If you listened to the whoops and hollers at Google IO last month, you’d have thought the world was more than ready for wearable tech like Google Glass. Beyond the braying developers, though, the real world is showing every sign that the Brave New World of augmented reality headsets will cause more headaches than just transparent eyepiece strain alone. The claims by wearables researcher Professor Steve Mann that he was physically assaulted in a French McDonald’s after staff suddenly took offense at his digital eyewear highlight the shadow side of the cutting edge: it can hurt more than just your wallet if the rest of society isn’t ready for it.
Mann’s story – which we covered more comprehensively earlier today – is perhaps as predictable as it is upsetting. The scientist was with his family in Paris, and while the first McDonald’s staff member he spoke to had no issues with his EyeTap wearable, when he sat down to eat he was challenged by three other employees, one of whom tried to pull the gadget from his head.
Mann knew there could be problems; he’d even brought along paperwork from his doctor that explained the nature of the EyeTap and how it’s permanently attached to his head and can only be removed with the appropriate tools. According to his account – and photos snapped by the headset itself – the McDonald’s employees ripped up that documentation, seemingly unimpressed by how Mann has been immersed in the mediated reality dream for the past few decades.
Outside of the geekosphere, there’s still a long way to go before sousveillance – the recording of an activity by a participant of that activity – is generally accepted. Tensions around the rights of photographers to take photos of buildings and other public places, often at odds with the actual legality of the situation, and concerns over privacy are yet to be smoothed away. The rise in cellphone cameras increased such arguments exponentially; how much more troublesome will it be when we hang permanently active cameras from our faces?
There’s invariably a catch-up period with each new technology, as old schemas get challenged (and generally forced to upgrade to accept) with fresh developments. Mediated reality isn’t simply a case of dropping your new phone into your pocket when firing off tweets or snapping Instagram images isn’t acceptable; the whole idea of digitally augmenting your world is that it’s a persistent thing. Just as much in the face of others as it is on your own, and for all of Google’s protestations that “people don’t even notice it,” it’s undoubtedly going to add another degree of perceived separation and difference between you and those around you without wearables.
To those who have been following the development of wearable technology for any length of time, Professor Mann is a pioneer. For everyone else, he’s a guy with a strange – and potentially suspicious – contraption, something unfamiliar and disconcerting. Google may find it easy to whip up developer enthusiasm for Glass, but we’re a world away from wearables being generally accepted among society as a whole.
More on Mann’s research – and augmented reality in general – in our full timeline.