Google's wearable Glass gadget: cool or creepy?

SAN FRANCISCO Sat May 18, 2013 8:12pm IST

Google founder Sergey Brin poses for a portrait wearing Google Glass glasses before the Diane von Furstenberg Spring/Summer 2013 collection show during New York Fashion Week September 9, 2012. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri/Files

Google founder Sergey Brin poses for a portrait wearing Google Glass glasses before the Diane von Furstenberg Spring/Summer 2013 collection show during New York Fashion Week September 9, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Carlo Allegri/Files

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SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - Google(GOOG.O) staged four discussions expounding on the finer points of its "Glass" wearable computer during this week's developer conference. Missing from the agenda, however, was a session on etiquette when using the recording-capable gadget, which some attendees faithfully wore everywhere - including to the crowded bathrooms.

Google Glass, a cross between a mobile computer and eyeglasses that can both record video and surf the Internet, is now available to a select few but is already among the year's most buzz-worthy new gadgets. The device has geeks all aflutter but is unnerving everyone from lawmakers to casino operators worried about the potential for hitherto unimagined privacy and policy violations.

"I had a friend and we're sitting at dinner and about 30 minutes into it she said, 'You know those things freak me out,'" said Allen Firstenberg, a technology consultant at the Google developers conference. He has been wearing Glass for about a week but offered to take them off for the comfort of his dinner companion.

On another occasion, Firstenberg admitted to walking into a bathroom wearing his Glass without realizing it.

"Most of the day I totally forget it's there," he said.

Many believe wearable computers represent the next big shift in technology, just as smartphones evolved from personal computers. Apple (AAPL.O) and Samsung (005930.KS) are said to be working on other forms of wearable technology.

The test version of Glass looks like a clear pair of eyeglasses with a hefty slab along the right side. Since it began shipping to a couple thousand carefully selected early adopters who paid about $1,500 for the device, it has inspired a bit of ridicule - from a parody on "Saturday Night Live" to a popular blog poking fun at its users.

Other industry experts take a more serious tack, pointing out the potential for misuse because Glass can record video far less conspicuously than a handheld device.

Glass also has won many fans. Google and some early users maintain that privacy fears are overblown. As with traditional video cameras, a tiny light blinks on to let people know when it is recording.

Several Glass wearers at the developers conference said they whip the device off in inappropriate situations, such as in gym locker rooms or work meetings. Michael Evans, a Web developer from Washington, D.C., attending the Google conference, said he removed his Glass when he went to the movies, even though the device would be ill-suited for recording a feature-length film.

"I just figured I don't want to be the first guy kicked out of the movies," he said.

NO GLASS ALLOWED

A stamp-sized electronic screen mounted on the left side of a pair of eyeglass frames, Glass can record video, access email, provide turn-by-turn driving directions and retrieve info from the Web by connecting wirelessly to a user's cell phone.

Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt dismissed concerns about the brave new world of wearable computers during a talk at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government in April.

"Criticisms are inevitably from people who are afraid of change or who have not figured out that there will be an adaptation of society to it," he said.

Schmidt acknowledged that there are certain places where Glass will not be appropriate but that he believed new rules of social etiquette will coalesce over time. Firstenberg said it will take time for all sides to get comfortable with the new technology.

"I don't think we should go into the conversation assuming that Glass is bad," he said.

Indeed, previous technology innovations such as mobile phones and wireless headsets that initially raised concerns are now subject to tacit rules of etiquette, such as not talking loudly on the bus and turning a ringer off in a meeting.

Still, some have decided to leave nothing to chance.

Casino operator Caesar's Entertainment recently announced that Glass is not permitted while gambling or when in showrooms, though guests can wear it in other areas. In March, Seattle's Five Point Cafe made headlines for becoming the first bar to ban Glass. "Respect our customers privacy as we'd expect them to respect yours," says a statement on the café's website.

The California Highway Patrol says there is no law that explicitly forbids a driver from wearing Glass while driving in the state. But according to Officer Elon Steers, if a driver appears to be distracted as a result of the device, an officer can take enforcement action.

PRIVACY TRACK RECORD

Lawmakers are beginning to consider Glass.

On Thursday, eight members of the U.S. Congress sent a letter to Google Chief Executive Larry Page, asking for details about how Glass handles various privacy issues, including whether it is capable of facial recognition.

According to Google, there are no facial recognition technologies built into the device and it has no plans to do so "unless we have strong privacy protections in place."

During one of this week's conference sessions - an open discussion about Glass - members of the Glass team answered a question about privacy by noting that social implications and etiquette have been a big area of focus during the development of the product, which is still a test version.

Some of the Glass-phobia may stem from Google's own track record on privacy. In 2010, Google revealed that its fleet of Street View cars, which criss-cross the globe taking panoramic photos for the Google Maps product, also had captured personal information such as emails and web pages that were transmitted over unencrypted home wireless networks.

"The fact that it's Google offering the service, as opposed to say Brookstone, raises privacy issues," said Marc Rotenberg, the executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a non-profit privacy advocacy group, citing Google's history and its scale in Internet advertising.

Rotenberg says his main concern centers on the stream of data collected by the devices - everything from audio and video to a user's location data - going to Google's data centers.

Ryan Calo, a University of Washington law professor who specializes in privacy and technology, said Glass is not very different from other technologies available today, whether it is a smartphone or "spy" pens that secretly record audio. But Glass is on people's faces, so it feels different.

"The face is a really intimate place and to have a piece of technology on it is unsettling," Calo said. "Much as a drone is unsettling because we have some ideas of war."

For all the hand-wringing, some early adopters are sold.

Ryan Warner, who recently graduated from college and who has developed a recipe app for Glass with Evans, said he was surprised by the reaction he got when he went to a bar.

"I was like, 'I don't know if I should have it on or not.' I was kind of in that phase," he said, "and the bouncer was like, 'Oh, my god, is that Google Glass?' He was excited." (Reporting By Alexei Oreskovic, with additional reporting by Susan Zeidler in Los Angeles and Aaron Pressman in Boston; Editing by Bill Trott)

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