Google Glass is now old news. In January, Google announced it was working on a product even more closely melded with the human body: Smart contact lenses that contain a chip to measure glucose levels in diabetics' tears.
Google engineers aren't the only ones working on fusing wearable tech to skin. And no longer is it such a crazy, far-off fantasy that the human form will feature elements of the cybernetic—that these contact lenses could project augmented realities onto our physical world. But what does this mean for the future of, well, faces?
Futurist designer Jenny Lee has created a series of "digital skins" that she imagines might grace our lowly, animal mugs in the year 2060. The idea, she explains, comes from Babak Parviz, one of the brains behind Google's smart lens project. As a University of Washington nanotechnology expert, Parviz and his colleagues advanced the idea of a solar or radio frequency-powered augmented reality contact lens as early as 2008. But while Parviz has since said that augmented reality isn't an "immediate goal" for Google, he's also said he expects it to "come into the picture."
"With my project, it's the idea that we're utilizing technology as a means to evolve beyond biological bodies," Lee, founder of Studio Aikieu, says. "What I wanted to do is consider new technology as augmented reality—the idea that we can place a digital mask over the real world."
If we can place masks over the real world, we could also put masks on our own faces. Lee's rationale is that instead of plastic surgery today, in the future we'll just create digital identities that anyone wearing augmented reality contact lenses will see instead.
To question what something like that might mean for human interaction, Lee went about designing the digital masks with technology firm Holition. Inspired by alien-like mineral deposits and color-shifting sea creatures, Lee's future human faces feature pokey metallic outgrowths and 3-D tattoos. She then programmed them into an interactive mirror in which people could view their new and improved reflections.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, viewers at Lee's exhibition in London, Milan, the Netherlands, and most recently, Paris, have not responded well. "The majority of people didn't enjoy interacting with the technology," Lee says. "I think they found it quite a terrifying experience. You don’t expect things to merge out of the skin."
That discomfort is also part of Lee's point, too. In an appearance-obsessed culture, digital masks might give rise to new types of inequality, she says. "If we use these new technologies to advance ourselves, who would benefit?" she asks. "Would it be the public? Or an elite group with money?"
Maybe 2060, or another year in the not-so-distant future, will mark the beginning of an era where some kind of digital face is the prerequisite for basic online services. To some degree, that's already happening. LinkedIn and Twitter serve as parts of our digital identities that communicate to others how valuable we are. But if future masking tools discriminate against those without, say, a ton of money to buy them, it's not too difficult to imagine a world in which we judge people by a new kind of bunk phrenology.