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Several models of smart glasses available on the market in 2015

List of smartglasses:

Smart glasses, or smartglasses, are wearable computers and head-mounted displays that project and overlay digital information onto displayed reality. This information is projected either onto a display very close to the user’s eyes or directly onto his or her retina. The user then sees the virtual elements as if they were an inherent part of displayed reality. The reality is thus mediated, augmented, or altered[1] by the computer-generated information without disturbing the user's normal field of vision.

Some models of smart glasses are nothing more than displaying devices and had to be connected either with a cable or a wireless connection to the processing unit (e.g., a mobile phone) that prepares the virtual information to be displayed. The latest models are stand-alone computers that can run and install applications just like a normal computer can. The connection to other devices is required only for data storage, sometimes Internet connection, or for any other way of further expanding the features of the smart glasses device.

The big advantage of smart glasses over a smartphone, for example, is that the user may control them hands-free. In addition, smart glasses usually offer some kind of gestural interface, speech recognition, eye tracking, or sensors that register the movement of the device on the user’s head, e.g., tilting the device. Most of the devices also feature a manual method of control, such as small joysticks or touchpads. Devices that need to be connected to a processing unit, as mentioned above, are controlled through that external device also. For this, a smartphone is often used. Experiments with brain-computer interface control[2] have also been conducted, but this method has not yet been used in commercial products.

The most prevalent ways of using smart glasses

Smart glasses are mostly used as portable media players, GPS location devices, activity trackers, recording devices, hands-free communication devices, visual and memory aid/prosthetics, tools for professions that require precision and attention (medical, industrial, military), or therapy and treatment instruments (e.g., for vision correction, phobia treatment, and addiction treatment); additionally, they are used for capturing and sharing of audio-visual memories ('Cyborglogging', for more about Cyborglogging, see the Souisveillance and life-logging section below) or for sharing mediated reality, art, education.

Summary of Technical Aspects

Smart glasses consist mainly of these elements: a display unit, a processing unit, and other connected peripherals (battery, memory, sensors, camera, microphone, speakers, touchpad, etc.).

The display unit delivers the data created by the processing unit and the resulting audio-visual information is then presented to the user. The processing unit is basically a computer modified to run the operating system of the glasses. The interface of the operating system is similarly altered.

The device typically uses mirrors or prisms to display the projected information in front of the user’s eyes: this is the case of Vuzix M100 or Google Glass. The display image ‘floats’ very close to the eyes. This creates the illusion of looking at a bigger display that hovers 3 metres away in space in front of the user in the direction of the gaze. Information can also be displayed directly onto the user’s eyes. This is achieved with an optical beam source, usually a laser diode. Research is ongoing with regard to a more sophisticated display, which could enlarge the field of view (FOV).[3] Such technology is still experimental and might be a subject of health concerns.[4]

Notable devices

Google Glass, EyeTap, Microsoft HoloLens, Vuzix M100, Epson Moverio BT-200

Enhanced Capacities

Smart glasses have the capability to amplify and even bring new cognitive abilities to the user although manufacturers to date have focused primarily on entertainment and communication features. Other enhancing features are low-priority or are only available for some devices through the usage of third-party applications as manufacturers tend to target the general public first and offer a wide-ranging product rather than a single-purpose one. Even devices targeted at enterprises promote leisure activities first. For example, Epson’s product page for its Moverio Bt-200 repeatedly refers to enjoying content.[5] The enterprise edition of the Vuzix M100 promotes the hands-free aspects and easy access to information.[6] Microsoft HoloLens, a device primarily aimed at video games players, specifies enterprise applications on a separate page.[7] It promotes collaboration, product showcasing with virtual reality, and educational applications.

As much as with other devices, the span of enhanced capacities is very broad. The following list describes various capacities that smart glasses may hypothetically enhance or introduce as new. The distinction is made between capacities that are normally available to a healthy human but are further amplified, and capacities that are completely new and only available through the usage of smart glasses.

