Urban Cycling as Seen Through Google Glass
Urban cyclists interact in a very specific way with the city: having all senses pedal-empowered generates a rich sensory experience of the urban environment. What might happen if we combined smartglasses such as Google Glass with this bicycle-specific sense of place and space? Will they be a useless prosthesis preventing people from cycling safely? Or can smart glasses become a useful tool for urban cycling, eventually aiding in advocating for and building of better bicycle cities?
Google Glass "Explorer Edition". Image via Wikimedia.
"Jet" by recon instruments. Image via recon instruments.
What are smartglasses?
Since the first wristwatches humans have mobilized devices by integrating them with their bodies. Nowadays, “smart glasses” combine a wearable computer with a transparent heads-up display onto which digital images can be projected. Smartglasses are built as different products such as Eye-tap, Recon Jet or Google Glass. The latter has received most attention over the last year as the media giant brilliantly markets its smartglass technology. In this article I will mostly refer to Google Glass, an "intentional beta product" released to a community of Explorers that are testing the technology to spark hardware and software innovation, but it could stand for any of the competing technologies.
Google Glass is a wearable computer with an array of smartphone technology built in, able to display information in a hands-free manner. Yet, Glass is not a smartphone in itself, as you have to hook up Glass via Bluetooth to your mobile phone or a wireless network to be able to access the Internet.
You can imagine the experience of using Glass as wearing a pair of glasses with a tiny see-through smartphone screen hovering in your peripheral vision. The current version of Glass includes a video camera, a bone-transducing loudspeaker and a touchpad. The inbuilt gyroscope, accelerometer and compass allow the device to measure orientation, movement and direction. Users can interact with Glass by swiping the touchpad or giving voice commands.
Cycling with smart glasses
Some applications available on Glass and first applications by third-party developers tap the technology’s hands-free potentials for (urban) cycling. So how can you use the Glass technology specifically for cycling?
Glass can give directions by using the Google maps navigation function projected onto the smartglasses’ screen with the audio directions given via the loudspeakers. First reviews describe this hands-free navigation as safe and very useful for urban cycling. The integration of the small screen into your peripheral sight may seem very pervasive (see video below), especially if you combine it with a hectic scene at an urban intersection. Yet, it may be less of a distraction for urban cyclists than having to address a smartphone for navigation while riding in urban traffic.
Glass can be used to take images or video by voice command or pushing a trigger button. With the latest hardware version you can even snap images by wink detection. This allows you to record cycling experiences and share them instantly via social media.
The initial promotional video for Glass is marketing the device with a short Lucas Brunelle-like scene of riding in NYCs urban traffic. In this user case Glass may become a great alternative to point-of-view cameras (like GoPro Hero or Contour+2) available on the market today, although with (still) much lower image quality.
Information on infrastructure
Smartglasses can be useful for urban cyclists allowing them hands-free access to geo-referenced information on cycling infrastructure and cycling support systems (bike shops, air pumps etc.).
One example for an application providing such information is NYCycle for Glass, a software that helps Citibike users to find open docking stations, navigate to landmarks, or remind them to return their bikes on time.
"NYCycle for Glass" promo video. Courtesy of R/GA Prototype Studio.
Just as many smartphones today smartglasses can be used to keep track of biking statistics, compare and share riding benchmarks. News is out that Strava is in development for Glass, adding to the concerns one may have about crazy riding fuelled by social media integration of biking statistics. The fitness application Race Yourself will go one step further into augmented reality and combine the thrill of a jump and run computer game with a fitness application tracking pace and calories burnt.
Will Glass outsmart urban cyclists?
The community of Glass Explorers is already heavily testing the technology for cycling. Interestingly enough many of the Explorers do refer to recreational cycling and not really touching upon cycling in urban traffic while wearing Glass.
I am curious to hear more experiences of people using Glass in everyday urban traffic, as I would assert that the quote “Glass is not for everybody” (taken Google’s Glass FAQs) is accurate for the case of urban cycling. Many people not accustomed to handling today’s data overflow might be too much distracted by wearing Glass while riding in urban traffic.
Here I don’t see a problem in solely getting directions, I would rather question if people will be able to cope with the flow of information (text messages, emails, phone calls etc.) coming in via Glass while riding a bicycle. Will people be able to manage all that while paying attention to the road?
