Google Glass isn’t even on sale yet and there is already a noticeable backlash against Google’s first experiment in wearable computing. It’s odd to see a product that was greeted with so much hype a year ago endure the love-hate cycle so quickly – even though there are only a few thousand units in the wild. Sure, we’ve done our share to popularize “glasshole” as a way to describe its users, but the backlash seems to go beyond the usual insidery tech circles.
The Glass backlash, of course, first hit the mainstream with the Saturday Night Live sketch I’ve embedded below, but last week, I also came across this piece on CNN.com about Glass etiquette. With Glass being as new as it is, that’s a topic worth discussing, just like it was when cellphones first arrived. What struck me more than the story itself, though, were the comments on it.
Mind you – these are mainstream CNN readers, not techies. Some are simply misinformed (“I was at a local conference of small to medium businesses last week and most of the businesses have already banned the product entirely. It’s not even permitted to be brought in the businesses. Most of the bans came from employee requests, and I don’t blame them. I’ve banned it from my own business too.”), some are outright hostile (“This crap makes me happy to know that I’ll die someday… where is society heading?” – but that’s not wonder on the Internet, after all) and many worry that somebody will use Glass to take pictures of their private parts in the men’s bathroom (“Now I’ve got more to worry about when they guy at the urinal next to me decided he wants to be chatty instead of keeping his sight forward…”).
Indeed, it seems privacy is the main issue people have with Glass, besides the fact that it does take some getting used to. The fact that the camera is front and center on the device makes people uneasy. Google’s mistake, I think, was not to put an LED next to the camera that indicates when it’s taking pictures and videos. Walking through New York with Glass a few weeks ago, I had a few random people come up to me to ask me about Glass. None of them were techies, but they were quite aware of what I was wearing. Three out of four, however, assumed that I was recording them while I was talking to them. That’s definitely an issue Google will have to fix.
Earlier this month, Michael Chertoff, the former secretary of Homeland Security during the Bush administration, linked Glass to surveillance drones in an op-ed piece on CNN. “Imagine that millions of Americans walk around each day wearing the equivalent of a drone on their head: a device capable of capturing video and audio recordings of everything that happens around them,” he wrote. The fact that Chertoff advocated for more full-body scanners in U.S. airports is the kind of irony and cognitive dissonance that has recently been a hallmark of American politics. It’s these kinds of comments, however, that are stoking the privacy fears around Glass, no matter how unfounded they are.
All of this, of course, comes from a fundamental misunderstanding of Glass’s capabilities and the fact that few who write about it have even tried it definitely adds to this. Glass can’t record everything around you. The video feature, by default, takes 10-second videos when you activate it and you have to actually press a button on the device if you want to extend this time. The battery, however, would die pretty quickly if you just let it record everything as you walk down the street.
Glass, in its current iteration, is essentially a wearable web browser with Google Now that can also take videos and images. Nothing you photograph is immediately uploaded anywhere. You have to explicitly share photos or videos with a friend or an app. Processing, for the most part, happens in the cloud, not on the device. Glass is more about getting news stories, email, social network updates and other information pushed to you than it is about you sharing photos and videos.
Earlier this week, we also heard about a face-recognition API for Glass. It can’t work in real time yet, so you’d have to snap a picture, send it to the developers’ servers and get a response back, but it’s that kind of technology that Glass can enable that is definitely creating a bit of unease.
The fact that few people have tried Glass also means that there are plenty of these myths around that, over time, become unquestioned by those who haven’t tried it. Google didn’t help itself here, given that some of its first demo videos showed a device that was far more capable than what’s actually available right now. Its later videos were more realistic, but it’s the first one that people will remember.
So while some of this early – and somewhat sudden – hate for Glass sure stems from the fact that it’s new, only available to a few people and looks a bit odd – the real issue is simply that people believe it’s a little privacy-invasion machine that sits above your right eye. It really isn’t, but until Google puts a little LED at the front that indicates when it records a message, people won’t back down from this idea.