Editorial Google may be ready for wearable cameras, but what about you

Summer in Paris -- you can't walk a block on Champs-Élysées without locking eyes with at least one camera-equipped tourist. But Steve Mann's shooter wasn't dangling from his shoulder and neck; it was mounted on his head, with a design strikingly similar to Google's Project Glass. Unlike that mainstream Mountain View product, however, Mann's version has reportedly been around in one form or another for 34 years, and was designed with the objective of aiding vision, rather than capturing stills and video or providing a bounty of database-aided readouts. It's also street-ready today. While on vacation with his family, the Ontario-based "father of wearable computing" was sporting his EyeTap as he walked down the aforementioned French avenue, eventually entering a McDonald's to refuel after a busy day of sightseeing. He left without his ranch wrap, but with seriously damaged hardware.

What allegedly occurred inside the restaurant is no doubt a result of the increasing presence and subsequent awareness of connected cameras, ranging from consumer gear to professional surveillance equipment. As Mann sat to eat, he writes that a stranger approached him then attempted to pull off his glasses, which, oddly, are permanently affixed to his skull. The man, at that point joined by one other patron and someone that appeared to be a McDonald's employee, then pushed Mann out of the store and onto the street. As a result of the attack, the eyewear malfunctioned, resulting in the three men being photographed. It wouldn't be terribly difficult for police to identify those involved, but this encounter may have greater implications. McDonalds has since launched an investigation into the matter and seems to be denying most of the claims, but it'll be some time yet before the full truth is uncovered. Still, the whole ordeal got us at Engadget thinking -- is the planet ready for humans to wear video recorders, and will it ever shake a general unease related to the threat of a world filled with omnipresent cameras? Join us past the break for our take.

Editorial Google may be ready for wearable cameras, but what about you

Tim Stevens

Classroom bullies don't stop us from wearing normal glasses. A couple of French bullies in McDonald's should not make us doubt the future of projects like Google Glass.

We have to be careful when looking at Steve Mann's story and pondering questions like "is the world ready for X?" We can't let the actions of a few close-minded bullies force us to hit the brakes on a progression of technology that many of you are obviously excited about. Classroom bullies don't stop us from wearing normal glasses. A couple of French bullies in McDonald's should not make us doubt the future of projects like Google Glass.

That said, we cannot let their Luddite antics color what is a genuine privacy concern amongst much of the populace. Recording (and publishing) private conversations is a dubious thing legally, and while we've seen Google having some success at changing legislation to suit its future-minded goals, this is a rather different proposition.

Until the world has developed some sort of Laughing Man-like technology for dynamically obscuring faces and blocking conversation recording, it's clear that the world is not quite ready to release projects such as Google Glass upon the streets. But, the world very definitely needs to start having conversations about how it's going to handle technology like this because it's coming -- and soon. For once, it'd be nice if society were actually ready for it.

Zach Honig

It was just shy of four months ago that Google first grabbed our attention with Project Glass, launching a mock-up demo video on YouTube to show us what the company had in store. Calendar appointments, text messages, walking directions and even subway alerts popped up as a man went about his day -- the implications were certainly promising, from a convenience perspective. But then, at the end of the demonstration, the wearer hopped in a video call, sharing a live feed of a sunset through the same eyewear that was mounted to his head for the entire day. Project Glass wasn't just about accessing Google services hands-free -- it was about sharing your life with others as it happened, with the people you encountered indoors and out being broadcast around the world in realtime. Privacy? Forget about it. Even in your own home.

Google Glass may now have a name, but we've known to expect something like it. One day. Which also happens to be the title of Mountain View's harmless YouTube intro -- Google Glass: One day... But just a few weeks after our first glimpse at Glass, we learned that day could come in 2013. Google I/O attendees had an opportunity to pre-order a Glass Explorer Edition for $1,500. Beginning next year, several thousand people could be streaming video and photos to their Google+ profiles while walking down city streets, through airport checkpoints, from tables at a restaurant, lecture halls on campus, even business meetings. That's not to suggest that these individuals will be reckless with their newfound live streaming abilities, but the potential exists. And so will the fear.

