gadgets that will receive large scale adoption. This video eyewear is a fancy product that comes close to the futuristic electronic vision device of Lieutenant La Forge in the famous Star Trek series. It has the X-factor and may readily challenge current smartphone-based augmented reality applications. It would provide a new standard for perceiving, and recording the world. Google sketches compelling applications in sports, gaming, social networking, shopping, elder care and many other areas. Street scenes would be full of eyewear glasses; not wearing one would make you the exception.

I wonder what happens when everyone would be wearing such a device. Of course, we would appreciate the enhanced augmented reality experience it offers and its direct access to all kinds of media and communication functions. I wonder how we should deal with car drivers wearing such eyewear. We don’t need a clairvoyant to conclude that the devices will be a source of extreme distraction. Many people suppose that we’re capable of multitasking, e.g. sending emails and driving a car at the same time, but we´re not. We can only do different things in parallel by rapidly switching between them. This switching comes at the price of reduced concentration and profundity, and we perform none of these parallel tasks well.

There is an extensive body of research that demonstrated the negative influence of the use of smartphones on driving performance (Basacik, Reed & Robbins, 2011; Stelling-Konczak & Hagenzieker, 2012): reaction times go up with 20% to 40%, drivers have less control over their car (zigzagging), fail to anticipate dangerous situations (slippiness, iciness), aren’t capable of maintaining constant speed, and suffer from inattentional blindness (e.g. looking at the road but not noticing relevant factors, less use of mirrors, reduced situational awareness). This holds both for calling, sending SMS, and checking social networks. Of course most people know about this and often try to compensate for the extra cognitive load by lowering speed and keeping more distance to other vehicles. But such measures can be hazardous as well. Handsfree calling has similar negative influences as handheld calling, simply because part of the caller’s attention is directed to the conversation. Research shows that the use of smartphones raises the risk of an accident with 300%, even up to 10 minutes after the call.

Thus, wearing Google Glass during driving is not a very good idea. The Google Glass image imposes itself as an inevitable part of our visual field. The restaurants, shops, monuments, churches and cinemas we pass will trigger an alarming flood of messages that will inevitably attract our attention: food menus, reviews, product files, promos, opening hours, advertisements. I would certainly buy an eyewear device. But I wonder how we can prevent its side effects. Do we need to await the evidence of many thousands of victims before we decide to ban this fantastic prospective gadget from our cars?

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