UBC research on eye-tracking devices sheds light on the implications of wearable technology like Google Glass
Wearers of smart glasses such as Google Glass can easily forget they’re recording what they see and despite the best of intentions, can violate other people’s privacy. That’s the suggestion of new research out of the Brain and Attention Lab in the University of British Columbia’s Dept. of Psychology.
For a study just published in the British Journal of Psychology, PhD student Eleni Nasiopoulos outfitted participants with an eye-tracking device that records eye movements and–just as Google Glass and other smart glasses do–the wearer’s field of view. It took only 10 minutes for study participants wearing eye trackers to essentially forget they were being monitored, shifting their gaze toward the buxom models of a Sports Illustrated calendar.
“We don’t really think about where we move our eyes to, most of the time,” explains Nasiopoulos. “Google gives tips like, ‘Ask people to record them, and be aware of invading other people’s privacy.’ What we found suggests that people will probably very quickly forget that they have the ability or potential to invade other people’s privacy.”
Was I really recording this?
When study participants were reminded that they were wearing the eye trackers, Nasiopoulos found they quickly reverted back to more socially acceptable behaviour. “The problem is we don’t know how long that’s going to last,” she notes. “Bringing attention to the fact that you’re recording something is what changes people’s behaviour. But we know that awareness fades very quickly.”
Since the commercial release of Google Glass last April, the tech giant has battled allegations that the wearable technology has the capacity to invade privacy. The company recently mounted a spirited defence, insisting in a list of “Top 10 Google Glass Myths” that its default record mode is set to 10 seconds. The device does have the capacity, however, to record uninterrupted for up to 48 minutes, with a simple swipe of its touchpad.
“When, in that time, do you forget you’re recording?” Nasiopoulos questions. “We saw there was a change in people’s behaviour in under 10 minutes, and Google Glass does a very similar thing to our eye trackers. It records what you’re looking at—including other people, who, after all, make up much of our daily lives. And not only does it record what you’re looking at, it has the potential to quickly upload that information onto social media.”
Privacy under siege
While Google Glass is the pioneer in the wearable computing field, there are plenty of competitors hitting the market, each with its own set of privacy concerns. Last week Epson released its Moverio BT-200 specs, just days after China’s Lenovo announced it was partnering with the U.S.’s Vuzix to launch its M100 glasses. Already, smart glasses have been banned in a number of settings, including certain restaurants, bars, and movie theatres.
“I think that people are really sensitive about their privacy,” Nasiopoulos observes, and her study is the first scientific evidence to indicate that those concerns are well founded. “There is more and more technology with the ability to invade that privacy, and people may not realize how much of what they look at, and record, is inappropriate.”
Eleni Nasiopoulos’s study, Wearable computing: Will it make people prosocial?, appeared in the July issue of the British Journal of Psychology. The work was conducted and published in collaboration with Drs. Evan F. Risko (Assistant Professor and Canada Research Chair at the University of Waterloo), Tom Foulsham (Lecturer at the University of Essex, England), and Alan Kingstone (Professor in UBC’s Dept. of Psychology). Funding was provided by grants from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada , the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council and the ICICS/TELUS People & Planet Friendly Home Initiative at UBC.