Google Glass Implications for Poker are Inevitable

Google Glass

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past year or so, you’ve almost certainly heard the phrase “Google Glass.” But unless you also happen to be one of the few thousand beta testers (Google calls them “Explorers”) specially selected to test the prototype device, the phrase “Google Glass” may be all you know about it.

Glass is basically a wearable computer for your face. Glass connects to the internet via WiFi, either using public access points or the WiFi hotspot on your smartphone, providing an interface to the net that is always on and always visible to you in a small screen. In theory, it allows a user to see the world around them as well as a digital overlay of extra information about that world. That digital overlay contains added value data about the world that may not be immediately obvious called “augmented reality” or AR.

Imagine visiting a city like London, England. While walking the streets of London you pass historic buildings and sites practically every third step, but without the proper guide or guidebook, you may never know. With an AR app like Google Goggles, available for your Android smartphone, you can hold your phone’s camera up to a building and Goggles will identify the building for you and bring up whatever details it is able to find online. It will then suggest a nice wine bar around the corner if you want a break from your touring, or a museum of naval history nearby relating to the former owner of the house. Simply put, AR gives us extra data about the world around us.

While Android smartphones have had AR applications like Goggles for some time now, they are limited to functioning as an app on your phone. Glass is one of the first truly wearable examples of this AR technology. Glass is the first time that AR is available without having to pull a device out of your pocket; it’s always waiting to give you more information and, more importantly, it overlays the AR data right onto your visual field of the real world.

From the perspective of a poker player, Glass can be seen as either half empty or half full. In the online poker world, we’ve seen the explosion of heads-up displays (HUDs) over the past few years. HUDs track player actions during hands, store that data in a database for analysis, and display stats about previous hands in real-time as you play new ones. It’s a concept that, until recently, wasn’t really applicable to live poker.

Glass may well change all that. The truth is, it has been technically feasible to write a live poker HUD for sometime now. All the technology required for a live poker HUD exists in most of today’s smartphones. With my HTC One, I have a camera that can take live video, and I could write an app that does visual recognition of the cards on the board and gives me stats about odds for various hands. Further, I can store those analyzed hands in a database either on the device or in a cloud and display information about previous hands as I play the current one. I can add facial recognition software and use that to search the web for info on my opponents. Currently, Google’s Terms of Service (TOS) for Glass forbids me from writing facial recognition software for Glass, but that doesn’t stop me from writing it surreptitiously, or from doing it on a future Glass knock-off device without the same TOS, or from writing it for my Android smartphone instead of Glass. Adding in code to read emotional expressions from other players at the table is also possible.

All of the technology for the above exists in one form or another, and has been possible for several years at least. We see code that analyzes visual scenes all the time. If Google Goggles can look at an Italian sign in Naples and translate it to English instantly (or French, or Japanese, or Swahili for that matter), then recognizing the cards in my hand and on the board is trivial. Trivial, in this sense, doesn’t mean necessarily “easy.” In a technical sense, a function is “trivial” if all the components needed to create the function already exist. Trivial solutions don’t require anything new to be invented, but just combine existing capabilities in a new, innovative way.

Several companies are currently working with software that uses high-speed cameras to analyze facial expressions and cues as subtle as blood pressure and pulse to deduce emotional state. At present, the applications are focused on medical situations and are very complex and computer intensive. In one application that actually uses Glass, as reported in the Daily Mail, it records the facial expressions of others, processes it, and feeds it back to an autistic person wearing Glass in simple text form. In that case, Glass is only acting as an interface; the actual computation of the emotional response is done on a much more powerful computer and the results are sent back to the Glass wearer. As the technology progresses, however, there’s no technical reason that stands in the way of that sort of functionality ending up on entirely on your smartphone or a Glass-like device, or in a cloud-based application that a mobile device can hook into as an interface.

Google Glass Implications for Poker are Inevitable 101
An example of what a live poker HUD could look like with Google Glass.

The problem with a smartphone-based HUD, of course, is that its use is very obvious. At the very least, the rest of the table and casino staff will see you holding your phone up to the board and other players to get your data, meaning any smartphone-based HUD could never really be used undetected. That’s where Google Glass comes in.

There has already been a few experiments involving Glass and casino games. It should be noted that Google’s TOS expressly forbids “facial recognition software” and other similar uses, and that Google provides fairly strict instructions to beta testers about what they should and shouldn’t use Glass for. Of course, that didn’t stop some people from lightly pushing the boundaries right from the start.

Chris Barrett was one of the early Explorers selected by Google, but he was mostly interested in pushing the envelope to try things Google suggested he shouldn’t, including a tour of casinos. According to a report from CNET, Barrett wandered through three different Atlantic City casinos wearing his Glass and filming. The only place he was even challenged about the device was the third casino, where a croupier asked about the device. After explaining what it was, he was asked to remove it. More remarkable is the fact that in two previous casinos, he wasn’t even challenged over the somewhat odd looking device.

From his description, Barrett acted normally until finally challenged by a roulette croupier. "We walked by numerous security guards and I made eye contact with many people around the casino. Not one person, other than the roulette dealer, asked me what I was wearing." However, after he started betting at roulette and was finally challenged, he admits to feeling it changed his behaviour. As Barrett explains in Chris Matszczyk’s article on CNET, "after the dealer asked me what I was wearing, once I started to bet, she asked me what Google Glass was. I explained to her how I explain it to everyone: what it can currently do and what it could potentially do in the future. I usually offer to let the person try it on, but the casino wasn't the right place to give a Glass demo."

It’s important to note that Barrett didn’t really try to do anything other than wear Glass into a casino and film some of what he saw. There’s no indication that he tried to use the computational ability of Glass for any purpose related to gambling. As outlined in an entertaining Esquire article, A.J. Jacobs wasn’t quite so constrained with his boundary pushing, though he had the good sense to keep his test out of a real casino. Instead, Jacobs decided to put one over on his friends, though he insists it was for research purposes only.

