Google's latest invention, the augmented reality (AR) eyewear known simply as Glass, is not even on the market, yet along with excitement over this possible glimpse into the future, Glass is also causing controversy. It's become the focus of a Stop the Cyborgs campaign, spawned proposed legislation in the US state of West Virginia that bans its use while driving, and is device non grata at one bar in Seattle.
Dubbed Glass Explorers, 8,000 American beta users who have been given Google Glass are about to embark on an experiment documenting what Glass can and can't do; the reactions and results generated will determine its future. Until now only a select few Google employees (including co-founder Sergey Brin) have sported Glass in public, mainly eliciting curiosity. But outside the tech-friendly environs of Silicon Valley and New York, Glass Explorers are sure to get different receptions.
Steve Mann, a wearable tech pioneer (pictured below) sometimes described as a cyborg, was assaulted last July during a visit to a McDonald's in Paris when he wore his sartorially similar augmented reality device EyeTap. While no explicit reason for the attack was given, Mann inferred from words exchanged in the scuffle that his assailant feared the EyeTap was a recording device.
That sentiment has morphed into a movement with Stop the Cyborgs, a London-based organisation's campaign to ban Google Glass and similar devices. It formed in February when some friends were discussing an article that fatalistically accepted the demise of privacy.
"There were a few privacy activists voicing concerns but nobody was suggesting there was anything people could do about it," an unnamed Stop the Cyborgs spokesperson said.
Stop the Cyborgs acts as an information hub for Glass-related privacy concerns by aggregating stories on its site, and also as an advocacy effort, with a mission statement calling for selective adoption of new technologies. The core group is comprised of a programmer, an artist, and an artificial intelligence researcher, all in their late 20s, who say on the site that: "Despite what some people think we are not Neo-Luddites." The group praises Google, stresses that it is not looking for a government ban on wearable tech, and makes exceptions for assistive devices – within limits.
While Mann does not need the EyeTap or the other devices he's created and worn, his research is designed to benefit those with vision problems. That includes Rob Spence, a filmmaker and self-described cyborg who has compensated for a lost eye with an implanted camera that he uses when making films.
"Technology is moving so rapidly many theorists are saying we're on the verge of fundamentally changing as human beings," Spence says in his documentary Deus Ex: The Eyeborg Documentary. "In the meantime, for those of us missing parts of our bodies, we'll keep exploring and upgrading. It's possible we are the pioneers of a new cybernetic age."
Like all pioneers, they face resistance. Take Neil Harbisson. He has a disability not visually detectable by others, but one that he compensates for in a very attention-grabbing way. Harbisson was born with a condition that only allows him to see the world in black and white. He has learned to interpret colour through sound via a head-mounted device, which he calls an eyeborg. The device encodes colours as musical notes and allows Harbisson, an artist, to experience the world more fully and to interpret it in his paintings. He considers himself officially recognised as a cyborg after successfully lobbying to have the eyeborg included in his passport photo.
Harbisson's experience with the eyeborg hasn't been without its frustrations, though. He's been asked to leave cinemas and supermarkets because of fears his eyeborg could be a recording device. In response, he's created the Cyborg Foundation to help others use cybernetics, defend cyborg rights, and promote cybernetics in the arts.
In the short film Cyborg Foundation – embedded below – Harbisson says that a dream in which he heard colours made him realise what being a cyborg means. "It's not the union between the eyeborg and my head that converts me into a cyborg, but the union between the software and my brain," he said.
Regarding the technologies Mann, Spence, and Harbisson use, the Stop the Cyborgs spokesperson conceded that: "It certainly helps that they are entirely controlled by their wearers, are not monitored by a huge corporation, and don't encourage sharing to the cloud or social media."
While Stop the Cyborgs supports private (as opposed to government) banning of Google Glass and other wearable devices, it says it has nothing against those who identify as cyborgs. In fact, it admits, the two groups have much in common.
"There is a whole complex area here, that of cyborg rights versus privacy rights, but we are confident it can be resolved," the spokesperson said. Each side's main concern is how it identifies itself and is perceived by others. "In the end it comes down to trust and respect. We need people to have control over data and we need ways in which we can signal and assure each other that we respect each other's rights – a new etiquette of technology."
Wearable tech might require external behavioural changes, and cause internal ones too. How people relate to each other when smartphones are present is a harbinger of how Glass is likely to affect human interaction.
In his 1954 text The Question Concerning Technology, German philosopher Martin Heidegger addresses the rejiggered relationship to the world that technology creates. When given a new way of interpreting reality, people lose the need to determine their relationship to it on their own, which is part of what makes us human. Heidegger says this danger can be mitigated by realising that technology is just one way of viewing the world. But heedless of Heidegger, people walk down the street, wait in line, or while away a commute relating only to the phone in their hands.
