Monday, 30 June 2014

Augmented reality glasses face the privacy test

An adverse reaction to Google Glass is underway. It’s not just the anecdotes about it being banned from bars, restaurants and cinemas and police dishing out traffic tickets, but the UK Information Commissioner’s Office has blogged that it’s going to cause problems and warned companies that if they use the technology they have to be careful about privacy and data protection.

Even some of the evangelists for Google Glass acknowledged early on that it would run into opposition, and as more people become aware of its camera function there are going to be a lot of tetchy responses to seeing it in public.

It’s important not to talk solely about Google Glass when it comes to augmented reality glasses. As I wrote a few months back in a white paper for the BCS, there are other companies making glasses that provide data to wearers to guide them through a task, and these have already found early adopters in work from warehousing to healthcare. There is a vast potential for supporting people in their work and it would be a waste if it’s squashed by anxieties over privacy.

In fact, there are a lot of work environments in which it shouldn’t be an issue. Directing a worker in a warehouse or providing guidance for surgery takes place in a closed space where there is no threat of trawling for images through the camera on AR glasses. There’s no reason why this part of the market shouldn’t grow as the technology is refined.

But it won’t be possible to draw a clear line between a closed work environment and the public realm. Organisations are already making use of AR on tablets in fields such as civil engineering, architecture and retail, and there’s going to be strong temptation to experiment with AR glasses if there’s a big advantage in keeping hands free.

It’s easy to imagine a scenario when someone has a legitimate business use for AR glasses in a public space, receiving and feeding back information on the environment while making notes on another device, or operating a machine or vehicle. It’s just as easy to imagine someone else taking offence at their presence being recorded, especially on a device that can stream the image straight into a corporate data store.

Can you draw a clear line between the two? You can have arguments about what constitutes a public space, or if you can still violate someone’s privacy when they’ve entered an organisation’s space. And there are going to be legitimate business reasons, often around public services, for using AR glasses on the street, in a park, in a place where crowds gather. Saying these are off limits would deprive planners and emergency service teams among others of a potentially valuable tool.

I don’t think there are clear answers to this, and it’s going to take time, more familiarity and a good few arguments before a consensus on acceptable usage and a clear legal line emerges. But the ICO has been right to tell organisations to at least begin thinking about what’s acceptable, and make it clear that any information gathered through AR glasses is subject to the same laws as any other data.

Meanwhile, I’ll be interested in how people react the first time I’m in a pub and someone walks in wearing Google Glass.

Mark Say is a UK based writer who covers the role of information management and technology in business. See

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

3D printing: the business of consumer creativity

The arrival of budget priced 3D printers promises to give the technology a push into the home market, with models as cheap as £150 being affordable for most households.

But there are no signs of a clamour for the machines. If anything’s holding the market back at the moment it’s unfamiliarity and a sense among most people that they have no use for 3D printing. Most have heard of it, but to them it’s something for techies and people who like playing with gadgets, and they haven’t seriously thought about what they would do with a machine. And I’d bet that some of the creative types who have considered it have quickly retreated at the thought of having to get to grips with a complicated software package.

In the short term it could be a source of frustration for the manufacturers of 3D printers, but it points to an opportunity a little further ahead for companies that are ready to help consumers take their first steps into producing their own objects. Selling ready to print designs for products, with guidance on the raw materials to use, could provide a first step for nervous early adopters. But the real potential is in giving them the chance to stamp their own personalities on the process with customisable template designs.

It’s a half-way step that would hold consumers’ hands through getting to know the software while allowing space for them to show their creativity. It’s similar to enabling people to design their own websites using templates, and would add a ‘home made’ dimension to some sizeable consumer markets, such as jewellery, clothing accessories, tableware, models and toys.

Those early steps would familiarise people with the technology and help them get used to the idea of creating their own objects. Then it’s just a little further to those first efforts in fully mastering the software to create from scratch. That’s when the full potential for 3D printing in the home really takes off, as it becomes a tool for consumer creativity.

This is where some enterprising companies can plant an early stake in the market over the next couple of years. Even if the early adopters move on to doing their own thing others will follow, and the prospect of millions of children getting to grips with 3D printers provides the promise of a big market that will thrive in the long term.

Mark Say is a UK based writer who covers the role of information management and technology in business. See He has previously written a white paper on the future of 3D printing for the BCS.