FICTION – First Version Written June 2011 (Pre-Google Glass)
It was a hot, Saturday night around ten o’clock and, as usual, all the bars on Austin’s West Sixth Street were crowded. People scurried from bar to bar, looking for friends or potential hook-ups or just to watch people.
I was at J Black’s, one of my favorite haunts because it was upscale but friendly. It was open to the outside, but ceiling fans kept it cool. I also particularly liked it because I knew most of the bartenders and, therefore, didn’t feel weird coming here by myself. Plus there was a high probability I would run into one or more friends and then I’d be in a group.
Tonight was a little different. I was mostly here for a snack – this place has quite a nice selection of food for a bar – and a drink, not so much to talk to anyone. I’d been working particularly long hours lately and quick outings like this helped me escape the computer screen, clear my head, and refresh my creative energy. The Internet, and especially social networking, had been a powerful enabler for casual interactions with people. Especially for introverts like me who found too much face time to be draining, but it had also served to abstract some levels of human interaction. At a bar, I could still be among people, but be alone. This helped me to somehow feel more normal and engaged without being draining.
So there I was, sipping a vodka soda waiting for my food and wondering if any of my friends would show up. Fortunately, I’d arrived early enough to get an actual seat at the bar with a view of the entrance, which made the people watching a lot more comfortable. It was especially fun to watch all the failed pick-up attempts and to guess what was being said.
On my second drink, I was lost in a contemplative cavern of thought solving some problem deep in the guts of the mobile app I was working on. That’s when she walked in. So lost in thought, I probably wouldn’t have noticed except that a subconscious whisper spread through the bar like an invisible bolt of lightening moving from person to person (mostly the men). It was as if nearly all of them turned to look at her at once, but in reality the looks were spaced out just enough it was a ripple through the crowd.
It was obvious she noticed, probably expecting it, and she smiled a smile with only the barest hint of condescension – it somehow carried the undertone of a queen acknowledging her subjects. She looked around the bar in a quick clockwise scan, perhaps wondering if anyone was worthy of her attention, then tilted her head slightly down as she headed to the bar. She rebuffed two suitors before she even made it the bar.
The fans seemed to wake the dress she had on causing it to perfectly highlight her body. Between its cut and the subtle movements caused by the air, it exposed just enough of her tanned skin to be tantalizing but not so much as to be tawdry. She wore a pair of designer sunglasses with a slight tinting that hid the color of her eyes and further enhanced an air of mystique. It might have played better in LA than Austin, but she was able to pull it off here.
She was beautiful, that was certain, but I immediately felt something was off. I wasn’t sure about those glasses at first. What was she hiding? I immediately had suspicions.
It was only a moment before the normal buzz resumed and she became another pretty face among many. She ordered a drink and while she waited, she did another slow 360 degree scan of the bar, appearing to look for someone. This time I noticed that she paused ever so briefly on a few faces as her head slowly turned. I might have believed she was looking for a friend she was meeting except for the fact that she paused briefly looking at me, and I caught her. It was odd though, because we looked right at each other for a moment and it was like she didn’t see me. When she did realize it, she smiled briefly and turned away, continuing her survey.
Most men are excited to make eye contact with a beautiful woman. It’s flattering at the most basic level and it extends, often for just a moment, a bridge of hope for something more. It’s especially true for an introverted guy like me.
Perhaps some background is in order, since you don’t me. I’m in my late thirties, have a Harvard MBA, am CEO of a public company I started, and that company isn’t my only experience as a successful technology entrepreneur. I’d say I’m pretty successful – my company went public nine months ago and it’s done well in the markets. I’d say I’m about average on the looks front. I dress nice, but not flashy – so it would be hard for someone to easily gauge my socio-economic status with any real granularity by looking at me.
So based on all that, I was fascinated that her glance came to rest on me. While I’d love it, if for some reason she picked me, I wouldn’t be the logical choice. In fact, based on the number of men approaching her, she was more likely to be fending people off than picking.
