Does Google Glass Pose Safety, Health and Security Risks?
Google Glass ranks among the most anticipated of wearable technologies. But a pair of glasses with a small computer screen above one eye is bound to raise concerns about security, privacy, and even the health and safety of the person wearing it.
Google Glass is one of the most hotly anticipated new technologies for 2014. Early adopters, called “Glass Explorers,” already praise the Internet-connected eyewear’s potential for surgery, firefighting, identifying criminals and much more.
However, there are some concerns that wearing Google Glass may compromise the safety and health of its users. A California woman’s recent traffic citation for wearing Google Glass while driving reignited debate about the safety of using the device behind the wheel. For more on that topic, see How Safe is Google Glass for Driving?
Aside from driving, we asked Google Glass explorers, app developers and others to weigh in on the safety and potential health risks of using Google Glass. (Google didn’t respond to requests for comments for this article.)
Is Google Glass Safe While Walking or Biking?
Glass Almanac blog editor and Glass Explorer Matt McGee has walked and biked while using Google Glass. In general, he says he believes it’s safe.
“Glass’ navigation helped me get to some new places while I was walking through Philadelphia and San Francisco this summer. It was great to use the navigation and get where I wanted without having to look down and risk colliding into people or who-knows-what,” McGee says.
Biking is “a little trickier,” McGee says; “you’re moving 10 to 15 mph and potentially near traffic. So I occasionally have to stop the bike if I need to do something with Glass. But it’s really fun.” McGee has also shot videos while cycling with his Google Glass headset on; here’s one example:
On the other hand, Rich Chang, CEO and partner of NewFoundry, a Google Glass app developer, says that walking or biking while using Google Glass is potentially unsafe. “Many people are already not paying attention while crossing the street because of smartphones and MP3 players. Adding something that provides visual input is a recipe for increased accident risk.”
As for cyclists, Chang notes that Google Glass “affects peripheral vision and reduces concentration overall.” Cyclists could cause accidents, too, he adds, if Glass fell off while they were riding and they tried to prevent the device from breaking.
Meanwhile, David Berkowitz, CMO for digital and technology agency MRY and a frequent speaker on wearable technology at events such as South by Southwest (SXSW), describes crossing a New York City street while wearing Google Glass as “one of the scariest, riskiest things I’ve ever done.” He adds: “People have to learn to be careful, just like they need to learn to put their cellphones away while(crossing the street. That email or Spotify track can wait.”
However, Berkowitz says cyclists can benefit from wearing Google Glass if they use the device cautiously. “A face-mounted display such as Glass can provide helpful if not vital information to cyclists, such as maps, traffic and weather alerts, and your speed,” he says. “Bike messengers, meanwhile, could use the hands-free, voice-activated mode to learn delivery information and to call customers.”
Google Glass Explorer Charles Webster, who has an M.S. degree in industrial engineering from the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana, says he doesn’t feel wearing the headset while walking is inherently unsafe.
Webster says he appreciates that Google Glass serves up information about restaurants, shops and historical buildings and sites as he approaches them on foot. Like McGee, Webster often uses Google Glass to capture photos and videos of things he sees along his route.
What Are the Health Risks of Wearing Google Glass?
Wearing heads-up displays such as Google Glass can contribute to eye fatigue and may cause visual confusion, according to ophthalmologist and entrepreneur Sina Fateh, who has filed more than 30 patents related to heads-up displays.
“The problem is that you have two eyes and the brain hates seeing one image in front of one eye and nothing in front of the other,” Fateh told Forbes in March 2013. Heads-up displays can cause such problems as binocular rivalry, visual interference and a latent misalignment of the eyes that results when both eyes don’t look at the same object.
The head of the Google Glass project, Babak Parviz, told Forbes that his team takes the potential side effects of wearing Google Glass seriously. A professor of ophthalmology at Harvard Medical School, Eli Peli, has been researching the impact of head-mounted displays for 20 years and has been consulting with the Glass team for about two years.
Peli told Forbes that Google Glass has “a more advanced design for safety and comfort than any of the previous head-mounted displays I’ve evaluated.” Because Google Glass has a minimal impact on the wearer’s field of vision, there’s little chance of putting the user at risk of bumping into objects, Peli said.
McGee has yet to have any pain or discomfort from using Glass, but a few other Explorers have told him they can get a headache if they look at the screen too long. “I think the longest straight time I’ve ever spent looking at the screen is probably about two minutes,” McGee says. “It didn’t cause me any trouble, but I can see how looking at it longer might be a problem since it’s so close.”
Some have raised more serious concerns: Frequent, long-term Google Glass use might cause an increased risk of brain cancer. The jury’s definitely still out on this one, however.
The Federal Communications Commission sets the maximum Specific Absorption Rate (SAR) for cellphones at 1.6 watts per kilogram. In documents filed with the FCC in February 2013, Google said its headset had a 1.34 watts per kilogram SAR, within the FCC maximum. On the other hand, it’s worth noting that Google Glass is designed to be worn on the head, as opposed to smartphones, which are only used near the head during a call.
“It’s controversial whether electromagnetic radiation exposure has health risks, like a higher risk of brain tumors,” says Matthew Katz, medical director of radiation oncology at Lowell (Mass.) General Hospital. “I would think if Glass was within [FCC] guidelines, it wouldn’t be an issue.”
Theft, Security and Privacy Concerns?
Apple has made iPhones more difficult for thieves to break into, via iOS 7 security enhancements and the iPhone 5s’s biometric fingerprint scanner. Could thieves, always looking for lucrative, easy targets, soon be setting their sights on Google Glass users? (Currently, Google Glass Explorers pay $1,500 for the privilege, though the headset is expected to retail for less.)
Though it’s too early to say if Google Glass will be the next hot target for robbers, there’s reason not to be unduly concerned. Google was granted a patent in 2012 for an anti-theft system that disables the headset in the event of unnatural or sudden movements, Wired reports.
The movements could relate to Google Glass being snatched off a wearer’s head, for instance. The system can also determine if the wearer is the Google Glass owner; if not, the headset can be disabled. What’s more, the anti-theft system can sound an alarm and contact authorities if it’s been stolen.
Once Google Glass is available commercially, it could stir serious security-related public safety concerns, says Sedgrid Lewis, an Android app developer with more than 15 years of security and crime experience related to technology.
“Security experts are wary that Google Glass users will be secretly snapping pictures in public places such as airport terminals or banks,” Lewis explains. This could let users obtain images of physical layouts that could help them plan terrorist attacks or robberies.
Google Glass could also be “rooted,” Lewis says, enabling the owner to bypass its security features. “People could then record video footage or audio without the lights flicking on the glasses. This could lead to all types of privacy concerns.”
Like any portable device, Google Glass presents potential security risks to corporations, given how easy the device is to lose, coupled with the sensitive information that can be stored on it, says Nicko van Someren, chief technology officer at Good Technology.
Additionally, it’s hard to authenticate the legitimate users of Google Glass or other wearable devices due to the limited user interface,” van Someren says. “This makes devices such as Glass riskier from a security standpoint, since thieves might access information on the lost or stolen devices.”
Google Glass Only as Unsafe as Its Owners
McGee notes that the default mode for Google Glass is off/standby. Plus, if you wear it correctly, it sits above eye level. “It’s never blocking your vision and it’s never interrupting you with information when you don’t want it,” he says. “Even if a call or text message comes in, or maybe a tweet, or if an app like Field Trip gets activated because I’m near some landmark, the alert is audio-only and easy to ignore. Glass never turns on and demands attention on its own.
There are scenarios in which using Google Glass is unsafe, McGee says, “but they’re likely going to be due to the scenario itself and how Google Glass is used.” He adds: “The problem isn’t Glass, it’s the person. Microwave ovens aren’t safe if you do dumb things with them.”
Webster agrees. “Google Glass is unsafe to use for the same things for which tablets and smartphones are unsafe. I wouldn’t watch a cat video on a tablet or smartphone while driving. The same is true for Glass.”
James A. Martin is a seasoned tech journalist and blogger based in San Francisco and winner of the 2014 ASBPE National Gold award for his CIO.com blog. He writes CIO.com's Living the Tech Life blog and is also a content marketing consultant.