Among other things, Jacobs was interested in exploring the ability of Glass to stream two-way live video. He actually did four major tests that went outside Google’s suggested guidelines including trying to read the full text of Moby Dick on the tiny screen while driving with his wife (in the interest of public safety, I’ll stress his wife was driving and he was in the passenger seat). The literary experiment resulted in, as he describes, “an ice-pick headache.” He also tried to use Glass to watch movies and TV throughout his daily routine, an experiment that made him “worried for reality.” An attempt to use Glass to direct a couple of friends on a night at a bar searching for dates from the comfort of Jacobs’ home met with pretty limited success (oddly, he found “the single women seem more intrigued by Glass, the men more threatened”).

But perhaps his most interesting test was arranging a poker home game with some buddies and arranging a “cousin who's a professional poker player in Vegas” to watch on live video, feeding Jacobs information and strategy about the hand as it played. Jacobs’ cousin (who is never named in Jacobs’ accounts of his evening of poker) was able to see Jacobs’ hole cards as he peeled them back, and the cousin could send written instructions to Jacobs through a live video feed back into the Glass display. He could have gone a step further, having the cousin speak directly to him through the Glass “bone conduction transducer,” a device that conducts sound to the inner ear through vibrations on the bones of the skull, but as Jacobs’ says, “first, I don't want my fellow card players to hear him. And second, he's kind of a cocky bastard.” Instead, the cousin used a whiteboard on his end to write instructions which Jacobs could see in his Glass display. But in theory, with better technology, the same scheme could easily work with full audio both ways.

Despite some technical difficulties, which are hardly surprising in a beta device like this, the experiment was quite a success. He managed to win big by being a “poker body” for his cousin’s “poker brain.” He confessed to his tricks the following day and returned the money he’d won. It’s a good example of how, even in a very low-tech implementation, the potential of a Glass-like device in a game like poker is huge and also quite threatening to the game’s integrity.

Reserving judgement on whether the technology would be positive or negative, it would be game changing at least. When HUDs first came into use in online poker there was a fair amount of opposition to them, especially from “old school” live players who spent careers doing all that HUD stuff in their heads through excellent memory and analytical skills. That mental ability represented an “edge” that they lost against players who could now get a computer to do all that for them. In fact, the edge didn’t just smooth out, the computer was far better at keeping track of that data than any human ever could be, so the HUDs allowed players who could not have competed at the same level without a HUD to be stronger players, and in many cases to compete better than the “old school” masters could hope to without the computer. There were discussions about the ethics of HUDs and it was finally decided that, in the online world, the arguments for HUDs outweighed the arguments against them. Today they are largely an accepted part of online poker whether you use one or not.

Google Glass Implications for Poker are Inevitable 102
Will we see signs like these in poker rooms soon?

Today, Glass is not capable of a live HUD-like app. In its current form, Glass is a low-powered beta device with limited capability and Google’s TOS for the device explicitly prohibits many of the functions required for such an application. But more important than what Glass can (or is allowed to) do today is that it is truly a beta for an entire range of wearable computers that fit seamlessly into clothing and accessories. These new devices will provide AR-type overlays to the user through invisible interfaces like visual displays on the inside of eyeglasses that only the wearer can see, and improved bone conduction sound that is undetectable by others. And they will include sensors in clothing that go well beyond human sense capabilities.

Right now, as I look at Glass in its primitive, beta form, I don’t see a limited, niche device; I see the prototype of a device that will revolutionize how we see and interact with the world, with implications far beyond the poker table. But I also see a device with the potential to revolutionize the game of live poker, and something the industry needs to get ahead of. Today, a live poker HUD is science fiction - something you couldn’t really do with Glass. And today, Glass is only available to a select few Explorers. But all the components of a live poker HUD that reads cards, analyzes situations mathematically, reads other players’ body responses and facial expressions (in far more detail than humanly possible), and gives the wearer a synthesis of that data in real time to a display that no one else can see already exists today in one form or another. Google is coy about exact dates, but industry experts suggest a public release of Glass in 2014 and it’s a sure bet that others are working on similar concepts.

As the technology of Glass and Glass-like devices improves over the next few years, it’s almost certain that an app for live poker will be written by someone, somewhere. In fact, it’s likely that someone, somewhere, is already working on a primitive form of it. Five or ten years from now will be too late to have a debate about the effects of live poker HUDs because they will already exist and be in use. At that point, at best, the discussion will be about controlling the new technology. But if we start the conversation today, there’s a very real chance the poker industry can guide the development and use of apps like this in live poker settings. We can’t simply bury our head in the sand and say it can’t happen. It will happen, and sooner rather than later. All the pieces already exist, albeit currently in forms that are difficult or impossible to implement in a HUD-like app exclusively on a mobile device.

When some capability of technology requires invention for it to work, it is often assumed to be “impossible” or “unlikely.” Inventions are unpredictable. Truly new ideas are hard to come by and they don’t happen on a schedule. But once a capability becomes “trivial,” that capability becomes predictable and expected. That’s where we are today with Google Glass and live poker HUDs. The live poker HUD on a Glass-like device requires no invention whatsoever; every piece of it has already been invented. All it takes is someone bright enough to combine the disparate pieces in a form that can be used in a Glass-like device. If there’s one thing that the poker industry has no shortage of, it’s extremely bright people looking for an edge. A live poker HUD will be created. The only real question is if the poker industry will be proactive or reactive about it.

*Lead photo courtesy of Google.
**HUD example image courtesy of Erik Liddell.
***Google Glass ban image courtesy of Stop the Cybrogs.

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