Claudia was very aware of the reaction of the bar when she entered. Perhaps a little disappointed that conversations didn’t stop, but she wasn’t terribly surprised – Austin was a lot more casual. In fact, all that really mattered to her was being noticed by the right people because being noticed by the wrong people just meant she’d have to spend extra time dealing with unwanted advances. She was used to it though and it was impossible to go out like this and not get hit on.
Tonight she was wearing some special new glasses that a well-connected friend had helped her get. They had been pretty expensive, but if they worked like they should it would be a good investment. She didn’t know exactly how the technology in them functioned, but they were supposed to help her find men who might be able to meet her financial desires. This was the third bar on West Sixth that she’d tried and she hadn’t found what she was looking for. So she did it again: scan the bar, order a drink, wait.
She’d already made a first scan around the bar as she entered so she made her way through the crowd to the bar. Eventually she ordered a glass of Champagne. The whole time a small circle spun in the periphery of her vision and squares would briefly appear around faces as she looked around.
The glasses did their work. First they grabbed images of every face in the bar, and then they quickly threw out the female faces. After that the magic happened. First they scanned databases of facial images collected and made public over the years by Google, Facebook, Twitter, and many others. Soon the glasses had a list of names. From names it was easy to cull all the publicly available information about people – their resumes from LinkedIn, significant stock ownership from the SEC, housing information, any article ever published, patents, basically anything about a person that had ever made it to the Internet.
After a few sips of champagne, Claudia looked around the bar again. This time about half a dozen faces were highlighted and she paused briefly on each until a small flashing arrow told her to move to the next one. A few seconds after she had completed her study of the selected faces, a small message reading “Scan Complete” popped up on the screen.
That was her cue, so she took another sip from her champagne and stepped back from the bar. This time three faces were highlighted. They each had a number ranking them and a small amount of additional data. The face with the 1 above also said “CEO, Harvard MBA, estimated net worth >$10mm”.
She was drawn to that one in particular.
I nonchalantly watched her, wondering. I had read about something called ARIGs a few months back. ARIG stood for Augmented Reality Information-enhancing Glasses. They took the first generation of digital glasses and added some pretty amazing software and cloud components. They used advanced facial recognition combined with all sorts of databases to give the wearer every conceivable piece of information about people from a quick scan of their face. Initially they had probably been a government project for spies, but diplomats and politicians had quickly seen the benefits.
Fund-raising was much easier when you could immediately see the richest and most likely (based on a public history of political contributions easily obtained on the Internet) to donate. So ARIGs had spread like wildfire through the political set.
As with all technology, as adoption increased so had the versatility and applications. Next it had been sales. If you’re at a conference or a networking event, just being able to quickly see people’s name, title, and company, was very powerful.
The basic concept was simple – it required special lenses to overlay the information, a small camera, and a Bluetooth connection to a smartphone. Because almost all the technical components had benefit so much from miniaturization, it was now possible to add these elements to virtually any glasses frame. The one giveaway was that they hadn’t been able to completely eliminate the tint. There were some very expensive variations that had only a very slight tint, but the more affordable versions, and even these were expensive, were more like sunglasses.
But what I found most interesting, and a little scary, was that I had read of other, more nefarious, uses for ARIGs. And, ironically enough, they were most common in LA. An article had called them “Gold Digger Glasses” because women were using them to figure out which men had the most money so they could better choose targets. Conmen had also taken to using them in various unexpected, but very clever ways.
It was so simple because the glasses just collected and displayed the information. Faces in, details out. But on the backend the ability to connect and collate data from a near infinite amount of sources was only limited by imagination, programming skill, cloud horsepower, and money. And the dark ARIG applications were running on zombienets with millions of PCs – so they had huge horsepower. So where this would ultimate lead, only the devil could know.
