Study: smart glasses give the wearer an unfair advantage

New research reveals the tech could make non-wearers feel powerless.
Loukia Papadopoulos
Representational image of smart glasses.jpg
Representational image of smart glasses.


Smart glasses have come a long way since being invented with new versions even being ChatGPT enabled. But what happens when one person is not wearing them?

Researchers from the Cornell Ann S. Bowers College of Computing and Information Science and Brown University joined forces to explore this question and analyze whether the technology gave the wearer an unfair advantage.

This is according to a press release from the institution published on Monday.

The study saw the cooperation of Jenny Fu, a doctoral student in the field of information science, and co-author Malte Jung, associate professor of information science and the Nancy H. ’62 and Philip M. ’62 Young Sesquicentennial Faculty Fellow, along with Ji Won Chung, a doctoral student, and Jeff Huang, associate professor of computer science, both at Brown, and Zachary Deocadiz-Smith, an independent extended reality designer.

Wearers and non-wearers

The experiment studied five pairs of individuals, each consisting of a wearer and a non-wearer, who had to discuss a desert survival activity. The wearer was equipped with Spectacles, smart glasses provided courtesy of Snap Inc., the company behind Snapchat, that featured a video camera and five custom filters that transformed the non-wearer into a variety of animals.

After the discussion, the participants were asked how they felt about the conversation. The wearers reported enjoying the filters while the non-wearers reported anxiety over not understanding what was amusing the wearers. They also feared that they may have been recorded in secret.

“There is no direct eye contact, which makes people very confused, because they don’t know where the person is looking,” Fu said. “That makes their experiences of this conversation less pleasant, because the glasses blocked out all these nonverbal interactions.”

Several of the non-wearers took matters into their own hands, directly asking the wearers what they were seeing. This took away their feeling of powerlessness. 

“I think that’s the biggest takeaway I have from this study: I’m more powerful than I thought I was,” Fu said. She noted that some of the non-wearers even moved around more to avoid being recorded and prevent the filters from transforming them into animals.

Tips for smart glasses manufacturers

The researchers deduced from their work some tips for smart glasses manufacturers to make the tech more friendly to non-wearers. They suggested adding a projection display and a recording indicator light, so people on the other side of the glasses will know what exactly the wearer is doing with the tech.

They also suggested that more studies such as this one be undertaken to ensure that non-wearers don’t feel left out. “ That way, non-wearers can have a voice in the creation of the impending mixed-reality world,” noted the statement.

There’s no doubt that smart glasses give the wearer an unfair advantage as they equip them with the world’s knowledge at their fingertips. The technology can prove very powerful and with great power comes great responsibility.

Smart glasses manufacturers should consider this study and the perspective of non-wearers before proceeding with future designs. The more advanced the tech becomes, the more chances there are that non-wearers will be left powerless.

The study is published in ACM.

Study abstract:

Augmented Reality (AR) glasses separate dyadic interactions on different sides of the lens, where the person wearing the glasses (primary user) sees an AR world overlaid on their partner (secondary actor). The secondary actor interacts with the primary user understanding they are seeing both physical and virtual worlds. We use grounded theory to study interaction tasks, participatory design sessions, and in-depth interviews of 10 participants and explore how AR real-time modifications affect them. We observe a power imbalance attributed to the: (1) lack of transparency of the primary user’s view, (2) violation of agency over self-presentation, and (3) discreet recording capabilities of AR glasses. This information asymmetry leads to a negotiation of behaviors to reach a silently understood equilibrium. This paper addresses underlying design issues that contribute to power imbalances in dyadic interactions and offers nuanced insights into the dynamics between primary users and secondary actors.

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