Mod 4: SixthSense, Google Glass, and Disrupting Computing

Future Disruptor
Future Disruptor

A disruptive technology is one that take us by surprise, and changes the way we do things we’ve always done. Dr. David Thornburg defines it as a new product that provides the same functionality of its predecessor, but it is more efficient and cheaper, and then makes the old technology obsolete (Laureate Education (Producer), 2014a). It can transform the complex and expensive into the simple and affordable (Carmody, 2009). An example of such a disruption is the movement to digitally downloadable books. I haven’t bought a book in well over three years, unless it were unavailable in digital form, and rather than bookcases full of paper, I now have one Kindle with over 300 books at my fingertips.

In the world of computing, the focus on disrupting the ordinary is a constant. Technology innovators are continually working on “what if” ideas, thinking about what they need or how they like to do things, then translating that into new products. Pranav Mistry, a student at MIT, noticed how often we use movement and gestures in our everyday lives, and wondered how he might do his computing the same way, without a keyboard and mouse. His musings brought about SixthSense, a “wearable gestural interface” (Gupta & Shahid, 2011) that combines a small camera with a computer and a projector, and allows the wearer to perform dozens of everyday tasks more quickly and easily than they could on a more cumbersome tablet or smart phone. The video that introduced this product (TED India (Producer), 2009) made me want such a device immediately. However, the project has never taken off, partly because the power consumption of the combine components is a prohibitive factor, and partly because Mistry has moved on to work for Samsung on other projects (Mistry, 2013). 

Pranav Mistry using his hand as a SixthSense "screen"
Pranav Mistry using his hand as a SixthSense “screen”

The failure of SixthSense to launch into the consumer market did not mean the end of wearable computing. Thad Starner, founder of MIT’s Wearable Computing Project, has been wearing a heads-up computer display since 1998, and his creation caught the attention of Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the founders of Google (Starner, 2013). Starner’s research paralleled that of Google’s Project Glass team, which he joined in 2010, and is based on the quest to reduce the time between intending to do something and acting upon it. He maintains that while the smart phone may provide all the computing ability one needs, it adds time to the intent-to-action process, since most phones reside in a user’s pocket and require several steps to bring up a web page that can be accessed by uttering a single sentence with Glass.

In the definition of disruptive technologies, Google Glass meets most of the criteria that make it a sure bet for making smart phones and tablets obsolete at some point in the near future; currently, with a $1500 price tag, it is not affordable for most consumers, who can purchase very capable Android-based smart phones for around $100 (Best Buy, 2014). Given the new technology’s popularity at this early stage, it is likely that competitors will soon be introducing similar products, and the device will become more affordable as various companies vie for our consumer dollars.

Google Glass
Google Glass

The applications of Google Glass in the real world far outpace those of either smart phones or tablet computers, mainly because it offers a wearer’s immediate perspective of any scene. Doctors are exploring the technology’s ability to provide medical training through a real-time view of procedures taking place as seen through the surgeon’s eyes, and they note that the hands-free device would allow them to view a patient’s charts or monitor readings without taking their eyes away from the patient (Glauser, 2013).  

Ban Sign
Ban Sign

Rhodes and Allen (2014) discuss the implications for the use of Glass in theaters, where the bright glow of a cell phone is a rude distraction to the rest of the audience, while Glass could provide a “second screen” experience (defined as any screened device being viewed while other entertainment is being enjoyed) that does not impact others in the immediate vicinity. In this same vein, however, they caution that Glass could be used for illegal recording of movies, concerts, and other entertainment; as a result, there is already a “Ban Google Glass” movement afoot. 

Google has had some 2000 “explorers” using Glass for a wide variety of applications since mid-2013. A number of these early users have shared their experiences in stories that excite the imagination. A young woman who became paraplegic uses Glass to capture the experiences of a camping trip, while providing the navigation to the campsite from her Glass display during the drive.

Alex Blaszczuk camping with Glass
Alex Blaszczuk camping with Glass

 A science teacher who provides live online experiences to under-served student populations “takes” his classes to the Large Hadron Collider facility in Switzerland using Glass to interface with the kids in real time (Google, Inc., 2014). 

Andrew Vanden Heuvel at CERN, projecting to Ryan's class
Andrew Vanden Heuvel at CERN, projecting to Ryan’s class

The positive and negative implications of a device like Glass in social situations could be daunting. On the one hand, social interactions could be improved if users could hold face-to-face conversations while simultaneously using their technology devices; this could reverse the current trend where groups may meet and seldom speak while they are mesmerized by the contents of their individual cell phone screens.  

