'I was attacked for wearing Google Glass'

KURTIS ALEXANDER AND JESSICA GUYNN
Last updated 05:00, February 27 2014
SARAH SLOCUM: I was like, 'Holy crap, I'm the target of their anger and hatred'.
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SARAH SLOCUM: I was like, 'Holy crap, I'm the target of their anger and hatred'.

When a woman showed off her Google Glass the other night at a San Francisco bar called Molotov's, the result was explosive - and reflected a growing debate over whether the cutting-edge device that mounts a computer and camera on a wearer's face goes too far and breaks the social contract.

The reported attack on Sarah Slocum, who said she had the eyewear ripped from her face before she was robbed of other belongings, has had the internet buzzing.

Police said it appeared to be the first incident of violence in San Francisco over Google Glass, which hasn't yet been released to the public at large. Still, it has raised questions over whether some breakthroughs in technology, while impressive and convenient, might be rejected by a society anxious about lost privacy and a collective absorption in personal gadgetry.

Users of Google Glass, who now include only a select group of product testers, have encountered not only wonder when they go out in public but also occasional friction - if not outright restrictions on wearing the device in restaurants and cafes, not to mention casinos and cinemas.

"It makes people very uncomfortable," said Ken Goldberg, a professor of engineering at UC Berkeley and head of the school's Art, Technology and Culture lecture series. "While people are OK with cell phones and cameras, when you place that device on the eyes, you've changed the equation."

Goldberg said the public is likely to become more accepting of the new technology as it becomes more widespread. But that could take time.

The latest run-in involved Slocum, 34, a technology writer and marketing consultant who says she was taunted after giving others a peek at her eyewear early on Saturday. According to a police report and witness accounts, Slocum and a male friend were approached by a small group of people who didn't appear to take a liking to her paraphernalia.

"They started rolling their eyes at me and they tried to shield themselves from the Glass because they thought it was recording them, which it wasn't," Slocum said. "Out of the blue, one of the girls turned around and completely flipped me off. At that point, I was like, 'Holy crap, I'm the target of their anger and hatred.' "

Slocum said that while she was not recording footage initially, she turned on the camera after she felt threatened.

She said a young man - whom police described as 180 centimetres and 70 kilograms with a short beard and a grey plaid hat - then ripped the Google Glass off her face and ran out of the bar. Slocum pursued the man, she said, who eventually relinquished her glasses. But when she returned, others had taken her purse, phone and wallet.

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Slocum said the group's ill will appeared to have gone beyond concern over the camera feature of the glasses, to issues with the tech community as a whole. She said one of her assailants told her, "You guys are killing the city."

Some in San Francisco see tech workers as narrow-minded and blame them for driving up housing costs and displacing lower-income residents. Such a view famously culminated in the "Google Bus" blockades, where demonstrators surrounded private shuttles that transport tech employees in San Francisco to corporate campuses in Silicon Valley.

Slocum said it was the first time she has encountered a problem since she started wearing Google Glass a month ago. Mostly, she said, people are curious and want to learn more about the gadget.

“I don’t want people to see me without Google Glass now,” Sarah Slocum said in an interview. “Now that people know that this happened to me, I don’t want them to think I am afraid to wear it. I don’t want the people who verbally and physically attacked me and wronged me to have that.”

Slocum, 34, who blogs about technology and works in technology marketing and public relations, is among the early testers of the device.

She has been wearing Glass for about a month and said 95 per cent of the time the reaction has been  positive despite the fears triggered by the introduction of a new technology, even one as seemingly intrusive as this one.

“People are excited and they are curious. They want to try it on and see what it’s like,” she said.

Anticipating problems with the technology, Google launched a public relations campaign to better assimilate the gadget. The company is holding nationwide forums for people to try the product, and earlier this month even released an etiquette guide for its beta-testers - so they don't become "glassholes".

The guide advises its "explorers" not to "glass out" or zone out with the device and to avoid being "creepy", standing in the corner and blatantly recording people.

"New technology raises new concerns, and the Glass team is sensitive to those concerns," a Google Glass spokeswoman, Anna Richardson White, said.

White had heard of the incident at Molotov's through news reports but wasn't prepared to comment on it.

More than 10,000 people are currently testing the device, Richardson White said. The product, which most users bought for about US$1500, is expected to be available to the public later this year.

Google isn't the only company trying to overcome the hurdles of wearable technology. Several other businesses have released or are working on gadgets that can be worn on different parts of the body - the leg, the neck, the wrist. But many conceded the head will be the hardest to conquer.

"People just aren't used to seeing a camera on somebody's face," said Eric Mizufuka, product manager of new markets for Epson, which released its own computerised eyewear in 2011. "I think people can see it as intrusive and potentially distracting."

Epson has sought to introduce its product in settings where people might be more agreeable to it, such as museums, sporting events and certain workplaces.

"Over time," Mizufuka said, "we're going to get more comfortable with this type of tech."

Despite the controversy that has hounded the device even before it has gone mainstream, Slocum predicted Google Glass will quickly become as popular as smartphones are today.

“Once Google Glass is introduced to the mass market and Google brings the price down, they are going to sell like hot cakes,” Slocum said. “Everybody hating on it now are going to be wearing it in six months to a year.”

 - MCT

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