July 25, 2013 in Technology
I’ve posted a summary of the emissions tests I’ve taken from Google Glass, as well as an introduction to a discussion of the risks presented by exposures such as these.
Whenever you raise concerns about the health impact of EMF exposures, many people instantly assume that you are a luddite. With me and Glass, this is far from the case. As I wrote when I first received Glass, I think that not only has Google done a great job on the product experience, but that this is clearly just the first example of a new generation of technology that brings computing up in direct contact with (and soon, embedded inside) human tissue.
So, not only do I appreciate Glass, I also understand that what it represents as a computing experience is inevitable.
And that’s precisely why I think this technology should be made as safe as possible. Just as cars have seat belts, anti-lock brakes, and air bags to make the risky practice of driving down the highway at 65 miles an hour tangibly safer, so should manufacturers of microwave-emitting technology take similar remediating steps to help reduce the risk associated with using their products.
And that’s just not going to happen unless more people understand the risks of EMF exposure, and demand action from manufacturers of the wireless technologies that are increasingly the dominant source of such radiation exposures in the general public.
For reasons I’ve explained before, Glass need not emit more dangerous radiation than a cell phone, to be more dangerous than a cell phone. Glass is just different; it’s designed to be different, and to be used differently. It’s designed to be used in immediate proximity of the brain for extended periods at a time, on a regularly recurring basis — generally, in tandem with your cell phone.
As I’ve also explained, it will almost certainly take a period measured in decades to have conclusive proof of the risks associated with strapping a microwave transmitter to your brain for extended periods, as is the case with those who wear Glass.
So, right now, as the manufacturer of first consumer application of its kind, Google has a choice:
- Ignore the scientifically-demonstrated risks stemming from non-ionizing EMF exposures and tissue heating, and hope for the best? or…
- Assume a precautionary approach to product design that minimizes radiation exposures to the brains of their customers, until definitive proof exists of the exact health risks?
I would reiterate, how Google responds to this question will impact not only its customers, but the customers of similar wearable technologies that will soon emerge from many different manufacturers. It will impact all of us, sooner or later (and, given how technology works, probably sooner).
In other words, this type of technology is inevitable. How the early players like Google address questions of human safety will establish the standards by which these issues are addressed over a period of generations.
I recently engaged in an exercise. Someone asked me, how can we make cell phones safer? I could imagine a couple of minor innovations, to suit specific use-cases, but by and large, from my non-engineering understanding of cell phone technology, there really isn’t a way to make it notably safer (at least without redesigning the entire cell network infrastructure). Your iPhone has to send microwave signals, in basically every direction, over really long distances. So, minimizing time spent speaking on cell phones, and using a tethered headset when you do… that’s basically all you can do to minimize your risk from cell phone radiation, without giving up your cell phone.
I believe that Glass is different. The technology is different. The form factor is different. The use-cases are different. These differences lead to more extended exposures to EMF radiation than would come from average cell phone use.
However, after playing with Glass, and coming to understand it more, I am increasingly convinced that these differences enable some relatively simple changes to the design of the product, that could lead to a significant reduction in EMF exposures.
Indeed, I suspect that Google could not only make Glass safer than it is, but that it is possible for Glass to be a safer product than a cell phone.
Well, I’ve written a list of some of the changes that Google could make to Glass. Some suggestions have virtually no impact on customer experience. Others do involve some trade-offs or sacrifices. And while I think all should be implemented, in actuality, each could be implemented on its own.
Some of these items will bring minimal or no negative impact to the consumer experience. Others, I believe, will lead to objections from some customers who wish to have no restrictions in their engagement with digital information. Still, Google is currently defining a product segment. They have a lot of flexibility to make changes of these types, if they believe there is evidence of a real health risk, and care about their consumers’ brains.
None of this is rocket science (certainly not for a company that creates self-driving cars). It’s actually easy to make Glass a safer product, from the perspective of EMF exposures. If Google considers it a priority to do so.
Software Design Alterations
Add an “Airplane Mode”
This is the simplest win, and could be immediately accomplished with a software update of the type that Google is regularly deploying to its Explorers.
Right now, a lot of what Glass does requires internet access. But, not all of it. Taking photos, videos, accessing stored media, reading already-downloaded headlines… all of these are examples of things that can be done without WiFi or Bluetooth access on Glass.
It appears that Google has designed the operating system such that, you can never actually disable WiFi or Bluetooth on Glass. There is no equivalent to Apple’s “Airplane Mode”. So, whenever you are wearing Glass, you are being dosed with microwave radiation — whether or not you’re actually doing anything on Glass.
Glass needs some means of disabling wireless communication on Glass. And, to encourage consumers to utilize it, it should be so easy, that it’s basically just a click away.
Disable Use When Charging
“Cell phone radiation” is one type of EMF. Another form, with much less energy, is known as Extremely Low Frequency (ELF). This is the type of EMF emissions that comes from sources like power lines, transformers and electrical appliances.
In general, Glass has negligible ELF emissions. However, when Glass is plugged into a device or power source, Glass becomes an ELF conductor, emitting ELF at notable levels — up to levels (50 mG in my tests) that really need to be taken seriously. Even when plugged into a notebook (that itself, was not plugged into an AC power source), ELF emissions were between 2 and 4 mG.
Also, in my tests, charging appears to heat Glass considerably above the temperature at which it would otherwise be operating.
There is an easy fix, also accomplishable with a software update. Do not allow Glass to be used on the head when connected via USB cable to any source. Then, there will be no circumstances in which Google’s consumers will be exposed to ELF from Glass.
