Google Glass Explorer opens up on bar fight, privacy

Pub date March 4, 2014
WriterRebecca Bowe
SectionPolitics Blog

Last week, I interviewed a Google Glass “Explorer” for an article about Glass and privacy. It wasn’t Sarah Slocum.

“Explorer” is a Google term for people enrolled in a program to beta-test Glass, a wearable computer that can surf the Internet, livestream, geo-locate, and record through a computerized prism affixed to a set of eyeglasses.

There are at least 10,000 Explorers currently giving the $1,500 prototypes a test run, and more than 27,000 participating in a Google+ community about it. The Silicon Valley tech giant views its Explorers as inhabiting a “living laboratory,” and is actively seeking feedback on the gadgets’ use and functionality.

The Explorer I spoke with is Matt Hunt, and his recent removal from Oakland bar Telegraph for wearing Glass is chronicled in detail in this Medium story by journalist Susie Cagle. The writer discloses that her partner, Billy Agan, told Hunt to remove the Glass before he was kicked out.

Not yet available for retail, Glass has proven to be a lightning rod – particularly in bars, where people are more apt to feel that it is invasive. Some bar owners are concluding that the best approach is to ban Glass altogether, to avoid headaches. 

Unlike most new technology, this particular device has quickly come to be associated with class tension in the Bay Area, a region that is being radically altered by an economic shift fueled by an influx of tech workers. Glass has also caused people to fear surreptitious surveillance in an era when new revelations about secretive government spying programs are surfacing with every passing week. 

There are conflicting accounts of what unfolded when Hunt was booted from Telegraph after his confrontation with Agan. Hunt says he refused to remove the Glass because he didn’t think Agan had the authority to tell him to stop wearing it; bar owner John Mardikian says Hunt responded by defaming the bar on social media, which Hunt refutes (Hunt had previously been helping Mardikian with social media and IT work). Agan wasn’t available for comment. All told, the conflict appears to have produced two major outcomes: hurt feelings all around, and a ban on Glass at Telegraph.

“I don’t want it here, because it’s anti-community,” said Mardikian, who imposed the ban. “I want people to feel comfortable when they are here.”

Other bars have proactively banned glass too.

Conflict aside, Hunt did share a perspective on wearing Glass that might interest anyone who has wondered about it – whether from a standpoint of curiosity or suspicion. Because while some people are viscerally repelled by the gadget and may assume that it is recording (it might be, but you can tell by checking to see if the user’s eye is lit up), there’s also a low level of understanding about what the thing actually does.

Hunt told us he was excited about Glass before it came out, and saved up the $1,500 required to get it. “I’ve always been a techie,” he said. “I’m always about smart everything.” 

To wear Glass is to be an attention a magnet, he said. “There are some people who approach me about it who are very calm, and they are curious, and they ask me about it.”

But as evidenced by the drama that unfolded at Telegraph, wearing Glass can stir up trouble when people feel that their personal boundaries are being violated. “Something I hear all the time is, there’s a camera on your face, and therefore it’s in my face.” But he said that since he rarely ever uses the camera, that fear is unfounded – at least as it pertains to people who are encountering him wearing Glass.

Constant recording and even live streaming through Glass is technically possible. It’s also problematic with the current model, due to battery drain.

“If you were out and about, it would have to be tethered to your phone’s Internet connection,” he explained. “It uses a lot of data.” When content is captured through Glass, it is automatically backed up to the cloud, meaning it’s copied onto a server somewhere. That means people who are photographed can’t control what happens to their image, but it doesn’t mean it will be viewed publically or by anyone at all.

So, if he’s not constantly recording, what is Hunt doing when he’s looking at that little computerized prism?

As with a smartphone, he’ll read the news, and check email. There are other functions. “You can have things translated,” he said, like a menu or sign in a foreign language. “Based on your location, it will tell you what’s around you,” such as attractions. But a lot of times it just sits on his face, not doing anything in particular. “Just because you’re wearing it, doesn’t mean you’re using it.”

People who wear Glass can also take advantage of some bizarre “Glassware” apps, like this one, which can feed users hints on people they are encountering in real time.

Taking a picture with Glass involves either tapping the side of the device, or speaking “take a picture” out loud, Hunt explained. There is also an optional feature of winking to take a snapshot.

That may sound like a smooth spy maneuver, but Hunt said it’s actually rather awkward. “I don’t like it,” he said, “because you have to wink like ten times to make it work. It’s very dramatic winking.” Wearing a computer on your face and winking dramatically? Talk about socially awkward.

As for the privacy issue, Hunt said he thought bar owners had a right to ban Glass but believed it was short-sighted, because he thinks Glass will catch on. “Wearable technology is the technology of the future,” he told us with confidence. “What will you do when everyone is wearing it?”

And ironically given what happened at Telegraph, Hunt insisted during our phone interview that Glass users should not wear the device in places where it causes others to feel uncomfortable.

“I want privacy as much as you do,” he said. “And I feel terrible sometimes that people think the NSA is watching them through my eyes.”