I Want Google Glasses (History Edition)

The tease video for the new Google glasses is OK. There is a lot of nifty stuff there.

Watch for yourself.

But none of this is what I want the glasses for. I want them for a far geekier operation, which probably won’t be available in the immediate term: the street history view.

I first heard of this idea in a conversation at Columbia University in 2001 with my friend John Pavlik, the brilliant communications professor who then worked in New York. His idea for a Google glasses-type of device was not just a speculative vision. It was a 20-pound prototype, which is detailed beginning on page 7 of this document.

(John, incidentally, put my 1998 Radio and Television News Directors Foundation book, “Guide to Building a Newsroom Web Site,” on his class’ recommended reading list back in the day. Great guy.)

If you don’t mind reading a bit, here’s the idea John described to me, as he later described it in detail to the 2001 International Online Journalism Symposium:

It’s just a pair of prescription glasses with a little crystal display built into it. So it can be unobtrusive.

Now that may be a little hard to read on that screen, but what you’re seeing is what the view of the Columbia campus would look like if you were wearing this system. So you see this little virtual flag. The color of the flags represent different stories, alright? So the red flag is the one story my student produced. A situated documentary about the student revolt at Columbia. Blue flags represent a story they produced about the tunnel system – a half-mile of tunnels that honeycomb the campus and connect all the buildings. They play a part in the history of the university and the prehistory of the university. The green flags represent a story about the prehistory when this neighborhood which today is called Morningside Heights, back in the middle 1800s was called Bloomingdale, and where Columbia campus is today, it was the Bloomingdale Asylum for the Insane. Whether we’re looking at the building with the dome with the columns, that’s the main administrative building, that’s Lowe Library today. Students took it over in the 68 revolt. Well, that’s where the main asylum building was in the 1820s and 30s. I’m not saying there’s any insanity that’s still there, but the ghost may be behind, I’m not sure.

You see a little green cone and there are several different ways you can navigate when you’re in this environment and you can also enter different modes to interact with the content. One of the modes is called visual select, simply uses your gaze to select information. That little green cone is like the cursor. And if you look at one of the flags for about half a second then it selects that, so you work relatively hands- free, in other words.

One of the stories I mentioned, the first one my students did was about this 1968 student revolt when some of the students with some area residents from Harlem took over part of the campus, protesting University plans to build a gymnasium in Morningside Heights. One of the first buildings they took over was the Lowe Library. That’s where the president’s office was. Here you see little pulldown menus the user can select any number of these little different multimedia segments that tells them about the beginning of the protest. What the students found when they took over the president’s office. What they did there. What happened in the first clash between protestors and police. There you see a little bit of the clash. There was actually a professor who had both his arms broken trying to stop a police officer from hitting a student with a billy club, so it was a very violent confrontation.

Now move to the next story. This tunnel system. This shows you what it would be like for the user if we had more classical taste in tunnel exploration. Of course, the tunnels are off limits today. So my students, I told them, are not allowed to go down into the tunnels, but being good journalists, they went down anyway. They got a source to take them on a guided tour and they shot all this with a 360 camera so that when you’re on the campus wearing the system, you can’t actually go down in the tunnels. They’re locked and closed off. But you have this tele-immersive experience. So with these situated documentaries, we can get people access to denied areas and tell stories that allow people to experience a denied area. My students are doing a project now that kind of deals with a denied area. The story of the Manhattan project which started on the Columbia campus. They still have the original psychotron on campus and it is based in one of the buildings. The students are producing that, so you’ll walk the campus and you’ll be able to get the story of this Manhattan project.

And then the prehistory when it was a Bloomingdale Asylum. They’ve seen an artist’s drawing of the main asylum building which is today where the main administrative building is. What we can do is the way that we display the information can be done in multiple fashions. One was is to stabilize the display relative to you. Alright. So it can be a head stabilized view or a user stabilized presentation, so no matter where you look, the display stays synchronized to you. Another way in this case, is stabilized to the real world. So the overlay that you’re seeing there of the asylum building is synchronized to where its position was in the real world. So as you look at Lowe, you see that building. If you turn away, that building stays, placed on top of Lowe. There’s a little timeline you can move backward and forward in time, and then different buildings may appear depending on what year you choose. If you go forward to 1835, you’ll find a building that was built in 1835 and then the audio, you’ll hear a story about why that building was built.

I want! (Though I’m sure that we could have something a little more elegant than cone and flag icons to let us know when a historical view is available. Voice prompts would be pretty swell.)

Imagine walking down the Sunset Strip wearing something like that, and telling the specs, “Show me 1966.” Imagine walking over the fields of Gettysburg and being cast back in time to 1863—you could have Matthew Brady’s photos superimposed over your view as you stand inside of Devil’s Den. Imagine visiting the Holy Land wearing these things, and asking them to visually take you back to the Temple of Jerusalem, pre-66 AD.

I know this is probably not core to Google’s business vision for these specs. But do it anyway, Google! Please us history geeks.


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