Google wants to be even bigger than the world’s biggest search engine. The company headquartered in Mountain View is at the forefront of a movement in wearable technology — gadgets we put on our bodies to connect us to the Internet, like Google Glass.
The eyewear with a built-in camera is the flashpoint of a new controversy in San Francisco and around the country. Bar owners in the Bay Area and lawmakers in several states want to ban Glass.
Barroom brawl triggers privacy concerns
At least eight bars in the Bay Area have banned the use of Google Glass on their premises. This comes after a recent barroom brawl.
A tech enthusiast named Sarah Slocum says she was assaulted for wearing Glass. She recorded a short video by tapping the right side of her Glass as the alleged attacker approached her.
“OK, it’s on video now,” she shouted at the beginning of her recording.
But witnesses disagree about who started the fight. And a growing number of bar owners agree that Glass is an invasion of privacy.
Managers at Molotov’s, the dive bar where the brawl broke out declined an interview. But regular Ron Adams — who was just trying to shoot some pool — says Glass wearers are even more offensive than the people clicking away on smartphones.
“I mean they can spy on people that people don’t know,” Adams said. “I’m cool right here under the radar and I don’t need nobody putting me out in space nowhere.”
Legislative battle over public safety
As Bay Area bar owners rally around privacy, lawmakers in other states are protesting for another reason: safety on the roads. California has not introduced a bill to ban Glass. But at least eight states and the United Kingdom have.
Ira Silverstein, a Chicago Democrat who’s a member of the Illinois Senate, says Glass leads to distracted driving: “Yeah, it’s hands-free, but it’s even more dangerous than a cellphone or texting. Your sight might be impaired.”
Gary Howell, a Republican in the West Virginia House of Delegates, agrees: “You could be wearing it, not looking at your driving, but watching cat videos.”
Leading car insurance companies have not yet taken a position on Glass because, they say, it’s still in test mode. But lawmakers like Silverstein say the time to ban it is now, before it hits stores and things get out of hand.
His bill would prohibit the use of Google Glass. The first offense would be a misdemeanor. “The second offense if, God forbid, causes death, would be a felony.”
Google spokesman Chris Dale says Glass is not a threat, but rather a breathtaking innovation — a tiny computer at the upper right-hand corner of the eye, delivering alerts to and from the Internet, hearing the human voice and scanning the eye’s retina for commands. Just wink to snap a photo, for example.
“It’s actually not distracting, and it allows you — rather than looking down at your phone, you’re looking up and you’re engaging with the world around you,” Dale said. “And it was specifically designed to do that. To get you the technology you need, just when you need it, but then to get out of your way.”
But West Virginia Delegate Howell says the high-tech masterminds lack common sense.
“Have they driven on mountain roads in West Virginia where you’ve got one 15-mph turn after another one, where you really need to be concentrating on what you’re doing? I wonder if they understand the difference between rural driving and wearing a product in the city where you’re riding on a bus or in the subway.”
Howell and other lawmakers protesting Glass say they have never tried it. I decided to go for a test drive with a regular user.
Shane Walker starting wearing Glass last September. He’s among the hundreds of independent developers who got the device so they could start writing apps for it.
“Google did a good job of making it non-intrusive, so it’s not directly in your line of sight,” he said.
Walker takes his Prius Hybrid meandering through the streets of San Francisco. At a stop sign, he strokes the frame of his Glass with his right index finger. He’s flipping through photos the same way one might on a smartphone. “People want to try it on, and I have them take pictures of me.”
But then something happens that I’ve never seen with a smartphone. We turn a corner past a golden fire hydrant. Suddenly Glass starts streaming long sentences in front of Walker’s iris.
He reads aloud: “When San Francisco burst into flames in the days following the disastrous 1906 earthquake, much of the city’s network of fire hydrants failed. Miraculously this fire hydrant, nicknamed ‘The Little Giant,’ is said to have been the only functional hydrant and is credited with saving the historic …”
Walker goes on reading for about half a minute, and has a theory about why this text is not distracting him.
“I think a large portion of that has to do with the fact the layer is transparent. So your eye does a good job of seeing through it while also staring at it.”
Earl Miller, professor of neuroscience at MIT, says that sounds like a lot of wishful thinking. A driver cannot monitor the road at the same time he’s reading. The brain fills in the gaps in what you see … with memories of what you saw a half-second ago. “You’re relying on your brain’s prediction that nothing was there before (to tell you) nothing is there now. But that’s an illusion. It can lead to disastrous results.”
Among scientists, that statement is not controversial. The politics of who wears Google Glass — and where they wear it — clearly is.