Amplified capacities

  • Memory
    • Personal assistant that notifies the user of upcoming events, deadlines, meetings, etc.; remembering and later recognising of faces of people the user may know; text auto-complete feature when user writes something down
  • Attention and perception
    • Recognition of people and objects in the surroundings; warning to the user of possible environmental dangers; help with navigating unfamiliar places; help noticing important signs; displaying relevant information about objects in the surroundings (opening hours and sales for nearby stores, public transportation timetables, traffic situations); blocking distracting or unwanted visual elements[8]
  • Intelligence and language abilities
    • Offering solutions for mathematical problems; translating texts or speech in real time; looking up related encyclopaedic data on the fly

New capacities

  • New senses
    • Night vision, thermal vision, richer visual experience by expanding the colour spectrum
  • Human-computer communication
    • Hands-free way of controlling other devices by gestural, voice, or eye-tracking interfaces
  • Sensory substitution
    • Substituting one sense with other. For example, the vOICe vision technology[9] converts what the user sees into sound. This way, a visually impaired person can use their hearing as a substitute for their sight.

Relevant Issues

Privacy Concerns

The always-present camera, which is probably the most controversial aspect of smart glasses, raises important questions about other people’s privacy. The camera and storage technology is advanced enough to offer relatively good audiovisual quality and storage capacity while being fairly affordable. This gives users the means to record everything they point the device’s camera at, and allows people who can afford and know how to use these devices to collect and store significant information about other people. The power of individuals to control what happens with their personal information is diminishing—more so for those who choose not, or don’t know how, to adopt/access these new technologies and services[10]. This widens the digital divide and hinders the powers of those who cannot, do not know how, or choose not to use these technologies[10].

For example, Google Glass devices record via a voice command or by manually turning the recording on by touching the touchpad.[11] However, this announces that the recording is turned on only at the beginning when the command is issued. This is good in terms of privacy concerns but the user still can start the recording covertly beforehand. The need to issue a noticeable command first can also be circumvented by using the Wink app, an easily obtainable (though not on the Google Glass app store) third-party application[12] that allows the user to start and stop the recording by mere winking. If the person being recorded in this way has no evidence of the recording, they have no power to stop the activity.

In addition, the image-recognition abilities of such devices can be abused to search for and display personal information about the people the user is looking at. Whether this is regarded as invasive is questionable; if the information is publicly available online, then it cannot be considered private. However, by meeting someone first, you give them an unspoken agreement to 'look you up on Google'[13] or to search for your name on Facebook or other social media[14]. From two people who just met at a party to an HR recruiter looking for potential job applicants, there exists a certain precedent. But by looking up strangers by just looking at them, even though this might only return public information that they themselves posted online, , social etiquette is broken; the lack of explicit permission is likely to make many people uncomfortable with the technology.

Privacy is perhaps the only aspect of smart glasses that has attracted the attention of the general media. (For specific examples, see the Public and media impact section.) Those concerns are justified but perhaps exaggerated by the fact that the device is always present on users' heads, and thus other people cannot be sure whether it is recording or not. It is also always pointed in the direction the user is looking, so people can’t really discern whether they are being recorded.

Sousveillance, Life-logging, and Smart Mobs

As an antonym to surveillance, sousveillance, a term coined by wearable computing pioneer Steve Mann, should work against it, to create a 'citizen undersight.'[15] In the age of affordable wearable technology, and recording devices in particular, there is no reason for the general public to not have such devices on them constantly[16]. However, this is not for spying on each other but rather to monitor the situation should the user run into conflict with authorities. The idea is rather anarchistic, but Mann raises some very interesting points. If the power in society is, due to constant supervision, in the hands of the elite, then we can now, thanks to affordable wearable technology, supervise the said elites as well. In this way, the power distribution is equalized.

These recorded 'memories' do not degrade as they would when stored in human memory. The stored information is no longer volatile, but permanent. Additionally, the user does not have to manually start and stop recording, as there are no taking-picture-now moments. Like dashcams in cars, such devices record constantly. This is not only useful for sousveillance but also for Glogging,[17] short for Cyborglogging[18] or capturing moments in life that one could easily miss.[19]

Groups of individuals constantly connected via wearable or hand-held technology, or smart mobs as Howard Rheingold[20] calls them, may be both a support and a threat to liberty. Smart mobs empowered by technology communicate and cooperate at levels never before seen. Equipped with smartphones and access to the Internet, they overthrew governments during the Arab Spring, for example.[21] Yet the adoption of even more devices and the consumption of more virtual services in exchange for personal information gives oppressive governments more control over the population as well[10].

