Magic Leaps privacy predicament

Privacy always seems to be top of mind in the tech industry. It is a touchy subject and it is hard to have a nuanced conversation about.  There are vocal people on both sides of the privacy argument and separating economics and emotions from reality can be challenging.  Further complicating matters is that we, the public, constantly change what we are comfortable with while companies are constantly redefining what privacy even means.  Yet I would argue that all the ink spilled on the subject to date is but precursor to what will happen if Magic Leap is successful.  The potential for, and necessity of, data collection by Magic Leap will far exceed what any company has done in the past.  Magic Leap with have to tread carefully as it brings us into their future.

Google Glass: a case study 

Luckily for Magic Leap, Google has already tested the waters. We have all heard the hullabaloo about privacy in regards to Google Glass.  Many attribute the Camera on Google Glass as the reason for Glass never became a consumer product. While it was an easy thing to point at, and certainly didn't help matters, Glass had problems beyond the camera.  First and foremost was utility.  You couldn't actually do all that much with Glass. Of the things you could do most were accomplished more efficiently through your phone.  When you couple that with an exclusive purchasing program and exorbitant price tag, you create an exclusionary item whose main attribute is to aggressively point out how rich and connected you are. Of course people are going to rebel against that anyway they can. 

For Magic Leap, they need to ensure that they don't create an elitist product.  If only a select few "leapholes" can either afford to buy or are able to buy the product, I predict you get a similar backlash. It will not be possible to discreetly wear Magic Leap meaning you will stick out like a rich, snobby sore thumb while wearing the device. In this case it will be easy to point at privacy as part of the evil that is Magic Leap.  On the other hand, if it does not get the reputation for elitism, people will be far more forgiving of other issues. 

The main way to avoid this problem is for Magic Leap to create a product that is so compelling that people are willing to accept it into their lives and, literally, on to their face.  That is a big ask. If it is delightful to use and provides genuine utility, the issues Glass faced will be side stepped. 

But what about that camera?  Magic Leap will have some sort of recording device always on while under operation. They need it to do the simultaneous location and mapping required to project holograms. There is a good chance that information will be streamed to the cloud so that the world models you build can be passed to other users for shared MR experiences.  Is this going to be a problem?  

I'm not sure.  I am sure the tech press is going to talk about it ad nauseam but I am not sure the consumer will care.  We have seen repeatedly throughout the history of technology that privacy issues are often put aside when the utility provided is so great it outweighs the privacy issues presented.  When the first phone camera hit the market there were a litany of stories proclaiming the end of privacy. Consumers didn't seem to mind though. Having a camera on the thing you take everywhere with you was just too useful. People were willing to give up a rather nebulous claim that our privacy is being violated to get the utility that a camera on a phone provides. Over time this has become so completely normalized it is now somewhat odd to not have a camera on you. And those nebulous privacy concerns? No one seems to care at all anymore. They have moved on to the next privacy issue.

What I'm leading to is that most people do not care about privacy.  Don't get me wrong, they care about clear cut privacy invasion cases. If some guy starts taking photos through your bedroom window you are certainly going to care about that.  But if there is some distant issue that could become a privacy problem one day in the future somehow, then people simply do not care or at least will accept it once it has become normalised. 


Speaking of normalised. Snapchat are making a pair of glasses with a camera on it. I don't expect these to be particularly successful but this is great news for Magic Leap.  The road to normalising a new technology that could be perceived as invasive is rocky and requires people to have lived with the tech for some time. These glasses will help them along that road and can further teach them lessons on how to present their product to the public. Who knows, by the time Magic Leap launches, it might be part of a whole stable of products with face mounted cameras.  We certainly put Gopros on our head from time to time. Magic Leap might get to sidestep the issue entirely though I don't think this is likely. 

It is a fine line that Magic Leap will have to walk and there is certainly going to backlash against their products. I don't imagine a single review of their first release not mentioning the privacy issue. How they manage this is based largely on how good the product actually is and if their PR team is up to the challenge. But I challenge those that think it is insurmountable. While some care about maintaining the privacy status quo.  Most, do not. They just want a cool and useful new toy.