As I watched, she turned from the bar and started to make a loop. I guessed there was about a 50% chance she would head for me. But as I watched, I become more certain. I noticed, too, that as she came closer to me she seemed to move closer to the bar.
She edged in to the bar, her body brushing slightly against mine as she turned to face me. She smiled again, giving me a view of her perfect, brilliantly white teeth.
She leaned in, close enough that I could just make out the most delicate scent of whatever perfume she was wearing, and whispered, “Hi, I’m Claudia.” Her warm breath teased the side of my neck.
Wow, she’s quite good at this and not shy at all, I thought to myself. It’s important to note that I’m not what one would generally call a player. However, I am an opportunist. And, frankly, at this point I was pretty convinced she was talking to me for some pretty shallow reasons, which is pretty much a green light for me.
“I’m Mark,” I replied with a slightly contorted handshake, space was becoming increasingly scarce, as the bar got more crowded.
She nodded as if I were stating the obvious, smiled again and now I could see her eyes. This only further validated my suspicions and I smiled back.
“Drink?” I asked.
“Vodka red bull,” she responded. I waved at one of the bartenders I knew and a round quickly appeared.
As we sipped our drinks we made a near futile attempt at small talk. And, no, it wasn’t because of my lack of social prowess, but more from the general buzz throughout the bar. She handled the conversation quite well.
But I have a hard time paying much attention to small talk, so my mind quickly wandered. It didn’t take long for my mind to wonder – how had it come to this? It started innocently enough: digital cameras. Soon they were in phones. Next it was easy to upload them to the Internet. Tag the people in the picture. Images were everywhere and many people were addicted to taking them and adding more.
In parallel, many smart start-ups and some not-so-start-ups were spending a lot of money and intellectual horsepower on image recognition and image search. It seemed like a good idea and there were a lot of potential applications for it. Besides, Google became huge on search and a picture is worth a thousand words, right?
The first instances of simple photo searches were confined to local applications – find all my pictures with this person in them or use this barcode to find me this thing at a better price. Easy enough. Small number of pictures – a limited dataset always makes things easier. It worked like a charm.
What could possibly go wrong?
In the mean time, social networks of all types exploded across the Internet. It became easy to find someone’s entire professional history through sites like LinkedIn, many of which also conveniently had pictures. On the flip side, it became just as easy to unravel someone’s social life via Facebook, LinkedIn, and other social networks. All of which had pictures, some had lots of pictures, and few made 100% of those pictures private. And all it takes is one picture to do facial recognition. People felt secure that these were mostly walled gardens where their information was protected, but that was a false sense of security.
And once you had someone’s name there was a multitude of information available on the Internet from real estate to SEC filings and much more. That was, in fact how I had ended up with Claudia at my side. Once those glasses had matched my face to my name they had quickly found my resume and my recent SEC filings. They had probably shown her how much I made, my recent large stock sales, and how many shares I still owned, along with an approximation of my net worth. The glasses probably hadn’t gotten that much info from everyone’s faces, but they would probably have given solid profiles. The beauty of this approach was that the people she was looking for always had largely digital footprints.
It was actually pretty fascinating to me that she had these, I was surprised to see them – I didn’t know they were readily available for use in this way. I hadn’t seen a pair in the wild though. She must know someone.
She pulled me back by taking my hand and then she leaned forward and whispered something else in my ear.
I nodded and smiled. I raised my hand and signaled to close my tab. I doubt it had even occurred to her that I might know what she was up to.
Before I had finished signing she was already pulling me toward the door.
Of course I took her home. But I never called. Nor did I feel guilty.
I originally wrote this in June 2011, before Google Glasses were announced. Since then there has been a lot of talk about the downside and potential for abusing Glass (like http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/google/9917173/How-people-might-misuse-Google-Glass.html). It is inevitable that this technology will become effectively invisible and that will have a dramatic impact on people’s interaction. But that’s another post.
ARIG is short for Augmented Reality Internet Glasses