Constant recording can violate certain in-house rules or state legislation. Google Glass has been banned in several casinos[22], cinemas[23], and bars[24], either to protect copyright laws or privacy of the patrons. (See Public policy)

Advantage over Non-users

Using smart glasses may amplify cognitive capacities of its user. This creates an advantage over people who do not have the device[25], thus further widening the existing digital gaps or even creating new ones. On the other hand, the same devices may serve as a tool for social inclusion of variously handicapped people (e.g., people suffering from neurodegenerative diseases, sensory impairments, etc.). Certainly the latest smart glasses models are far from being so effective and comfortable to really give its users a notable advantage, but let us suppose that we arrived at a point in the future where the capacities listed in the taxonomy above are effectively enhanced. A user with smart glasses will be able to remember and recall more, instantly recognize faces[26], be able to control electronics in their surroundings hands-free, know where he or she is thanks to the connection to a GPS connection retrieve information about surroundings by mere looking, record or even slow down the movements of someone typing their PIN, block out advertisements and change or edit any unwanted visual elements at will.

The list of advantages could go on, but it gives one an idea of what can be achieved by wearable technology. The digital divide alone is no longer in question here; rather, we are looking at technologies that affect day-to-day behaviour of individuals. Moreover, they can do it very quickly and, when the technology matures, for a low cost as well[27].

It is not only the cognitive aspects of these devices that divide society.[28] Currently, the devices are expensive, and some are only available to a closed group of adopters (see Google Glass Explorers program in the Google Glass entry). Many of the issues mentioned here arise from this inequality of affordability.

Cognitive Dependency after Long-term Use

Because the possible enhancements can be very beneficial for the user, it is plausible to say that the user will not want to part with the device for longer than is necessary. Steve Mann, a wearable computing pioneer, has experienced these effects before. He thinks himself ‘naked and vulnerable’ without the EyeTap device he constantly wears[29]. If the device not only makes cognitive tasks easier but also make the user better at them, why would he want to not use the device as long as possible? Yet this prolonged usage and subsequent dependency on these devices may result in users not being able to carry out cognitive tasks without them. They will simply grow so accustomed to them that they 'forget' how they used to do these tasks originally, without being assisted by the technology. The same holds true for any other technology (e.g., clothing, glasses) that we grow accustomed to; we feel confused or perhaps vulnerable without it.[30]

Alleged Assaults on People with Smartglasses

These incidents are rare, but they received attention from the media because they are related to controversial technology.

Steve Mann, was assaulted while on vacation with his family in Paris. They decided to had a diner at McDonald's at 140, Avenue Champs Elysees, Paris. At first, the employees of a restaurant tried to stop him from entering and asked about the EyeTap device he had attached to his head, but they eventually let him enter after Mann presented documents describing the device as well as a letter from his doctor (the device also aids his vision). While he and his family were eating, another man, claiming to be an employee, tried to grab and swipe the glasses off of Mann’s head. Because it is permanently attached to Mann’s skull, the device got damaged and started recording the incident. Mann gives an account of this experience on his personal blog.[31] Media portrayed this as an 'attack on a cyborg',[32] and some called for a McDonald’s boycott.[33] Also, this was not the first time that Mann had been stopped and questioned about his EyeTap.[34]

Other Incidents Related to Google Glass

A woman from San Francisco claimed to have been assaulted in a bar while she was wearing her Google smart glasses as a part of the Google Glass Explorers program for early-adopters.[35]

Kyle Russell, an editor for Business Insider, was mugged of his Google Glass while covering the anti-gentrification protests aimed against Google and its employees who were displacing lower-income families in the targeted neighbourhoods.[36]

Incidents caused by allegedly arrogant participants of the Glass Explorers program led to the creation of the derogatory expression 'glasshole' to describe such people.[37]

Absent-mindedness while Using Smartglasses

There are concerns that the usage of smartglasses would have the same distracting effect as using a smartphone, for example. Using smart glasses while driving was banned in several states of the USA based on the same reasoning the legislators used to ban the usage of phones.[38] In the case of Google Glass, which Google designed as a device that should free the user from the distracting smartphone, lobbyists were hired to appeal the decision, saying that the device should not be considered distracting as the driver does not have to look down to check on it.[39]

This absent-mindedness, except when it is connected to attention-demanding activities like driving[40], is not a very well documented phenomenon in the literature. It is backed by anecdotal experience[41], however. Nick Bilton, an editor for The New York Times, recalls his experience from the Google conference in which almost everyone was wearing a pair of Google Glasses. At one point, he 'saw a group of five people wearing Google Glass, all silently staring off into space.' Google acknowledges this in their Google Glass Explorers DO’s and DON’TS manual as well.[42] Among them are advices such as 'ask for permission when recording others' or 'don’t stare off into the prism for long periods of time.'

