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Google Glass: Why the gadget faces its biggest test

About the author

Chris Baraniuk is a science and technology journalist based in London. He writes for New Scientist, Wired and The Economist among others and has a website at chrisbaraniuk.com. His Twitter handle is @machinestarts.

Will Google Glass catch on? With a backlash in full swing, there may be one thing that threatens the technology’s adoption more than anything else, argues Chris Baraniuk. And in the video above, BBC Click’s Spencer Kelly takes a look at how one airline is embracing the technology while some other businesses would rather ban it.

A presumably naked man laughs open-mouthed as water trickles from his bright red face, soaking the Google Glass headset he is wearing in the shower. This infamous image, posted online by tech futurist Robert Scoble just over 12 months ago, encapsulated the excitement among early adopters of this technology. Glass, a voice-controlled wearable headset connected to the internet, promised a transformation of the way we interact with computers, and each other.

A year on and it’s Scoble’s enthusiasm that has been dampened. “I’m wearing it right now,” he says. “It’s really useless. I can’t store more than 20 contacts, and I can’t take photos and put them on Instagram or Facebook. Getting apps on here is a pain.”

Scoble, who works for US IT firm Rackspace, still uses the device, however he cites a long list of concerns: the battery life is too short; it is a little too heavy for some wearers; and the interface which allows apps to access Glass’s various features still needs work.

Google’s engineers are no doubt hard at work on these issues ahead of its public launch, expected later this year. However, technical problems may not be the biggest barrier to Glass catching on. A backlash against Glass has been rapidly gathering pace for entirely different reasons in recent months. “It’s the most controversial product of my lifetime,” says Scoble.

(Robert Scoble/Scobleizer.com)

Robert Scoble gained notoriety for his enthusiastic photo wearing Google Glass in the shower - now he's not so sure about the device (Robert Scoble/Scobleizer.com)

The hype and the controversy surrounding Google Glass began in April 2012, when the company released a much talked about concept video, revealing the capabilities of Glass – responding to voice commands and recording video through the eyes of the wearer, for instance. Then last year, a beta version was made available to a limited number of “explorers” at a cost of $1,500 plus taxes.

It didn’t take long for critics to emerge. Writer Ed Champion catalogued ‘35 arguments against Google Glass’, from anxiety over ever greater personal data collection by Google to the potential for distraction during conversations. Meanwhile, the privacy advocacy group Stop the Cyborgs, based in London, warned that the device’s video camera could be used for intrusive surveillance. “Authorities, corporations and lawyers will be able to access everyone’s footage under the relevant electronic communication act,” the group wrote on its blog.

Recently, Glass has also triggered animosity of another kind in Google’s own backyard. In February social media consultant Sarah Slocum was accosted in a San Francisco bar while wearing the device. “You’re killing the city!” said one woman as she tried to snatch Glass from Slocum’s head. Some now view the device as an objectionable symbol of a wealthy Silicon Valley elite – an elite they say is pricing poorer residents out of the city.

Yet for many, one of the most significant concerns is that Glass allows users to record photos and videos of others without their consent. Unease about covert image capture has caused Glass to be barred from a string of bars, restaurants and other locations. This hostility has even led to the coining of a new pejorative, “glasshole”, to describe users who don’t respect the personal space of others.

In other words, perhaps the greatest obstacle Google faces if it wants us all to adopt Glass is its potential to disrupt existing social norms and aggravate our interactions with one another. Unlike the personal devices in our pockets, it sits right there on one’s face, perpetually demanding a reaction from others.

Laura Freberg, a psychologist at California Polytechnic State University and Google Glass owner, believes society will develop a new etiquette for using head-mounted technology in social situations, but it will take time. People will need to work out where and when the use of such devices is acceptable to others.

“I walked into the restroom and was like, ‘oh my gosh... I’m going to make people really uncomfortable’,” she says. “It’s a learning process for the person who is wearing it as much as it is for the people around you. I think developing good manners will help us work through a lot of these problems.”

A small study carried out by Freberg’s students, for example, found that someone who started using Glass during conversation was seen as more distracted or rude than someone who began using a mobile phone. She adds that, to be successful, the device should be as physically unobtrusive as possible because humans, who learn to read faces for emotional information at a very early age, may be instinctively distrustful of anyone whose eyes or eyebrows are unusually obscured. More subtle editions of Glass which use traditional glasses as a frame have indeed been recently announced by Google.

Bill Buxton, a principal researcher at Microsoft Research, also believes it will take time for society to evolve the social norms around wearable computing technologies, in a similar process to the establishment of mobile phone etiquette. He also notes that with more and more gadgets like smart watches and intelligent wrist bands under development, tech companies are under growing pressure to engage in debates regarding privacy and other social issues related to such technology.

“We dismiss too quickly concerns about privacy, intrusion and other repercussions amongst our peers, in our enthusiasm for adopting the latest and greatest, newest technology,” he says.

Google Glass (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

You can't miss somebody wearing Google Glass, and some think that's a problem (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Google was apparently compelled to respond to the use of the word glasshole, dropping it into a list of do’s and don’ts for those wearing Glass in public. And more recently the company attempted to dismiss common concerns about the device in a blog post addressing the “Top Ten Google Glass Myths”.

So could Glass flop when it launches to the public? It’s possible, but even sceptics like Scoble believe wearable computers of some kind will become viable by the end of the decade. “Microsoft produced a lot of tablet PCs and they weren’t doing very well, but then Apple came along with the iPad and boom, the whole product category took off,” he says.

The emergence of new and disruptive technologies has always been accompanied by clashes between those enthusiastic to embrace their benefits and those more concerned about their potential downsides. The introduction of the telephone in the late 19th Century saw some emphasising that it could make societies more democratic, open up job opportunities, reduce loneliness and foster world peace. Others complained it would increase crime, undermine the art of writing and threaten privacy by facilitating wiretapping and unwanted marketing calls.

Although all of those things have occurred in some measure, society eventually evolved ways of amplifying the positive and limiting the negative impacts of the telephone. We all now recognise appropriate telephone etiquette, for example. So what we’re really seeing with the Glass backlash, then, is a society seeking to define the boundaries of acceptable use, a society preparing itself for this provocative technology’s inevitable arrival.

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