The Glasshole Problem: Why Camera-Embedded Wearables Always Fail

In the summer of 2012, one year before Google released its Glass headset to the public, the world’s first cybernetic hate crime took place at a McDonald’s on the Champs-Elysees in Paris. Fittingly, the victim was Steve Mann, the so-called “father of wearable computing,” who has worn some version of his DIY “Digital Eye Glass” since the 1970s and still argues to this day that camera-embedded wearables are a liberating, empowering, democratizing force.

Mann had just sat down to a late lunch of ranch wraps and mango McFlurries with his wife and three children when a trio of thoroughly freaked-out McDonald’s employees — one of whom was brandishing a broom — attempted to snatch the Glass from his face. There was just one problem: Mann’s glass was attached to his face. The McDonald’s employees quickly grew flustered and stalked off in a huff, but that incident turned out to be a harbinger of cybernetic hate crimes to come.

It should now be clear to any tech company with dreams of getting into the camera-embedded wearables game that turning your face into a live video recorder comes with an inherent creep factor. As much as it may often feel like an appendage, a smartphone still goes back into our pocket or rests on the table when we’re not using it. We are simply not ready to have a conversation with a human being turned cyborg.

Google had to learn that lesson the hard way. In a memo to “Glass Explorers” about proper etiquette while wearing Glass in public, the company advised against acting like a “Glasshole.” (Yes, even Google used the term). But either Glass-wearers didn’t get the memo or the recs were completely useless because battle lines quickly formed…

After refusing a New York City restaurant manager’s request to remove her Glass, the founder of a startup designed to facilitate “direct democracy” shared her story on social media. That restaurant, which boasted four-star ratings on Yelp and OpenTable, instantly received 13 one-star reviews on its Google profile, lowering its overall rating to 3.1. And that in turn inspired a radical group called Stop the Cyborgs to offer bars and restaurants free anti-Glass signs. Democracy at work!

Things even started to get physical, if the personal testimonies of a pair of Glass-wearing tech reporters are to be believed. One claimed that she was “verbally and physically assaulted and robbed because of some Google Glass haters” at a San Francisco dive bar; another that he was walking home after covering an anti-eviction protest against a Google exec (perfect coincidence alert!) when an assailant tore the Glass from his face and smashed it to bits. As one unsympathetic observer put it at the time:

It’s a decision to dress yourself up like a mascot of techie incursion, to adorn your face with an expensive toy at a time when the toy factory has never been hated more.”

While Glassholes are easy to hate, the thing that critics usually fail to acknowledge is that we are almost always being filmed by surveillance cameras when we’re out in public. And that’s not even to mention how accustomed we have more or less become to being consistently recorded by smartphones. And yet. In the first instance, it’s easy to ignore what we cannot see; in the second, there’s a big difference between brandishing a recording tool and, well, becoming the tool.

Snapchat thought it found the solution to this problem when it released Spectacles — its supercool-looking smart sunglasses, available in black, coral and teal. Indeed, Snapchat exuded so much confidence in its first hardware product that it went so far as to rebrand itself as a “camera company.” Since then, Snap Inc. has been forced to concede that Spectacles have “not generated significant revenue” while repeatedly sending out the message that it was really all just an “experiment.”

Google, on the other hand, has clearly learned its lesson. Google Glass Enterprise Edition, a.k.a. Glass 2.0, which was released this past summer, is strictly being marketed as a workplace tool. When you clock out for the night, the Glass comes off.

With the popularity of live-streaming, the impulse to record our everyday lives hands-free is understandable — and it isn’t likely to go away any time soon. So, as an alternative to a face-mounted video recording tool, how about feeding that impulse while capturing the felt experience of everyday life in a deeply immersive way with a pair of 3D audio recording headphones? A pair of Bluetooth 3D headphones like the Hooke Verse will never get you kicked out a of restaurant, but it will capture the buzz of the crowd, the clanking of plates from the kitchen, and a memorable conversation in a 360 degree soundscape that will make anyone who listens to that recording feel like they were actually there.

Mann’s ideas about camera-embedded wearables as a democratizing force come from the right place, but so far they only work in theory, not in practice. Want a head-mounted recording device that actually gets the job done? Look no further than the Verse — the perfect protest tool. Because in moments of conflict, as cameras face the ground, while their holders run from various oncoming threats or ISP access gets blocked from a possible mobile electromagnetic pulse, we still have our ears.


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