Cybernetic Security

Recent, not yet thoroughly tested technology is susceptible to hacking, especially when such devices have to be connected to the Internet to fully function. For example, Google Glass had a vulnerability that allowed the attacker to force open communication with the device by just making the user see malicious QR code.[43] Google addressed the issue and patched it by a software update, but this demonstrates how a new technology can be vulnerable to attacks. The wireless communication can be intercepted, and the voice recognition commands can be eavesdropped. The device can also be simply stolen, and if the data are not protected in any way, sensitive information can be easily obtained.

While these security risks are similar to those already existing, the increased scrutiny of them can force developers to pay closer attention to security in the future[44].

There are also security risks that are working in the opposite direction. One can also use smart glasses to breach security. A group of researchers from the University of Massachusetts Lowell created an app for Google Glass that is able to record and recognize typed passwords by analysing finger movements[45].

The technology may also enhance civil defence and enterprise security. Emergency response teams and civilians using wearable devices like smart glasses could communicate more effectively, navigate dangerous areas better, and share positional information. In case of an emergency, civilians coul get updates on the situation and, get information on how to protect themselves and avoid the danger. Such technology (e.g., smart glasses implementing a special security guidance app authorized by respective agencies) might become a common part of a 'security kit' for civilians.

Similar applications could be adopted by law-enforcement and security staff. Face recognition features could inform them about wanted fugitives, help them cooperate together and with civilians better, or get updates on the threat from nearby surveillance systems. In fact, face recognition technology is being tested in several places in the U.S.[46]

However, an implementation of such technologies into emergency response procedures requires prior experimental studies in order to ensure actual efficiency and minimal health risks for users. Of primary concern in this context are potential positive or negative behavioural changes and changes in cognitive capacities caused by usage of such devices.

Health Risks

Specific absorption rate, or SAR, is a fiercely debated issue, especially in the area of wearable devices. Although the electromagnetic radiation (EMR) these devices emit is non-ionising, studies on possible harmful effects from EMR have been inconsistent[47]. In the case of wearable devices that are near users’ bodies for prolonged periods of time—considerably longer than for cell phones—such studies are non-existent. But the possibility of prolonged cell phone usage to cause cancerous effects is likely[48], and the same could be the case for wearable devices, especially when worn longer on the head, as with smart glasses.

Every personal wireless device is required to be tested for SAR. In the case of the Google Glass Wi-Fi antenna, the SAR is 1.42 W/Kg.[49] While the U.S. limit on SAR is 1.6 W/Kg[50] and Google Glass is thus not considered harmful, this still raises questions about whether prolonged usage of Google Glass could be harmful, especially when the Wi-Fi is on.

There is a possibility that prolonged exposure to LED-originating light, especially its blue part of the spectrum[51], can cause damage to the human retina[52]. One study took into account LEDs in domestic lighting, which is significantly more powerful than smaller LEDs present in displays of wearable devices, thus drawing conclusions that may not be relevant for smart glasses. However, the LED displays in smart glasses work on the same principle and emit the same kind of light spectrum. Prolonged usage, while not properly researched, may pose increased risk of macular degeneration.[53]

Other health-related effects are shared with other devices with light-emitting capabilities. There is a potential risk of epileptic seizures due to flickering at certain frequencies[54] and bright light also affects the level of the hormone melatonin and consequently the quality of sleep[55].


Let us begin with an example to demonstrate the distinction between what is considered enhancement and treatment. Suppose we have someone with a visual impairment. It is perfectly justifiable both morally and financially to give such a person prescription glasses to make them see better and thus improve their life. We consider this to be a form of treatment. The person has a biological handicap that affects quality of life; this can be treated an is often done so using social resources (i.e., health or social insurance) to cover the expenses.

The problems arise when we start using technology and knowledge originally devised to treat non-healthy individuals to enhance healthy ones, e.g., using smart drugs to improve their memory. Suddenly there is a debate about whether social resources should be allowed to be used for someone who is in fact healthy but wishes to further improve quality of life.[56] Is their claim on these social resources justified? And is the distinction between enhancement and therapy even defensible? Colleton[57] gives several arguments that illustrate the elusiveness of the line between enhancement and treatment.

