Photo Innovation: Google Glass as a Teaching Tool and a Street-Shooting Device

January 8, 2014

By David Walker

© Richard Koci Hernandez

A self-portrait taken with Google Glass by street photographer, writer and educator Richard Koci Hernandez.

Ask Richard Koci Hernandez what recent innovations in photography impress him and he doesn’t hesitate. “Google Glass,” he says. “It’s the closest you get to the idea of the eye as a camera.” He predicts that “putting cameras and video within our point of view is only going to proliferate,” despite the fears of many critics, because of the creative possibilities and practical applications.

At press time, Google Glass was not available to the masses, but Google made several thousand pairs of the Internet-connected glasses available for purchase (for $1,500) to winners of a contest earlier this year. Entrants were asked to describe how they would use Google Glass. Hernandez, an award-winning journalist-turned-professor, street photographer, blogger, and tireless explorer of new media trends and technology, was among the winners.

Google Glass is eyewear that positions a tiny screen close to the eye, enabling users to search the Web, send and receive e-mail, navigate with GPS, and take photos and video using voice commands. “When I first got them, I thought the photo and video [functions] would be secondary” to the other functions, Hernandez says.

He began wearing his Google Glass everywhere he went—on the street, to meetings, in cafes—and quickly found the Web surfing and e-mailing functions to be limited and disappointing. But the quality of the 5-megapixel camera “was way better than I thought it would be,” he says.

Google Glass has drawn plenty of criticism over fears that users will be walking around in public, taking pictures surreptitiously of strangers for who-knows-what purposes. The potential for privacy invasion seems obvious and unnerving.

Hernandez dismisses the fears as “knee-jerk” reactions that aren’t grounded in actual experience with the product. It’s impossible to take pictures surreptitiously with Google Glass, he argues. You have to give either a voice command to take a picture, or lift your hand to click the shutter. (Hernandez always does it manually.) Google Glass also lights up in camera mode, and it makes an audible sound when the shutter is triggered.

“Google has made it so obvious you’re [photographing], that it’s hard to hide [it],” he says. “I can be more surreptitious with an iPhone than with Google Glass.”

He continues, “Can it be creepy? Yeah. So I have my etiquette.” Walking into a room, he explains, he wears his Google Glass on his forehead “so when I engage them people can see.”

And yet almost nobody has noticed him wearing his Google Glass—or at least, hasn’t let on—in all the months he’s worn them. Hernandez surmises people are conditioned by culture not to notice. “We don’t look [each other] in the eye. We don’t look people in the face. Sunglasses”—an accessory that’s as much for hiding our eyes as for shading them from bright light—“are a mainstay of our culture,” he says.

It may be that people aren’t yet conditioned by uncomfortable experience to notice Google Glass. Whatever the reason, though, it is to the advantage of street photographers. “I’m taking pictures all the time—with no ill intent, just practicing the art of street photography—because people don’t look me in the eye,” Hernandez says.

He sees practical applications beyond street photography, too. Google Glass makes shooting and sharing photographs easier. “They’re right there on my eye. I can see something, instantaneously shoot it and, more quickly than [with a] phone, share it to a network.”

Google Glass is connected to Google Hangouts, where users can broadcast a live video feed. “I could imagine [a person using Google Glass at] a breaking news scene, or a photographer showing people what they’re shooting. For example, I have to teach students how to take evocative portraits. There are a lot of words out there about that, but few instances of photographers in the field, showing you how they work.

“So I could put on Google Glass, hit record and show students from my perspective how I’m working. They could hear and see me interact with the subject,” he says. Although Hernandez has yet to broadcast while he’s teaching, he has posted instructional videos on a website for his classes at University of California, Berkeley, where he is assistant professor of new media.

“My next to-do is showing myself with a mobile phone, [using] Google Glass as a recording device to show what I look for” as a street photographer, he says.

Google Glass may or may not turn out to be the tool of creepy intrusion that many people fear, but Hernandez is far more excited about what he sees as a powerful and revolutionary innovation for photography.

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