The idea of wearing special glasses that give you info in front of your eyes previously only available if you were The Terminator appeals both to tech geeks and anyone tired of having to actually look down at a phone or tablet. This eyewear and other wearable devices are slowly becoming a reality with Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) Glass at the head of the class.
The sci-fi reality being delivered by Google Glass, however, has a number of states considering legislation to regulate wearables. Google is aggressively fighting these efforts and, according to Reuters, "is lobbying officials in at least three U.S. states to stop proposed restrictions on driving with headsets such as Google Glass."
Eight U.S. states are currently considering regulating use of Google Glass (and presumably other similar devices), according to Reuters.
What is Google Glass?
Google Glass is essentially a smartphone built into a set of glasses. The device, as detailed on its website, does everything from shooting pictures and video to translating your voice into other languages, plus anything else a high-end smartphone can do.
Do we need laws?
When cell phones first became common, a number of states passed laws that banned everything from texting while driving to making a call without a headset. These laws evolved over years and the rules and penalties vary from state to state. In some cases, it can be argued that existing distracted driving laws apply to wearables -- especially when someone is using them for a function like texting or making a phone call.
And while states are right to be concerned about the dangers posed by this new product category, some experts think legislation is not needed.
"It's too early to pass new laws about wearable technologies because the field is evolving so rapidly," Dan Pacheco, chair of journalism innovation at Syracuse University's S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communication told the Fool. "People are just starting to understand what they can and can't do, with the predominant opinion being positive. Passing new laws now could stifle innovation, or worse, they won't focus on the real issues that don't know about yet."
Fred Cate, a professor of law at Indiana University's Maurer School of Law, agrees.
"Technology-specific laws are almost never a good idea, even to protect us from others. They are quickly outdated and easily out-paced by the development of other technologies," he told the Fool.
No Google Glass laws does not mean there is no danger
Just because Cate and Pacheco do not support regulating the use of Google Glass does not mean they consider them entirely safe.
"The same dangers with distracted driving that exist already with mobile phones also apply to wearables like Google Glass, but I'm beginning to think that wearing Google Glass in the car is safer than being tempted by your cell phone — with some caveats," Pacheco, who has tested Google Glass along with his students, told the Fool.
During his early experience with Glass, Pacheco said he had assumed driving with them would be more distracting and dangerous than holding a cell phone while driving (which is illegal in New York state where Syracuse is). He noticed however that in some ways the device was less distracting than cell phones or GPS devices.
"Glass is designed to be out of your field of vision and remains off most of the time, it's much less distracting," he told The Fool. "This is most obvious when you're using it to navigate. A quick alert about the next turn will appear for a few seconds, then it turns off. This is much safer than glancing down to your cell phone to see where you are on a map, and even safer than looking at a printed map."
That does not mean there are no dangers -- just like it's not a great idea to play Angry Birds while driving, the temptations offered by Glass could cause problems. "I do get concerned about the idea of someone watching a full YouTube video from Glass while driving down the highway or playing one of the new mobile games in Google Glass like tennis or clay pigeons," he told the Fool.
Those activities are possible (as they are on a smartphone), but Pacheco said those scenarios are already covered by existing laws.
Smaller devices mean more danger
Cate takes things a step further, telling the Fool that wearables might be more dangerous than traditional smartphones because they are harder to detect and easier to forget. That said he believes that whether devices are wearable or not, smaller and harder to detect is clearly coming.
"This is where technology is inexorably heading -- smaller, more integrated, and more functional," he told the Fool. "Just as we laugh at the cell phone bricks of a decade ago, the next generation will certainly be laughing at the fact we carried discernable cell phones at all or that we had devices we called 'computers,' as opposed to having computing power built into everything."
The stakes are huge for Google
Wearables may barely exist as a category now but their potential is huge. Google is right to be aggressive in protecting these devices -- wearables could ultimately eliminate phones, tablets, and traditional computers.They could also change -- as the Internet and smartphones did -- how humans interact.
Google Glass may not be the answer, but as a society we are clearly moving toward a world where computers are integrated into everything we do. Making laws that restrict that growth seems premature, especially as the technology develops. We have distracted driving laws. Let police enforce those instead of penalizing a class of devices that may actually help the driver.