John Suler, professor of psychology at Rider University and a specialist in online behaviour, argues that those distracted by their smartphones aren't fully involved with either the world around them or the one in their phones. "Where are we, psychologically and emotionally, when we carry our communication devices with us?" Suler asked. "For many people, they are neither here nor there."
The impact extends to those conversing with someone who is wearing Google Glass. Glass removes the visual cues of distraction visible to both parties, such as tapping at a phone or glancing at something in the environment. "The added complication is that the psychological and emotional effect of the Google Glass input might be unconscious to the [wearer]," Suler said. "They might deny looking into their glasses rather than at their companion, and in fact they might not be consciously aware of the fact that they are being distracted. Don't underestimate the power of subliminal visual input."
That input might also affect the user's memories, Suler also noted. Because research suggests eye movements are associated with cognitive processing, Glass content and its placement could interfere with recall, he reasoned. "If you're thinking about something that happened last week with your mother and your eyes go up and to the right as you start to access that visual memory, will that memory be affected by the fact that there's a sports video playing in your Google Glasses?" Suler said. "Very likely, it will."
While Spence believes Google Glass itself might be a fad, he sees potential for building augmented reality into other types of glasses. "Much like phones have progressed, so will head-mounted options for easier visual access to data," Spence said. "I can see [augmented-reality] driving glasses being popular."
West Virginia state legislator Gary G. Howell, on the other hand, believes this will lead to more accidents caused by distracted drivers. Howell has introduced legislation banning the use of head-mounted gadgets while driving. Howell stated: "I think [Google Glass] is a great product with great possibilities, but an unwelcome distraction behind the wheel.”
He also said that since news of the bill has spread he's received a lot of feedback. "Many see Google Glass as an interesting and useful tool," he explained, "But nearly all have concerns about people using it to read text or watch video while driving."
There are three types of distractions that can occur while driving – manual, visual, and cognitive. Glass fits the last two categories and, in some uses, the first as well. A CDC study found that one-third of drivers in the United States had read or sent emails or texts while driving, and the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration attributes 18 per cent of distraction-related fatalities to mobile phone use.
It's not that Glass has invented the invasion of privacy; it's that it makes it easier. University of South Carolina researcher and Professor Srihari Nelakuditi has been given a Google Faculty Research Award to develop a people-recognition app called InSight for Google Glass.
Spence jokes about the Stop the Cyborgs movement. "I think it's funny," he laughed. "I'd like to ask these bastards, though, who they think will stand against the robots when they come for the humans if not us cyborgs." Spence says that Google Glass does not upset him, but in some ways his views on it don't differ so much from Stop the Cyborgs.
"We are already living in a Big Brother society but we will soon be living in a transparent society and this will be much worse," the Stop the Cyborgs spokesperson said. "Not all oppression comes from the government; for some people it might be their overbearing boss, their partner, their peers, their parents, or their religious community."
The concerns Spence has regarding Google Glass and other technologies are much the same. "The truth is people are often more scared of what other people will do to their privacy," he said. "Are you more scared of what a downtown surveillance camera will do to your life? Or what some idiot friend of yours is posting about you on YouTube on Friday night at 3:30 a.m.? For me it's the latter. Especially if that person is wearing bloody Google Glasses."
It's easy enough to tell that someone is wearing Google Glass, but that might not always be the case. Babak Parviz, head of Project Glass, gave a talk on eye microsystems at Google think-tank conference Solve for X. Parviz started out speaking about the healthcare benefits of a high-tech contact lens but soon transitioned to the possibilities of integrating Glass-like augmented reality into lenses, something Google has begun work on.
Parviz has a theory of "one display per human" in which the lens precludes the need for displays for watches, smartphones, television, computer screens, and dashboards. "Including billboards," he throws in at the end, making the concept of "eyeballs reached" for an advert quite literal. Parviz said that Google has already begun to test lenses on animals for safety.
While there is still a way to see who is using Google Glass technology, Stop the Cyborgs has taken a step toward trying to define social boundaries. The group offers two posters for download with a crossed-out drawing of Google Glass – one reading "Google Glass is Banned on these Premises," and the other, "No Surveillance Devices."
"One of us, I forget who, came up with the ban sign idea," the Stop the Cyborgs spokesperson said. "These things are 21st century cigarettes – an addictive habit which can harm the people around you – so why not ban them from enclosed public spaces? Why not shape the social norms before the things are out and it is too late?"
For an alternative take on Google Glass and privacy issues, see our article entitled Will Google Glass make privacy a thing of the past? You might also want to check out Google Glass: One year on.