U.S. spy agencies were fantasizing about Google Glass four years before it was invented

January 10

Stephanie Hernandez, 26, of Miami wears Google Glass to view artwork with the design of the US flag titled "Viewpoints of Billions" by artist David Datuna on Dec. 7, 2013, in the Design District neighborhood of Miami. (Lynne Sladky/AP)

Google Glass is still a long way from reaching ordinary consumers like you and me. But the search company isn't the only one that's dreamed of a future powered by augmented-reality vision. Turns out the intelligence community was fantasizing about something called "iGlasses" as early as 2008 — long before anyone had coined the word "Glasshole."

Every so often, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence — the same agency that oversees the NSA — shoves a bunch of people in a room and gets them to think about tough challenges ahead. These four-week sessions are called Summer Hard Problems, or SHARP for short.

The final reports that come out of these sessions are typically classified. But the Federation of American Scientists managed to get its hands on one, published secretly in 2008, thanks to a FOIA request the group filed five years ago. The paper goes into depth on simulated environments like "Second Life" and "World of Warcraft," looking at the economies and currencies that prop them up (and in some ways predicting the rise of Bitcoin).

More interesting, though, is the breathless way researchers described the potential, and the risks, of technology that melds the virtual and the physical.

"One plausible future development is iGlasses," the intelligence workers wrote. "The iGlasses would feature a fully integrated computer, PDA, cell phone, ID tag, HMD (Head Mounted Display) and GPS. ... When integrated with sub-meter GPS systems and HMDs, they would allow Reality+ graphic overlays enhancing what people see through the glasses in real time as they walk and traverse the real world. Built-in Internet access would come standard with all models."

Even by 2008's standards, some of the language showed evidence of staleness. PDAs? Really? And what about the compulsion to make anything hip and trendy into an Apple-like iThing?

It also wouldn't be an intelligence report without a sober assessments of the national security threat posed by AR technology:

Of course, this technology could also be abused. Right-wing extremists, for instance neo-Nazis, could overlay racial or ethnic slurs and slogans on buildings or individuals in the real world. Or jihadist sympathizers could gather on the Capital Mall wearing iGlasses as they conduct a virtual meeting that overlays an avatar of Usama bin Ladin on the real-world steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Their reality, their world, their hate — all reinforced with the blending of the virtual and real worlds, with Reality+ displays.

The likelihood of a digital Osama bin Laden rising from the grave, much less landing on U.S. soil, seems remote. Still, the ODNI report showed an impressive degree of foresight. It wouldn't be until 2012 that Google would reveal its first Glass prototype to the general public.

Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post, focusing on telecom, broadband and digital politics. Before joining the Post, he was the technology correspondent for National Journal and an associate editor at the Atlantic.
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