Schmidt: Google Glass Critics “Afraid of Change,” Society Will Adapt

Google Glass is just getting into the hands of developers, and you’re still many months away from seeing consumers walking around with the voice-activated computer display/camera devices on their faces.

So just take a breath, Google chairman Eric Schmidt says, before you jump to the worst conclusions about how Glass will ruin privacy or human interaction.

“The proposals that we’ve seen of applications are fantastic,” Schmidt told a group at Harvard University on Thursday. “So let’s just see. Give us a little bit of time. Let’s not pre-judge a product which is just this week getting to developers. Let’s give it a little bit of time to see what human ingenuity around the globe can do.”

“Our goal is to make the world better. We’ll take the criticism along the way, but criticisms are inevitably from people who are afraid of change or who have not figured out that there will be an adaptation of society to it,” he added.

That’s what you’d expect, of course, from a top executive hoping to sell the world on wearable computing. And it’s a message you’re likely going to hear from Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) for quite a while, as Glass starts trickling into the world and upsetting old social rules.

The Glass project, championed most publicly by Google co-founder Sergey Brin, is the online search and advertising company’s boldest move into computing hardware. Google already makes lightweight laptops and has produced with outside manufacturers several smartphones, which run on its Android mobile operating system.

Glass is another thing altogether. As a concept, it has leapfrogged past smartphones, smart watches, and other personal computing gadgets directly into a world of wearable computers that have long been predicted by futurists and researchers.

The device, which Schmidt has previously said will likely be available to consumers in a year or so, looks like the frame to a pair of sport sunglasses. In the corner is a small, transparent display that can show Web information—directions, temperature, search results. It also has a camera that can take photos and video, and a microphone-and-speaker setup that uses voice recognition software to control its features.

Schmidt is one of the few who have begun playing with Glass, and he says it takes some getting used to—wearing Glass is “the weirdest thing,” he says, particularly the voice recognition features. “What was impressive to me is that you talk to it. You say, `Google Glass,’ and it says `Hello.'”

The audience at Schmidt’s Harvard appearance—timed with the release of his new book—was definitely interested to hear more. Although Schmidt covered a wide range of topics, including international diplomacy and security, Several questions came back to Glass, particularly its effects on society and privacy.

Schmidt and moderator David Gergen

That’s understandable when you’re talking about Google, a company that has been criticized and even paid fines or settlements to regulators for practices that tracked users’ online behavior or surreptitiously collected consumer data while compiling a vast maps database.

Schmidt argued for a take-it-slow approach in dealing with Glass, and suggested that it might simply be new rules of personal etiquette that govern how such devices should be used. That’s what the company certainly would hope for, since the opposite reaction might be a flurry of government regulations in response to public worries about how Google will use the information collected by Glass users.

“Society adapts to these new things, and wearable computing is very much a real thing, of which Glass is just one example,” he said. “We have to have rules about how you use them. And that may literally be just etiquette—what’s appropriate and what’s not. There’s obviously places where Google Glass is not appropriate.”

But he also pointed out that Google isn’t approaching the uses of Glass as a wide-open project, noting that the company is choosing to tightly control who gets access to Glass and is acting as a gatekeeper for which kinds of applications are appropriate—a notable difference from its freer policy on Android, for instance.

“We’re acutely aware of those questions … so we want to be very careful that this new invention is not misused,” he said. “But I’m always concerned about premature regulation based on fear, as opposed to understanding what’s possible. The people who’ve used Glass, including myself, report it as remarkable. I’d like to let it get a little bit farther off a runway before we characterize it in the obvious ways.”

Funny enough, Schmidt himself isn’t really a fan of the ways that an always-connected tech culture has affected human interaction. During Schmidt’s decade as Google CEO, before co-founder Larry Page took the helm, there was a standing rule for one senior-executive meeting: No computers, no smartphones, and talk to each other face-to-face for one hour per week.

It was so hard to resist the pull of the Web, though, that Schmidt had to walk around the meeting room and look for people hiding their phones under the table, dispensing fines to the offenders.

“Even one hour per week, you couldn’t have a civilized conversation. So when Larry replaced me, he gave up. And now I sit in the meeting, typing away like everybody else, with no eye contact. So, if you like eye contact, I’m sorry—you lost,” he said to laughs.

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