Published March 27, 2013
Google will soon start handing out its high-tech new glasses -- but did they see the backlash coming?
Tuesday evening the tech giant said it was notifying 8,000 beta testers in the Glass Explorer program. They’ll each receive a pair of the augmented reality glasses, high-tech eyewear that can snap photos, text friends and record video of everything the wearer sees. Expect to see Google Glass soon on faces at the coffee shop and local baseball game.
Most tech pundits see it as an important innovation that could even rival the mighty smartphone. Thad Starner, a Georgia Tech professor and Google Project Glass adviser, said it could create a lifestyle change. He envisions widespread consumer adoption.
"I believe products like Project Glass will give us more power and make us efficient and calmer," he told FoxNews.com. "It will help us weed out interruptions."
But as the Glass roll-out begins, privacy experts and lawmakers have begun wondering whether it's a cause for concern as well. In West Virginia, a new law -- aimed squarely at Project Glass -- could make it illegal to drive with the glasses. A Seattle bar forbade them on patrons. One activist group has even called for an outright ban.
Aaron Messing, a technology and information privacy attorney with Olender Feldman, says people wearing Google Glass could violate the "two-party consent" law in states like California, Washington and Nevada where it is illegal to record a conversation unless everyone agrees. He says more states might impose anti-HUD driving laws.
"Much of the concern centers around the ease of discreet recording, as well as concerns that such recording may become ubiquitous," he told FoxNews.com. "The proposed West Virginia law only seeks to regulate wearable heads-up displays [while driving]."
Arif Mahmood, a social media attorney in Toronto, says there are no federal laws governing the use of a device like Glass. He says the trend in society has moved from an obvious video camera recording, to a cell phone, and now to a personal heads-up display. Cities and states may not know how to respond.
"It's possible that nobody, even the wearer of Google Glass or a similar technology, will know when and what is being recording, and how it is being stored or transmitted," he said, adding the GPS location features could also create problems. We might know when the device is recording, but not when it is identifying someone in a crowd.
Starner disagreed, saying Project Glass actually encourages better privacy in public places. The founder of the wearable computing group at the MIT Media Lab decades ago, Starner has worn such devices for 20 years. He says the user is always in control of the device. There's a signal on the glasses that show when it is recording. And, unlike a smartphone in your pocket, you always know someone is wearing the device and using it.
There are laws that prevent people from misusing a device in public as well -- e.g., recording in a "reprehensible" way.
"People will always do reprehensible things with any new technology," he said. "The challenge is to encourage people to do things in a socially responsible way."
Mahmood says lawmakers probably won't react right away to Project Glass. If the glasses become pervasive in society, new laws may be enacted. That said, he wonders what will happen if the U.S. government decides to tap into them for surveillance.
"If the government has a warrant to track a Google Glass device it gets to see and hear everything the target sees (and where they go), but also what people around the target are saying and doing. This is different from cell phones where the point of a surveillance law would be only to listen in on the calls between the target and some third-party."
Other companies already offer wearable heads-up goggles. The Epson Moverio BT-100 Wearable Display costs $600, for example, and is powered by Android. The Motorola HC-1 is designed for industrial use in the field and can show pop-up maps.
Starner says journalists have used hidden cameras and audio recorders for decades. Smartphones can record audio when you have one stashed away in your pocket. He says, if someone is wearing Project Glass, there is an existing social contract that says you should always ask for permission before recording.
He says he is not aware of any feature in Project Glass that can identify someone in your field of view and record the GPS location. As far as wiretapping by the FBI goes, that would be difficult: Project Glass is designed to let everyone around you know when the device is recording.
“It’s a transparent display: What I see, you see,” he noted.
Jay Nancarrow, a Google spokesman, says the purpose of the Glass Explorer program is to find out more about the social factors for using the device in public.
"Glass isn’t the sort of technology you can develop in a conference room -- we really need people to take it out into the world and see what they’d like to do with it across a wide range of hobbies, lifestyles, and environments," he said.
Plans among the 8,000 participants in the project are widespread and intriguing. Sarah Hill would take hers to a VA hospital to let veterans see their war memorials. David Moriarty hopes to improve doctor-patient interaction for clinical trials. And Max Wood is a firefighter who would improve fire safety by using pre-fire planning maps.
Will the new heads-up glasses become pervasive? Judging from the response on Twitter, Project Glass is creating widespread interest. Whether everyone starts wearing them in public -- and whether your lawmaker starts mandating their use -- remains to be seen.