When we give a short-sighted person smart glasses that not only treat the visual impairment, but also give them access to the Internet, GPS, and the ability to see at night, the distinction falls apart completely. Daniels[58] gives several examples of similar problematic scenarios. When one person is of short stature due to a tumour-induced growth hormone deficiency and another because of their genes alone, but both deficiencies have their origin in an identifiable set of genes that can be affected through genetic engineering, who gets the treatment and who gets enhancement? Both persons are by no fault of their own unhappy with their lives and can feel better with the use of the right technology.

However, we still hold to the distinction for the sake of categorization, yet we are very much aware that this will change in the future, after we come up with a better solution. If we categorize a device as an enhancement, we try to say that its manufacturer intended it to be enhancement first and foremost. If the device also can be used as a form of treatment, we specifically mention this in the respective category. The exact opposite applies to devices meant to be treatment first and enhancement second, such as OrCam, a wearable device designed to help visually impaired people.

Public & Media Impact and Presentation

The portrayal of smart glasses in the media is full of extremes. On one side, hype around these novelty devices was strong enough to create immense interest in them and make consumers, reviewers, and corporate managers[59] overestimate the possibilities for this technology. On the other side, we can see disillusionment from the more technology-versed group of reviewers that had the opportunity to actually try and test these devices. These opposite views are then reflected in the society and the media.[60]

Of course, devices meant to serve as a tool in the industry do not generate this commotion, because they are not marketed towards the general public and are rather conservative in the selection of offered features. The biggest public and media impact is made by consumer-oriented devices manufactured by corporations like Google, Microsoft, or Apple, which market their products towards a broader audience.

The most notable impact was undoubtedly created by the spectacular announcement[61] of Google Glass. Google announced that the device would at first be exclusive only to those they would pick. This created a feeling of entitlement around those who got to wear the glasses. The expression 'glasshole' was created to label Google Glass users who behaved impolitely. Combined with the novelty of the device, the interest of the public and the media was substantial. Reviewers rated the glasses as at best average in their technical parameters and did not share the overall enthusiasm because it was clear that the device was not finished.[62] Others saw it as a revolution[63] in wearable computing. Later, when the hype faded away, jokes and humorous memes about Google Glass started appearing. (These specific cases can be found in an entry for Google Glass itself.)

The public assumed a more guarded stance towards smart glasses marketed for general use. Although the product was not a failure, Google learned from the shortcomings and is expected to take its time to make improvements. The market for smart glasses was revitalized as well, since, the public now has a greater interest in this technology.[64] Some say that the entire wearables market is a bubble that will soon collapse; others argue that doubts stem from the fact that these devices are novel and that their designer first need to experiment with them to see what consumers actually want.[65]

Public Policy

The broader introduction of smart glasses, mostly Google Glass due to its general user audience, resulted in changes in legislation. Devices with recording capabilities are starting to be regulated because legislators fear that they may threaten privacy or already do so because they are categorized as recording devices by a law already in place.

The use of Google Glass while driving was banned in several states in the U.S., as it was deemed to be too distracting.[66] Because of the privacy concerns, it was banned from casinos[67], movie theatres[68], bars[69] and museums. The Ukrainian government prohibited the sale of the device because it violates the 'spy devices' law.[70]

Electronic devices, especially wearables such as mobile phones, are required to be tested for specific absorption rate. This is the rate at which the human body absorbs the energy emitted by an electromagnetic radiation source. The European Committee for Electrotechnical Standardization and the U.S. Federal Communications Commission regulate the amount of energy a wearable or hand-held device can output. For the U.S., the SAR is required to be below 1.6 W/kg[71]; the European Union limits it to 2 W/kg.[72]

LEDs for domestic lighting are regulated by the IEC 62471-2006[73], although the regulation does not apply to LED displays in portable or, for that matter, wearable devices. Applications that emit more light in the blue part of the spectrum should be carefully considered.[74] Prolonged exposure to high-energy blue-light, which LEDs emit at high levels, may lead to retinal injury[75]. Further, specific studies of the health effects of LEDs in wearable technology are needed.

Related Technologies, Projects, or Scientific Research

Smart glasses combine several technologies, both hardware- and software-based.

  • Speech recognition
  • Gestural interface
  • Displays
  • Projectors
  • Depth-sensing cameras
  • Lenses
  • Batteries
  • Third-party software

Augmented reality devices have a huge potential in the interactive entertainment industry. For example, it is deemed that smart glasses could increase the enjoyment of Pokémon GO.[76]


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