Typical Cell Phone Users
Typical Cell Phone Users

Privacy issues still worry consumers, who might be unable to tell when their pictures are being taken, or if someone behind them in a checkout line was recording their pin-pad numbers. And in the past week, the Navy has reported that a sailor is undergoing substance abuse treatment for his addiction to his Google Glass, which he wears at all times except when he is sleeping or bathing (Wilson, 2014). This is an extreme case, of course, though one need only think of those videos where people run into lamp posts while walking and texting to realize that Glass could become a physical hazard for some.

Glass holds great potential for educators. Lectures can be recorded; teachers can provide online content that Glass wearers can view on their own time (Sivakumar, n.d.). As mentioned before, virtual field trips become possible, and science labs could be experienced outside a traditional lab. With the addition of facial recognition technology, a teacher might use Glass to take attendance simply by looking at the class. Teachers across the country have taken up the conversation, and Margaret Powers has recorded her experiences as a teacher using Glass on her blog; many of her suggestions come from other teachers in answer to her “how would you use Glass in your classroom?” query (Powers, 2014). A group of researchers is exploring the addition of emotion recognition to Glass devices (Hernandez & Picard, 2014); their intent is to conduct emotions research in new ways, but this might be extended to other applications, especially for students with autism, who often have difficulty decoding the facial cues that express our emotions. 

Google Glass recognizing emotions
Google Glass recognizing emotions

Google Glass is in its infancy, and far from the day when it will be displaced by a newer technology. Whatever might replace it will likely be even more closely connected to the user than the current technology allows. Google is also working on contact lenses with computing capabilities – in some future scenario, they might merge the two technologies and provide a computer we attach to our own eyes! Perhaps an implanted device could simply speak to our brains, providing both visual and audible content directly into our bodies. Coming from the last generation to do math without calculators, I would never have imagined a computer like Google Glass – but now that it’s here, I believe the possibilities for even greater discoveries are endless.


Best Buy. (2014). Prepaid Phones. Retrieved from Best Buy:$pcmcat158500050014&cp=1&lp=1&contract_desc=

Carmody, L. (2009). [Review of the book Disrupting class: How disruptive innovation will change the way the world learns, by C.M. Christensen, M.B. Horn, & C.W. Johnson]. Educational Technology Reearch and Development, 57(2), 267-269. Retrieved from Walden Library database.

Glauser, W. (2013, November 5). Doctors among early adopters of Google Glass. Canadian Medical Association Journal, 185(16), 1385. doi:10.1503/cmaj.109-4607

Google, Inc. (2014). Explorer Stories. Retrieved from Glass:

Gupta, A., & Shahid, M. (2011). The Sixth Sense technology. Proceedings of the 5th National Conference, INDIACom-2011. New Delhi: INDIACom-2011. Retrieved from

Hernandez, J., & Picard, R. (2014). SenseGlass: Using Google Glass to sense daily emotions. UIST-14 Adjunct (pp. 77-78). New York: ACM. doi:10.1145/2658779.2658784

Laureate Education (Producer). (2014a). David Thornburg: Disruptive technologies [Video file]. Baltimore, MD: Author.

Mistry, P. (2013). SixthSense / Wear ur world. Retrieved from Pranav Mistry:

Powers, M. (2014). Retrieved from 365 Days of Glass:

Rhodes, T., & Allen, S. (2014). Through the looking glass: How Google Glass will change the performing arts. Carnegie Mellon University. Retrieved from

Sivakumar, R. (n.d.). Google Glass in education. Annamalai Nagar, India: Annamalai University. Retrieved from

Starner, T. (2013). Project Glass: An extension of the self. Pervasive Computing, 13, 14-16. Retrieved from

TED India (Producer). (2009). Pranav Mistry: The thrilling potential of SixthSense technology [Video file]. Retrieved from

Wilson, J. (2014, October 15). Man treated for Google Glass addiction. Retrieved from CNN Health:

Photo Credits

When I grow up:

Pranav Mistry using SixthSense:

Ban Google Glass:

Google Glass in Sky Blue:

Alex Blaszczuk Camping with Glass; Andrew Vanden Heuvel at CERN:

Cell phone users:

Glass reading emotions: