OK, Glass: How do I stop people calling me a 'Glasshole'?

Google Glass holds a fair few surprises — even if they are from the general public. How does a Glass wearer get around the social barriers of wearable tech?
Written by Zack Whittaker, Contributor
Image: Sarah Tew/CBS Interactive

It turns out the general wider public can be really mean.

For the past couple of months I have been experimenting with $1,600 (including tax) worth of wearable tech: the confounding and perplexing Google Glass. While the gadget is still within select circles of those lucky enough to have been invited, and ultimately able to afford the overpriced wearable prototype, it remains enough of an exclusive device close to a year after it was first released to still garner strange looks, bewilderment and intrigue from those on the streets of New York.

And in some cases, it was enough to produce some less than desirable responses from the general public.  

But I knew it would happen. I was a certified "Glasshole" the moment I put them on outside the social safety and cultural comfort of our newsroom, where (thankfully) around every corner there is a geek wanting to try on the device. As soon as I spilled onto the busy streets of Manhattan, there was no way I would be able to walk home without at least one person slashing my optimism with a fateful look or a cruel comment.

I'll be the first to admit it was expected. It would be more unusual if nobody did. Anyone with a weird contraption on their forehead may as well have had a swearword tattooed on their brow for all the difference it would've made.

But it was worth it to see how people reacted to Glass in the real-world even if it was to get the strange looks, the deathly stares, the confused glances, and the one-off utterance of abuse from the guy wearing just a t-shirt in the midst of a freezing cold snap in mid-November.

Because that's "normal." Pot meet kettle, sir.

I felt uncomfortable and awkward the whole time I was walking to work or home wearing Glass. And this is coming from a Tourette's sufferer who regularly shouts profanities and flails his limbs in an obvious, outlandish, and unnatural way. I felt the stomach-churning sense of embarrassment shooting down my body for the first time in a while.

Just as Glass was as alien to those looking at me, my own feelings to their reactions were just as painfully uncomfortable to receive.

Why would anyone even put themselves through this, knowing full well what they would expect? It didn't take long, though, to ponder how long it might take for Glass to catch on.

Because what felt like I was the only "glasshole" wearing the device out in the public , one did wonder if the selection process of so-called Glass Explorers was either to blame, or too narrow for social adoption. Simply put: if more people were given the chance to wear Glass, would the general public be a little less hostile to the growing minority of real-world explorers?

Right now we're in a unique test period for wearable tech. Only a handful currently have access to this technology a few fortunate thousand in the U.S. are donning this eyeglass gadget on a regular basis. But how often do you see someone wearing Glass? I've seen just one regular person outside our gadget-laden newsroom.

Also judging on my newsroom encounters and discussions with other tech-related folk, the Glass-wearing userbase also seems to be restricted to the tech world.

It had me wondering why those deemed by Google to be "worthy" of wearing Glass hadn't been more overt out and about on the streets.

Because it seems, anecdotally, those who understand what Glass is and what it can do mock it the most. Those who don't understand or aren't as clued up on the latest tech appear cautious and distant, but are on the most part willing to learn or at very least experience first-hand what this vastly misunderstood device can do. 

And why? Was there some deep psychological reason why we distance ourselves and denounce Glass wearers? One suggestion floated at work was this notion that deflected eye contact between two humans as a possible reason. While one can be staring emptily into the glass prism display, the other may look on longingly for attention. Eyes are, as the saying goes, "windows to the soul." And technology is soulless. 

Or was it simply down to a lack of willingness on the Glass wearer's part  a non-sentient and emotionless owner who might not have shared the device with others enough in efforts to teach others about the highly misunderstood technology?

Or neither. Maybe it boils down to simply being scared of the world that's ever changing around us?

Image: ZDNet

It quickly became apparent that Glass is the most personal piece of tech you may never own. Its roots in your life appear far deeper than your smartphone, which has yet to visualize the vast amount of data that we own, hold, generate and consume. Glass in its current physical formation may never see the light of day. Exactly how the device's capabilities can be absorbed by future technology remains to be seen.

While the technology is reaching — albeit slowly — the mainstream, Glass Explorers should be educators while they have the chance. While the pool of users is still so small, this few select "glassorati" should be out there teaching and humanizing this technology that has still yet to reach the hands (or heads) of the wider populous.

With great power — and I say sincerely, because Glass Explorers today hold the key to the future integration of the technology in wider society — comes even greater responsibility. Fears are rarely unfounded. They stem from somewhere. All it takes is one wrong impression or inaccurate perception and that entire safety sphere crumbles around a person. 

The fact of the matter is that during the time I was wearing Glass, despite my initial preconceptions and concerns, there were very few out-in-the-world situations arose that caused concern or worry among the public.

There were however in close-quarter situations, isolated incidents where some were notably concerned for their privacy. I explained in one case numerous times, again and again, that I would have to physically push a button on the device to take a photo of them. This allayed fears in the short term, but would it have stuck? I felt bad in that I wasn't telling them the whole truth. I could easily take a sneaky picture without their knowledge. Was I wrong to? Probably. But short of facing physical hostility I felt at times I had to bargain with the chips I felt I was handed.

(I should point out that a Glass "Guide" who walked me through the setup and initial learning process at Google's New York base told me that there was "no way for Explorers to surreptitiously take photos with a blink or a nod." But that changed with the latest version of the Glass software, dubbed XE12, which allowed users to less than covertly — but still far from observably — "wink" to take a photo should the setting be calibrated and enabled. Despite the initial yet unfounded rumors, this feature addition may only compound fears that photos and video can be taken without a physical interaction that could be blocked by an onlooker.)

Google, the developer of the sought-after device, above all else has a responsibility to its users — for their safety, and the general public — for their privacy, to consider the hardware design aesthetic of the device. Changes to how the gadget looks will have a significant effect on how people react with Glass users, rather than the device itself.

Let's face it: it wasn't so long ago taking photos from an iPad was frowned upon. It looked silly. And it still does to the untrained eye. But most have become accustomed to such an irregular facet to our daily lives.

A more surreptitious look for Glass could see the device blend in and be less intrusive on social interactions, but could foster a greater "big brother" feel to on-the-street surveillance. The other side could reduce fears of privacy invasion but take longer for ordinary folk to adjust to the idea of someone wearing an intrusive-looking device on their brow. 

In spite of the dozen updates to the Glass software, users are still limited in what they can do with it. And that's no secret. It's much at the mercy of a smartphone and a Google account, which can be remotely dissected by the search giant's vast analytics services and computational power. Glass doesn't know what the weather is: its Google Now service does, and it feeds the information to your eyeglass headset.

Beyond the occasional novelty that relies on the search giant trawling through your Gmail inbox for pointers on what it can display, such as flight details and other data-laden emails that would be an NSA analyst's wet dream, Glass may be more aptly named "Looking Glass," as a viewer into your smartphone's superior data and processing core.

Glass still feels like — with all due respect to Google — a bit of a "dumb" device. It's a second display for your smartphone, one that is easier to visualize the pocketful of data you have — and for that reason it could be an enterprise disruptor — but otherwise it's device that still has little else to offer besides a new way of interfacing and interacting with the person using it.

Image: ZDNet

But it isn't an excuse, at least in my eyes, to chastise or belittle the user wearing it. In fact it takes gumption to don a brand new technology that will no doubt baffle and confuse so many. 

Glass isn't a straight-up simple solution to any particular problem. Nor is it a gadget or device that invokes reaction from people in a certain or prescribed way. There's no single way to gauge how someone might react, or not react as the case may be, to someone wearing a foreign or unfamiliar device in plain sight.  

It goes almost without saying: Glass isn't and will not be for everyone. Smartphones, let alone the dozens of different variants on the market, aren't for everyone either, particularly those in the older and very-young categories. Tablets don't suit everyone's needs, in particular my own personal taste.

Likewise, Glass will probably not enter my periphery of technology that I will need in the near future. But it was nevertheless an interesting, fun, exciting, and enthralling time in tech to try it out.

Image: ZDNet

And maybe that's where the problem lies. In fact, for all of the mentioned reasons, it adds up to a device that isn't necessary, can't do much (and what it can do wears off as a novelty pretty quickly), and a limitation on the wider public-facing education of a device that is unlike any other gadget developed in the mainstream, it all adds up to distrust.

Why am I a "glasshole" exactly? Because I can't be trusted to not take photos without permission. I'm also embracing a technology that has yet to be tried and tested among the general populous (ergo making the term synonymous with "geek" or the less-friendly "nerd"). And, last but not least, because people are afraid of what's new and the unknown.

But that's to be expected. The one takeaway for myself, a Glass Explorer, is that as the elephant in the room (or on the street) I should have stopped the guy who called me a "glasshole" and let him try it on.

Because watching his face light up with excitement and interest, and the willingness to try something new on his way to work that ordinary Tuesday morning, could have been magical.

This is the second article in a five-part series on Google Glass.

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