Augmented Reality a Reality

Earlier this month Google gave the world a sneak peak of Project Glass, the newest creation to come out of the company’s top-secret Google X lab. Project Glass is an augmented reality system worn much like a pair of glasses that displays information layered on top of the user’s visual field. In short, it’s a smart phone for your face.
Project Glass and other similar technology opens up a world of possibilities for social networking, entertainment, education, and even tourism. The concept video released by Google depicts just a few ways that the augmented reality system could simplify our everyday interactions.  The individual in the video uses the specs to check the weather, navigate the streets of New York, book concert tickets, share pictures, and chat with his friends. Perhaps the most surprising thing about Project Glass is the sleek design. The system looks like a high-tech headband with a tiny unobtrusive display screen on one side. Although they might not be the peak of fashion, these are no bulky nerd glasses.

It’s exciting to think about the possibilities for augmented reality in libraries. Imagine an individual trying to locate a book in the stacks of Wells (assuming there are still books in this futuristic scenario). She could use voice commands to search the library catalog, chat with a librarian via Skype, follow an arrow that would lead her directly to the location of her book, and scan the barcode on the book to immediately retrieve reviews from library databases – all without even so much as lifting a smart phone or downloading an app.

Keeping all this futuristic awesomeness in mind, there are a host of ethical, social, and even psychological questions that arise with the development of augmented reality technology. Issues of privacy, commercialization, and information overload are but a few reasons to be hesitant about welcoming Project Glass with open arms.  However, as the inevitable extension of mobile computing, this technology is coming down the pipeline whether we’re ready for it or not.   There are many applications of augmented reality that are downright revolutionary, but it is best to proceed with caution into this brave new world.

Sidebar: Don’t expect to be sporting your very own pair of Google glasses on the beach this summer. While Google employees are currently testing prototypes, the company does not anticipate a public release of the product this calendar year.

Discovery services in a Google world

Pete Coco’s recent post on the ACRLog discusses the ups and downs of discovery projects like EBSCO Discovery Service, a tool recently implemented at the IU Libraries as OneSearch@IU.  Coco writes that these tools may look like Google, with their sleek white single search bars and straightforward interfaces.  They may even act a little like Google, crawling through thousands upon thousands of resources to bring you only the most relevant, most perfect source you could possibly imagine.  Right?  Well, not quite.   According to Coco, who is a humanities liaison and library instructor at Wheaton College, although his students are usually able to find something using these discovery tools, they are not always able to find the thing.  One reason for that could, of course, be unreasonable student expectations.  Students often suppose that their sources must iterate their perspective verbatim, or cover the exact parameters of their research question.  Of course they’re not going to find a source comparing the ironic symbolism in Franz Kafka’s Before the Law with J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.  Some things just don’t exist.  That said, student misconceptions about scholarship might not be the only issue at play.  While discovery services, acting as a sort of hybrid between Google and academic databases, are good for getting students into the research pool, often it leaves them in the shallow end.  Once students understand the scope of what’s available, more specialized databases might be just the ticket to finding the thing and giving students that tough-love push into the deep end of scholarship.

That is precisely why quality information literacy instruction is still a necessity in academic libraries – to help students find their scholarly legs in a strange new land of information.  In order to achieve that end most effectively, perhaps we should be emphasizing the differences between popular and scholarly modes of information gathering, rather than the similarities.  Despite OneSearch@IU’s outward resemblance to Google, the fact is that it is not Google, and we are not doing students any favors by marketing it as such.  Coco writes:

To find the scholarly articles that will meet the paper requirement, the student will need navigate a host of alien concepts, vocabularies and controversies that will, at least at first, drive his experience with peer-reviewed scholarship. And while some degree of anxiety is probably useful to his learning experience, there can be little doubt that the process would be easier and of more lasting value to the student who has support—human support—as he goes through it.

Advances in technology require more, not less, pedagogical attention to ensure that students comprehend the underlying structures of scholarly communication.  We often expect this generation of tech-savvy undergraduates to see a blank search bar and know what to do with it.  But the reality is, not all search bars are equal.  Effective library instruction serves to illuminate the unique function of academic databases and discovery services as compared to popular search engines.  After all, if what you want is Google, you can always go to Google.

Aside: Read this post by Margaux DelGuidice from In the Library with the Lead Pipe to see why librarians are oh-so-glad that discovery services are not Google.

Photo credit: Opening of Lincoln Park swimming pool 1925, courtesy Seattle Municipal Archives from

Google + Operator

It’s hard to find anyone that doesn’t default to Google whenever they need to find something on the web. But it’s even harder to find anyone that takes full advantage of Google’s search modifiers. (Admit it, even we get lazy sometimes!) However, some searches absolutely require the ability to focus results, and search modifiers have traditionally been used to do just that.

Consider the following example, taken from the blog Google Operating System. By default, a search for the characters [ai],  Goggle will also match terms like “artificial intelligence”, “Amnesty International”, and “Adobe Illustrator”. Previously, you could replace your query with [+ai] to restrict search results to pages that contained an exact match to [ai]. Sadly, Google recently removed the + operator from their search engine, replacing it with quotation marks: [“ai”]. Although this will force Google to match the exact spelling of the query, it will not force the results to actually contain that exact query.

Let’s examine another example to illustrate this subtle change. Imagine I want to search for ‘pink flying pigs’ and, although I prefer flying pigs that are also pink, what I am really interested in is whether or not they can fly.  Before, I could structure my query like this: pink +”flying pigs”. This would do both an exact match on ‘flying pigs’ and restrict the results to only those hits with ‘flying pigs’. Now that the + operator is no longer available, the query would be structured like this: pink “flying pigs”. This will still do an exact match on ‘flying pigs’, but it will also return pages that don’t have ‘flying pigs’ anywhere in them at all. In other words, quotation marks have only half the functionality of the + operator and there is now no way to quarantee that a particular phrase or term will appear in the search results.

Why is this such a big deal? Long time Google users may remember that when Google first launched, every search was an “AND” search. That is, every term that was entered in the query string was required to appear in the results. About three years ago, Google began ignoring search terms altogether, building on their successful spelling suggestions engine. This effectively changed Google to an “OR” search with more results and less precision. (For more on this, read Andy Baio’s Google kills its other plus, and how to bring it back. ) Google argues that this is an improvement for the mainstream Google user who never uses any modifiers or advanced search features, and they are probably right. But for certain groups of users, like programmers, this change radically impacts the effectiveness of Google searches. Searching for technical documentation is now much less precise and tends to return many more unsatisfactory hits.

There are some alternatives, like Blekko, which allow you to structure a query like this: perl /programming. The phrase following the slash is called a “slash tag”, and ties the query to a specific group of curated sources. Another option for programming issues is StackOverflow, which is part Wiki, Blog, Forum, and Digg/Reddit. DuckDuckGo is another Google alternative, that prides itself on protecting user privacy and Microsoft has it’s offering in Bing. Like most people, I have used Google for years and have generally been very happy with it. But, given the recent changes and the number of alternatives, perhaps it is time to sample something new?