Bay Area bar owners and lawmakers in several states want to ban Glass. Developer Shane Walker has been wearing Glass since last September.  (Aarti Shahani/KQED)
Bay Area bar owners and lawmakers in several states want to ban Glass. Developer Shane Walker has been wearing Glass since last September. (Aarti Shahani/KQED)

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.”

Test drive

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.

  • Gang of One

    If they’re going to allow Google Glass while driving, then they should allow anyone injured or killed in an accident involving a Google Glass wearer to sue Google as well. Don’t be evil my a**.

    • Toeknee Toe

      I pretty sure ambulance chasers are working on that angle as well. Google has lots of money and they will be responsible for all the evils on Earth.

    • http://omniamuntantur.tumblr.com/ James O’Hagan

      Be advised Google has their own lobbyists working on to fight bans.

  • Ty Gerhardt

    The problem is everyone thinks they’re exceptional…especially glassholes. It doesn’t matter how much you tell them they’re actually distracted and how the brain actually works, they’ll insist they’re not. They’re special. Just make it a law that if you use Google Glass while driving you must drive a convertible and you can’t wear a seat belt…the problem will sort itself out in a few months.

    • Toeknee Toe

      Wait till the Glassholes get pop-up ads on the Glass.

    • http://omniamuntantur.tumblr.com/ James O’Hagan

      I’ll agree that the tech is not refined enough to be safe while driving. Probably the same people who think they’re really good multitaskers despite the data that says otherwise.

  • http://omniamuntantur.tumblr.com/ James O’Hagan

    As a Glass owner and user, the tech is valuable as a concept but because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. This tech will be refined and miniaturized. Then what?

    If people are concerned about privacy, start with the all the video cameras that unknowingly record your every move used by businesses and local governments. Do you realize how many times on your commute to work you are recorded without knowledge?

    This tech is a great leap outside social norms. Those who don’t understand how the tech works are the ones most adamant about the evils. Society is not ready for it, but no one is ready for change.

    • David Thaler

      “If people are concerned about privacy, start with the all the video cameras that unknowingly record your every move used by businesses and local governments. Do you realize how many times on your commute to work you are recorded without knowledge?”

      True, but the motivation there is for security, and/or solving crimes and/or identifying those who’ve broken the law and you know the cameras are there. Glass users may or may not be recording you and appear to do so “just for fun.” Besides, I don’t need to know the history of a damn fire hydrant just because I happen to be nearby. That’s just silly.

  • PrivacyPundit

    El Rio has banned them as well. Wear your glass at home.

  • saimin

    How much of this backlash is due to the “Google Bus” controversy? Google Glass doesn’t do anything that people are not already doing with their cell phones. Are these businesses banning cell phones, too?

    • RW

      It is more of a publicity stunt for venues and politicians to shore up their anti-establishment image than it is a some big-brother nerd epidemic. The anti-tech movement in San Francisco has really taken hold of the simpletons in the city and fed them a narrative they are willing to believe: https://medium.com/changing-city/6788daa20942

  • RW

    What an absolute gift that isolated incident at Molotov was in the way of drumming up all this media publicity around “glassholes”, but especially for crafting such an effortless and universal marketing gimmick for every dive bar and privacy hawk in desperate need of an image lift…

  • http://twitter.com/LunaticSX Lun Esex

    The number of bars, restaurants, and other venues that ban Google Glass is only going to increase. Providing a comfortable atmosphere for customers who value their privacy trumps accommodating wannabe cyborgs with cameras on their faces. Anywhere else that recording devices are banned is also sure to include Google Glass as a prohibited device, in the same way that phones with cameras are banned in gym locker rooms. Google Glass was even banned from a Google shareholder meeting.

    As for driving, trying to use Google Glass at the same time fails anyways due to myriad deficiencies: http://www.businessinsider.com/google-glass-is-useless-in-a-car-2013-5

    Actions taken by users to try to get around those deficiencies while driving will definitely fall under the classification of “distracted driving.”

  • yermom72

    Explain just why this person has to “flip through photos” while waiting at a stoplight? Pay attention to your environment.

Author

Aarti Shahani

Aarti Shahani is a reporter at KQED, focusing on business and technology. She came to San Francisco as a Kroc Fellow with NPR. She was part of the ProPublica team awarded an Investigative Reporters & Editors Award for Post Mortem – a series examining the unregulated coroner and medical examiner industry. Shahani got her Master’s in Public Policy from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, supported by the Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowship and a Public Service Fellowship. She studied globalization as an undergraduate at the University of Chicago. She was raised in Flushing, Queens – in the nation’s most diverse zip code.

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