The discussion about issues of traffic safety in relation to Google Glass is only in the early stages and we will have to see how lawmakers will respond. It may be the case that smartglasses are banned from use in urban traffic and will have a limited cycling-related niche, for example in recreational cycling or special creative uses.
Which niche uses can we imagine for smartglass technology used in urban cycling? Can we tap the technological potential of smartglasses for building bicycle-friendly cities and to advocate for a mainstreamed use of the bicycle? How can smartglasses become a useful tool in bicycle urbanism?
Smartglasses in Bicycle Urbanism
The way we interact with our cities, how we understand them and consequently decide on changes to our urban environment is very much dependent on the tools we use to augment our urban experiences. The bicycle is such a device for creating a specific urban experience and I would argue that it has the potential to become a major tool for understanding and reading a city. With the use of smartglasses we may be able to further tap this sense for space and make it accessible for urban planners and designers.
Here are five ideas for using smartglasses in combination with a bicycle as a tool for urban analysis, attempting to answer questions we have in regards to our urban environment. It should be clearly stated that those ideas are not meant as day-to-day uses but rather very specific strategies to gain insight into our cities. With such new baseline data and (visual) material we would be improving our understanding of urban conditions to help us build better cities in terms of bicycle urbanism.
1. Strategic Mapping
Cycling advocacy may exploit technology such as Glass for mapping problematic infrastructure, violations of traffic laws or well-done best practise examples by recording geo-tagged images or video. Such strategic mapping can be a tool for creating evidence to make the demands of interest groups very clear when interacting with politicians or administration. Advocacy groups may also use immediate video footage collected during urban rides to make other traffic participants understand the situation of cyclists in urban traffic. New applications for smartglasses may be tailored to the strategic mapping of urban conditions, adding to the potential of the bicycle as a tool for urban exploration and analysis.
2. Supporting Everyday Experts
To test the safety and usability of existing cycling infrastructure, planners can effectively work with the experience of everyday experts such as novice cyclists, children or elderly. The way they are able (or unable) to use a specific type of infrastructure provides an unbeatable benchmark for its quality. Smartglasses would allow everyday experts to collect such experiential data making it available to planners in a condensed and digital form.
3. Recording Urban Stories
While riding through space Smartglasses can record experiences to later make them available to other users depending on which route they taking. Such urban stories can be used to create a kind of travel guide from and for cyclists. With a wearable interface such as Glass, you would for example be able to trace urban history while cycling being guided through a layer of urban knowledge.
4. Real-life Design
Smartglasses and yet-to-be developed software may be used for directly drawing lines into urban space and recording the exact shapes created while moving on a bicycle. An additional layer of information can be added by voice recording. The interface would allow you to have this data geo-referenced and transfer it to your desktop planning software. Such shapes and data may then be used in designing urban spaces, outline cycling infrastructure or create urban art.
5. Testing Design with Augmented Reality (AR)
Depending on the type of smartglasses used there is variable possibility for projecting an additional image into your visual plane. In the case of Google Glass the small display in your peripheral sight does limit the potential for exploring augmented reality. Other smartglasses with transparent AR displays would allow cyclists to augment their sight with an additional visual layer projected into real urban space. Augmented reality does make invisible layers of the city visible, for example showing buried infrastructure or long gone built structures.
In the same way, designers could use augmented reality to test ideas for new types of cycling infrastructure or newly defined traffic zoning in real urban space. Here, smartglasses can be used for experiencing virtual design ideas for bicycle urbanism while moving through physical urban space on a bicycle. Such a real-life test via augmented reality would be a way to get a new quality of user-feedback for the improvement of (still virtual) designs. Watch the video below to get a sense of what augmented reality can do in urban space.
Becoming smarter through glasses?
If you are old enough: did you think in 1995 that 20 years later you would be equipped with mobile advanced computing and communication devices allowing you to instantly access all the information of the planet and to talk with almost everybody around the globe? Moreover, could you imagine being able to do all of this while riding a bicycle?
This is the perspective one may take on smartglasses as new technology. Technological innovation often comes unexpected and is leading quite often to unexpected cultural adaptation and further innovation. Our cities are the places where such innovation and adaptation is taking shape, in some cases even from the back of a bicycle. It would be a pity not to use the potentials of smartglasses in a creative way and to think about how this technology can be used for building sustainable cities.
In this sense: Let's look clearly into the future.
Disclaimer: The author as well as the Sustainable Cities Collective are in now way tied to Google Inc. or do benefit from mentioning Google Glass in this article.