No shirt. No shoes. Project Glass. No service. Constant monitoring puts anyone on edge, and even if some subjects and strangers are disciplined enough to avoid lashing out, not all will be. Glass attacks will stream live to the web alongside birthday parties, shopping sprees, graduation ceremonies, copyrighted Hollywood flicks at the theater. If your eyes can see it now, Project Glass will see it, too. One day...

Darren

I touched on it when I was spouting off about Google's revelations at I/O, but I'm 100 percent convinced that the world just isn't ready for Project Glass. Or, anything similar to it. I've seen privacy advocates explode for things much, much less invasive, and while we're gradually becoming okay with security cameras in places like fuel stations and street corners, there are still those that cry "Big Brother!" whenever possible. And therein lies the crux of the argument. Who here is to say that Project Glass is okay, but CCTV is not? Who is the final judge on drawing that line in the sand? Do we have the proper legal infrastructure to make these decisions, or is it ever possible to truly rule correctly on what is and isn't okay to film? My guess is that it'll be ambiguous for as long as humans roam this planet, and it'll never make us entirely comfortable.

One of the bigger issues Google (and whoever else tries this) will have is education. There's a zero percent chance Google itself can truly educate the world on Glass, and that it's not always recording. There's no conceivable way the TSA lets a baggage handler at DTW wear these to work. It's just a matter of time before that "No Smoking" sign at your favorite eatery is amended to say "No Wearable Cameras." Something tells me Glass will only ever be welcomed in places where wearable cameras already are; we've no qualms seeing a head-mounted GoPro on the slopes or the racetrack, but take one into a public washroom and you'll probably get some disconcerting looks.

Google seems to think it'll change the way the world works by letting us wear a camera that can record whatever we want. Something tells me reality will force those dreams back a few notches, making it more of a GoPro competitor than a portal to the future. I won't say that I'm happy or sad about it, but I'm pretty sure humanity isn't ready for anything more significant.

Jamie

I can't deny that the prospect of playing with a pair of big G's specs excites me. I imagine strolling around a museum or gallery, artifacts in one eye, Wikipedia in the other. OK, maybe that example's a bit poetic, but it's tame given the possibilities. We're in the smartphone age now, and wearable computers are the natural, complementary progression of the always-on lifestyle. But, just because I get it doesn't mean I want it. It's not because of the worldwide CCTV argument -- it's what effect such integrated hardware will have on us, the consumer. I just can't see life-streaming to an absent audience taking off, leaving us nothing more than a conveniently located camera. Especially one that will likely be of lower quality than your average point-and-shoot, just as obvious and with on-board storage for those paranoid about pumping to the cloud. There are endless ways to determine where I am right now. From the IP of this very computer and the cameras in this building, to the GPS on my phone and the Oyster turnstile at the tube station across the way. Head-mounted computers won't revolutionize global surveillance -- it's just a visual cue to the ugly reality.

It's not the camera that worries me, it's the uncooked data.

Besides, it's not the camera that worries me, it's the uncooked data. I'm sure my Google profile is terrifying enough, and forever hungry. It's a bit unsettling, and more accurate than I'd want to admit, to think that my experiences in life are increasingly a service tailored by some giant, faceless corporation. The scenarios are endless. Could Glass enhance my time in a new city? Or will I be getting the 'Google knows best' version. Am I stopping at this restaurant because I want to, or because Yelp is pushing me through the doors based on my habits, location and user reviews? I can't escape connectivity running my life. I rarely get event invites outside Facebook, big G itself runs my calendar and falling out of sync is a growing concern. But I still like my games with a controller, my streaming through Ethernet cabling and prefer Lo-Fi photography to Instragram filters. I want to play, but I'm just not ready to experience RL through information feeds and AR-tinted lenses.

Philip

I couldn't have been more conspicuous. I was an official photographer for a huge state fair, walking the grounds and capturing images of general merriment. I was armed with my largest and most professional gear, a clipboard full of photo release forms and a badge that essentially said "I'm not a creepy dude, I swear." Signs were posted at all entrances notifying everyone that photo and video crews may be capturing visuals for marketing purposes. Yet, one day, when I snapped a fairly routine shot of two kids enjoying a science display, their father jumped in between, Batman-style, and politely (but firmly) asked what I was doing. He accepted my explanation, but declined to allow his children to be photographed for marketing purposes and requested the photos I had taken be deleted.