Add “Too Hot” Mode
High temperatures aren’t only bad for technology. They’re bad for your body, causing genotoxic reactions in your cells. In my tests, the surface temperature of Glass regularly exceeds 100°F, and when playing or recording video for even a few minutes, temperatures can get up to 118°F. I’ve generated scenarios in which I measured temperatures exceeding 130°F.
That just isn’t safe to hold up against the brain. The iPhone has a mode in which the device must cool down before being used. I do not believe that Glass has an equivalent mode — or, at least, I have not encountered it. Glass should not enable usage when it is too hot to be held against the head.
Restrict Video Playback Bitrate
In my tests, EMF emissions from WiFi technology like Glass appear to correlate directly to amount of data throughput. Video is most data-intensive of media types, and playing back certain videos on Glass led to power density measurements that far exceed the standard radiation levels from the device, and quite possibly FCC regulations on radiation absorption (again, I lack the ability to measure SAR, only power density).
At other times, playing video led to notably lower levels of EMF radiation.
I believe (though do not know for sure) that the different levels of EMF radiation that I measured correspond to the different bitrates of the different videos that I have watched. And the higher the bitrate, the more data throughput, the higher the emissions. If I am right, there are videos that, when played back on Glass, will lead to EMF emissions in excess of FCC regulations (and, if I am wrong, I expect someone from Google will be able to tell me as much).
It also seems that playing video increases the temperature of the device. Again, based on my assumptions, I believe that capping bitrates would effectively cap the temperature increases associated with video playback.
Bitrate on videos deployed through approved Glass apps should be capped to a value that is demonstrated not to lead to EM emissions in excess of Google’s published SAR value for Glass (1.11 W/kg).
Focus Media Synchronization When Glass is Not Worn
As-is, Glass syncs everything, all the time. Take a photo, and it uploads to G+. Record a video, and it uploads to G+. Install CNN or the New York Times, and the headlines just come down, unrequested.
Now, as a consumer of technology, I completely understand why this is appealing — who wants to wait even a couple of seconds for updates-on-demand?
But, when the microwave transmitter that enables this functionality is immediately next to my brain, I have to start wondering what the value is of this instantaneous, and continuous, transmission of data.
Given that EMF emissions from WiFi technology correlate to the amount of data throughput, it seems to me that a “sync everything all the time” approach to Glass leads to many unnecessary exposures.
Instead, I believe that the approach should be: non-text media should only be synchronized:
- Upon human request; or,
- When Glass is worn not on the head (which Glass is already able to detect)
Will it take a little longer for your videos to be uploaded? Yes (unless you explicitly choose to upload them). But, in exchange, you’re dosed with microwave radiation for a notably smaller portion of the time when you wear Glass.
Disable WiFi & Bluetooth When Unsupported
As it is, I understand the WiFi card in Glass is always on, whether or not there is a supported WiFi network within reach. Similarly, the Bluetooth chip is always on, whether or not your paired phone is.
This means, consumers are being dosed with microwave radiation from Glass’ WiFi and Bluetooth even when they have no available WiFi and Bluetooth options. That’s a completely gratuitous dose of radiation.
At a minimum, it seems to me that WiFi & Bluetooth on Glass should not be operative when no such possible connections exist.
Power-Up WiFi On-Demand
From my experience, it does not take long for a WiFi enabled device to join a WiFi network. Vastly less time than it takes, for example, for my phone to find coverage.
Given this, it seems to me that the WiFi card on Glass should only be powered up when it is actually needed. That is, when a supported WiFi network is within reach, and when the user:
- has requested an action that requires WiFi; or,
- takes Glass off.
Given that this feature would affect the product experience in ways some consumers might find off-putting, “Enable On-Demand WiFi” could be a toggle in the Settings card.
Hardware Design Alterations
Use Non-Conductive Materials
Most materials that conduct electricity also conduct electromagnetic radiation. Titanium (from which a significant chunk of Glass’ frame is constructed, wrapping the brain) is a metal with relatively low conductivity. Still, it does conduct. Which means that use of titanium in Glass (as opposed to some high-performance, non-conductive synthetic plastic, for example) increases the amount of EMF radiation to which consumers are exposed (in particular, on the contralateral side of the head from which the Glass computer is worn.)
Thus, the titanium in the Glass frame (which wraps the entire head, and straddles the nose) should be replaced with a non-conductive material, to reduce completely extraneous amplification and relay of the EM emissions from Glass. And, in general, I believe that Google should use only non-conductive materials throughout Glass, unless a conductive material is specifically required for the function of the part.
Move Away From Brain
Many people do not realize that the strength of electromagnetic radiation diminishes exponentially with distance. This is why every little bit of space that you can create between the source of EM emissions and your body is important (as evidenced by the fact that Apple says iPhones are not designed to be held or used within 10mm of the human body).
Thus, Glass should be redesigned to hold the microwave transmitter (and, probably, the entire computer portion) as far away from the brain as possible, given the supported use cases. Quite literally, every millimeter of distance that Google designs to exist between Glass and the brain, makes Glass safer to use, from the perspective both of EMF exposure and tissue heating. Ideally, Glass is redesigned not only to increase the space between the brain and the computer, but also to move it away from the temple (where your brain is not shielded by bone).
I should add, I consider the brain to be a pretty important organ. However, there are numerous reasons to be concerned about the effect of cell phone radiation on the eye (notably, cataracts, which can form much more rapidly than brain tumors). So, the distance between the Glass computer and both the brain and eye should be maximized.