The March of Progress

It had all been so promising at the start. Google Glass had opened up a completely new world of possibilities, and its early success encouraged a riot of extensions, variations, and competitors. The greatest weakness of Google Glass lay in the input systems: the speech recognition was just fine for the early, limited range of applications, but as more features were added, requiring more recognizable words, Google’s software began to show weaknesses. Users learned to speak slowly, enunciate carefully, and repeat themselves often.

As usual, it was Apple that blew the doors open with an elegant solution. Apple used a basic, entry-level speech recognition system with a small standardized dictionary of words; this proved fast and reliable. The elegance of Apple’s design lay in two microscopic infrared lasers that bounced their beams off of the user’s eyeball, providing a fairly accurate measure of exactly what the user was looking at. Apple could then present a variety of options to the user through the virtual screen; the user need merely look at an option and say “that!” and the system could respond to all manner of complicated inputs. 

The Apple iGlass was a huge critical success; it soared past the Google Glass in capabilities. Side-by-side comparisons showing how various tasks were executed with the two competing devices banished all doubt as to which device was better. The only thing that saved Google Glass’s bacon was the steep price of the Apple iGlass. 

A year later, Microsoft entered the fray with the Microsoft mGlass. It was a straight copy of the Apple iGlass in form and function, with one gigantic difference: Microsoft ditched the elegant (and horribly expensive) laser eyeball tracking system used by Apple and instead used a system based on its old Kinect technology. By carefully tracking tiny motions in the background seen by its cameras, Microsoft’s technology could detect head motions much more delicately than the motion-sensors on the Google Glass could. In addition, hand gestures executed in the view of the cameras augmented the input capabilities of the mGlass. 

These new technologies were cheaper to implement than Apple’s super-high-tech eyeball-tracking technology, and so the mGlass was far cheaper than the iGlass, while more powerful than Google Glass. Microsoft had hit the perfect price/performance combination. Within two years, mGlass dominated the Glass market. 

As always, imaginative experimenters came up with a dizzying array of applications and extensions for the mGlass. Games using the new technologies were particularly successful. But as the range of applications expanded, so too did the vocabulary of head twists, nods, and hand gestures required to access the full capabilities of this marvelous device. 

Police no longer took alarm at the sight of citizens muttering to themselves, shaking their heads spastically, and waving their hands wildly in front of their faces. Practical jokers learned how to wave their hands in front of another’s face at precisely the right moment to trigger a hilarious (to the joker) result. Fistfights arose over ownership of the space in front of users’ faces in crowded spaces. One particularly tragic incident occurred when the “spline transform” command for a graphics application was interpreted by bystanders as flipping them the bird. 

Then there was the case of the unfortunate chap using his mGlass while driving along a tree-lined road on a sunny afternoon. The rapidly changing pattern of light and shadow from the trees was somehow misinterpreted by the mGlass in such a way that, within 30 minutes he heard helicopters flying overhead, and ten minutes later he came to a heavily-manned roadblock with a great many police and guns pointed at him. He was held for five days on national security grounds, and the Feds never explained what had happened.

It didn’t take long for hackers to devise schemes for profit. The most impressive scheme was set up in pedestrian tunnels, with an array of computer-controlled LED lights that flashed on and off in a precisely determined fashion to create the impression (to the mGlass) that hands were gesticulating. Careful analysis of the mGlass’s operating system had shown that it could be fooled by a number of complex shifting light patterns. By using these patterns, hackers were able to access the entire personal database of their hapless victims, drain all their bank accounts, and frame them as identity thieves, all before they left the pedestrian tunnel. 

The final blow was an exploit now known simply as The Greatest Hack. Somebody managed to implant a virus — actually, it was more like an anaerobic bacterium — that successfully penetrated over a third of all the operational mGlasses. This bit of malware did not activate for some time, but when it did, its effects were catastrophic. The software read the actual scene as detected by the camera and altered its geometry ever so slightly. An approaching pedestrian might appear a few inches further to the right than was actually the case. Doors were shown a little further away than they really were. Pedestrians collided with each other. People walked into doors. 

But the most insidious feature of this malware was the way that it subtly modified the facial expressions seen on others. A friendly smile would be given a hint of condescension; inquisitorial expressions gained an angry overtone. A simple offer to buy a cup of coffee would seem just a tad sarcastic. It transformed human interaction to the conditions of an Internet chat room with misleading emoticons. 

Eventually the hack was exposed; Microsoft was unable to explain how it worked; despite numerous attempts to eliminate the malware, it stubbornly kept popping up. Eventually Microsoft, sagging under the weight of huge class-action lawsuits, declared bankruptcy and the mGlass was no more. The sense of contagion spread to all other Glass devices. With no way of verifying or denying the existence of the malware on any device, rumors ran wild. One fellow charged with robbing a liquor store claimed that his Glass had shown him donating goods to Goodwill. Somebody drove her car to the beach and thence into the sea; she claimed that it looked like a parking lot to her. A huge variety of sexually peculiar activities were attributed to the magical virus. Street drug dealers maintained that their Glasses had shown candy canes instead of drug packets. 

That was the end, not merely of mGlass, but of all Glass products. The hacker responsible for The Greatest Hack was not exposed until twenty years later, long after she had died. Miss Primrose Minnick, a retired kindergarten teacher, had taken umbrage at Microsoft’s refusal to redeem a coupon she had clipped out of her Sunday paper. Infuriated, she set to work learning the technology, mastered it, and devised a scheme of such complexity and technological subtlety that the Hack remains the prime example of brilliant programming, and is studied at the graduate level all over the world.