It was a rather peaceful conclusion that could have easily turned as violent as the one in Paris. And that was with me being Mr. Obvious Photographer Guy. This is the world EyeTap and Project Glass are trying to enter. I'm not quite sure we're ready for the aftermath. If I had to guess, I'd give the general public about two weeks after Project Glass' launch to start raising privacy concerns. That could lead to news reports and enough of those could lead to congressional hearings. In the end, I fully expect a government mandate requiring devices like these to have "recording" lights, or some other way of easily determining when it's capturing or not.

Heck, I could see a market for devices for those looking to avoid the Glass' gaze – devices (perhaps GPS-based) that prevent nearby wearable cameras from capturing images at a certain location. And I expect court cases. Lots and lots of court cases. This is the world Project Glass and similar products are trying to enter. I'm sure Google had nothing but the best of intentions when it set out to create a camera to record everything. I'm just afraid the company may not like what it eventually sees.

Jon Fingas

The defining moment for Project Glass, in my mind, wasn't the jump from a blimp -- it was when Google showed a mother playing with her child and recording the moment for posterity. The effects of that scene on the child weren't exactly traumatic, but the footage represents the fundamental disconnect between Google's thinking and ... well, the rest of us. Google thinks you'll want to record much of your life's private moments and keep that constant connection to the internet; as of today, I and most of the people I know would balk at the idea.

While I certainly wouldn't advocate mangling someone over wearing video-capable glasses, that collective aversion mentioned earlier no doubt manifested itself in the EyeTap incident. Some of us just don't like the idea of being recorded in public, even if it's a casual phone photo or snapshot. Imagine how it would feel to know that there's a real chance people are recording you at any moment you leave home, and that it would be hard to tell if they were. You'd be slightly paranoid, wouldn't you? Yes, the novelty still has people on edge to start with, but that reasonable expectation of privacy could persist well into the future, even in CCTV-dominated countries like the UK.

You'd be slightly paranoid, wouldn't you?

It's one thing to conduct personal experiments. As potentially intrusive as they can be, they're singular events. Project Glass is intended as an (eventually) mainstream product, however, and I just can't see that widespread adoption happening without something short of a sea change in society's values regarding openness. Google likes the idea of an always-worn internet connection for the sake of its business; that doesn't mean it's right for the common good.

Myriam

There's no doubt that what happened to Steve Mann at that McDonald's on the Champs-Élysées is wrong -- assault is wrong -- but it reinforces my belief that most people aren't ready for something like Project Glass. Major cultural differences are at play here, in terms of understanding privacy and technology.

I grew up in France (I'm a French citizen), spent half my adult life in English Canada (I'm also a Canadian citizen) and the other half in the US. Culturally, the French are extremely sensitive about privacy and tend to distrust anyone (person, company, government) that's perceived as threatening privacy -- sometimes with violent results as witnessed here. This is reflected in France's strict privacy laws. In my experience, folks in North America are more easily willing to give up some privacy for the sake of convenience. As a result it's going to more difficult for tech like Project Glass to be accepted in some cultures than in others.

To the average, non tech-savvy person, something like Project Glass is indistinguishable from magic.

But there's also another divide at play here beyond privacy -- one I've touched upon in the mobile podcast recently -- and that's people's understanding of technology. Most folks have no clue what happens under the hood of their car yet alone how their smartphone works. I'd argue that to the average, non tech-savvy person, something like Project Glass is indistinguishable from magic. This fosters one of two reactions: curiosity or fear -- and in the wise words of Yoda "fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate and hate leads to suffering." I think we're likely to see more violent behavior around tech like Project Glass before we see acceptance.

Personally, I'm willing to give Project Glass a try -- I've always wanted to be a cyborg after all, so bring it on. My only concern is the Google-only tie-in. I'd be more comfortable with a device that's more open.