In the movie “The Matrix,” the avatars for humans imprisoned by machines needed to learn skills on the fly in order to fight for their freedom on the phony earth. The 1999 movie had a complicated plot, but was great fun — and provided lots of futuristic fodder for programmers and tech people to play with.
One of those techies, entrepreneur Barry Schwartz, believes that the Matrix future is here, courtesy of Google Glass, the experimental eyewear that will connect your eyes, ears and voice directly to the Internet. Glass provides a virtual screen in front of your eye, letting you see data drawn from the Internet. Using this technology, Schwartz has created a Glass app called “How Do I,” which lets users ask their Glass device for instructions on just about anything — and relays them, “in your face” style.
And by melding How Do I with his company’s other Glass app, JewGlass, Schwartz aims to create something that may give many synagogue rabbis the greatest gift, or the biggest headache, that they have ever had.
“I came up with this wild idea to build a Google Glass app to teach me to do absolutely anything I want, similar to how the characters in ‘The Matrix’ learned anything in a matter of seconds,” said Schwartz. “YouTube has videos that will teach you to do almost anything, from changing the oil in a car to fixing an air conditioner, to less legal activities. I wanted to have access to that anywhere I went, whenever I needed to learn something.”
While many of the millions of videos on YouTube are utter wastes of time (unless you really like cats), there are plenty of instructional, informative, and useful videos, all of them freely accessible. Computer users can type in a search term, such as “How do I change my car’s oil filter,” and get a list of dozens of videos that will provide the appropriate instructions.
But unless you schlep your laptop or tablet to the garage, you won’t be able to apply the information in real time; at best, you’ll have to look at the screen, pause the video, take care of the task you just learned about, then start the video up and look at the screen again. And if the video you’re watching isn’t helping you out as you had hoped, you’ll have to use your (by now oily) fingers to scroll down on your laptop’s or tablet’s trackpad or screen.
Glass lets you avoid the mess, enabling you to keep your eye on the job and on the instructional video at the same time. Using Schwartz’s app, Glass users can do a verbal search (saying “How do I change my car’s oil filter”), and the app will immediately connect to the Internet and display the most relevant video. Now, you get to see the instructions in real time, following each step as it’s displayed in the video. If you don’t like what you see, just say “next,” or swipe the rim of the device, and you’ll get the next video (the app loads the first ten most relevant videos in order of popularity).
New York-based Schwartz is no stranger to the app world; he is CEO of RustyBrick, which develops Jewish-oriented apps for computers and devices. Among the company’s latest and greatest accomplishments was the development of a fully annotated English translation of the Babylonian Talmud, with English translation by the Mesorah (Artscroll) publishing house. That app came out for the iPad last year, and several weeks ago RustyBrick released an Android version.
How Do I isn’t Schwartz’s only contribution to the world of Glass apps; his JewGlass pushes contextual, geographic-aware, and time sensitive data directly into your line of vision, with “in your face” reminders to step out of a meeting and recite the afternoon prayer before it’s too late. Along with the alert, JewGlass will tell you where the nearest synagogue is, show you a map and give you directions (driving or walking) on how to get there, and display the words of the relevant prayer (no need to pick up a prayerbook). It all gets delivered automatically; you don’t have to lift a finger.
After prayers, it’s time for lunch or dinner, and JewGlass lets you conjure up a list of kosher places just by asking for it. Again you get a map with directions (along with a phone number for reservations, if needed), and if the menu is in Hebrew, you’ll be able to automatically get a translation, just by looking at the menu; the app will read the Hebrew, plug it into Google Translate, and send back an English version of what you’ve just seen.
JewGlass could be the first of many “Jewish experience” apps, said Schwartz. “We could have an app that would look at a package and see if it was kosher, based on the ingredients, or one that could give you information on the supervising rabbi. We could also do automatic Hebrew and English translations — for example, we could do a visual translation of the Bible or Talmud as a person was reading.”
Those platforms and databases, too, already exist, thanks to the English translation of the Talmud and Bible, and Google Translate. “Putting together an app that draws on these sources wouldn’t be too difficult.”
Glass is expected to come onto the market in a year or so; Google is reportedly deciding how to market it, how much to charge, etc. Currently, said Schwartz, there are no more than 100 Glass apps around, with only about 20 of them getting official approval from Google. “And whatever is available is likely to change in the future as Google works out bugs and adds features.”
So far, RustyBrick is the only company in the world with a Jewish-oriented Glass app, said Schwartz. “I’m pretty sure we have the only religiously oriented one as well,” he said.
For his next project, Schwartz sees developing an app that could revolutionize the way the Torah is read in synagogue, and bring Jewish law face-to-face with the most modern edges of Internet technology. How about an app, said Schwartz, “that lets a person read the Torah, directly from the scroll, giving them the vowelization of the letters as they look at the scroll?”
As anyone who has been through a bar mitzvah (or has put their kids through one) knows, the ceremony is chiefly an exercise in memorization. The kid is expected to read the text in a Torah scroll, remembering in great detail which vowel (the little lines, dots, and other marks under the Hebrew text) apply to which letter. For kids who read the entire Sabbath portion, it may take months of labor to memorize what they need to know. RustyBrick’s biggest seller, in fact, is Tikun Korim, an app that helps kids (and adults) practice learning to read the Torah from a virtual scroll.
But why bother to learn when you could just superimpose the vowels on the letters as you looked at the scroll? Using a meld of JewGlass and How Do I, the new app could play a video, showing the letters and vowels, and piping in the tune used to read the portion, with the bar mitzvah child repeating it, word for word.
“An app like that would be great to help in learning to read the Torah,” said Schwartz.
There’s no doubt such an app would be welcome. But what about using it in “real time,” reading for the congregation with the app guiding you word by word? What would Jewish law say about such a shortcut?
Says Schwartz: “I haven’t asked any rabbis about the legality of such an app [for reciting the portion in synagogue]. I imagine it would be used as a study aid for bar mitzvah kids.”
Will Google Glass unseat thousands of years of tradition in one fell swoop? Will the Jewish world see a whole new division — between the synagogues where Glass is allowed and those where it is not? Ready or not, Judaism is about to enter the age of Glass — and experts in Jewish law have their work cut out for them.