Google is facing some tough questions from Congress over the privacy concerns raised by Glass, its fledgling augmented reality system for recording and receiving information on the fly. But on the ground at the company’s I/O conference for developers, attendees are largely enthusiastic about the technology.
“It’s awesome—I’m having a hard time not wearing it everywhere I go,” said Mike Hendrickson, vice president of content strategy at the tech analysis group O’Reilly Radar. “Although the one thing that’s creepy ... is that you might get too much information about people,” he added.
Glass is a head-mounted computer worn like regular glasses. It contains a small, prism-shaped display that hangs in front of the wearer’s right eye, next to a tiny camera. In its current form, Glass can serve up many different types of information through voice commands and certain gestures. Photos can quickly be taken by voice, or by tapping Glass, or by a simple lift of the head.
With respect to photos, Glass is fine as long as it does not allow normal gestures to snap a picture, Hendrickson said. While checking out at a grocery store, for instance, Hendrickson was asked by a cashier if he was taking a picture of her. “I said ‘No, you didn’t see my lift my head up or touch the side [of Glass],’” he said.
Glass wearers are generally trustworthy and polite, another devotee said. “They ask before taking photos—they’re not just randomly taking photos of anyone,” said Rajiv Makhijani, the developer behind a startup service called Ice Breaker, which seeks to connect Glass wearers who are near each other based on GPS data.
Others argued that Glass, at least with respect to photography, does not raise new privacy issues in an era of mobile devices and smartphones.
“Whether you’re using Glass or your smartphone, just knowing when to take pictures is sort of an appropriate social behavior,” said Lisa Oshima, a tech consultant at Socialize Mobilize.
Another wearer seemed apathetic. “People could be saying, ‘Okay Glass, take a picture,’ and it takes a picture instantly,” said Justina Sigle, founder of Rutgers Mobile App Development.
“It’s okay,” she said, shrugging, after trying on the device for the first time.
Congress isn’t as sure. On Thursday members of a U.S. congressional group on privacy wrote to Google CEO Larry Page requesting information on how the device handles privacy issues. Some of their questions focus on whether Glass will be able to use facial recognition technology to reveal personal information about people, or whether users would be able to request that information.
Google claims to be taking those concerns seriously. “We are thinking very carefully about how we design Glass because new technology always raises new concerns,” the company said in a statement.
But as an open platform technology, figuring out how to deal with Glass’ privacy implications may also depend on how tough Google is willing to get on developers who build applications for the device. The company’s Explorer program for developers “will ensure that our users become active participants in shaping the future of this technology,” Google said.
Google currently maintains a set of developer policies for Glass, which do address multiple privacy considerations, in accordance with the company’s “do no evil” corporate mantra.
“Don’t collect, store or share sensitive personal information such as credit card, bank account, driver’s license or Social Security numbers, except as necessary to collect payment,” the company says to developers.
Also, “Don’t use users’ personal information for purposes beyond the limited and express purpose of your application (including as it may reasonably evolve due to ongoing development), without getting specific opt-in consent from the user,” the policy states.
Violate the policies, and Google can remove or disable the application, the company said. Those developer policies were last updated in April, however.
In the end Glass’ success as a product might depend on perception—whether consumers will accept such a device, no matter the length Google goes to protect privacy, said Gartner analyst Brian Blau.
But, “I think it’s right that these Congressmen are asking these questions,” Blau said. “It can force Google to think about these things before the product gets to market.”
Despite the privacy issues, some people’s biggest problem with Glass may just be the way it looks.
“It looks like it’s from space. It’s kind of nerdy,” said Rutgers’ Sigle. “I don’t know if I would feel comfortable wearing them.”