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Google Fights Glass Backlash Before It Even Hits The Street

A visitor at the "NEXT Berlin" conference tries out Google Glass on April 24 in Berlin.
AFP/Getty Images
A visitor at the "NEXT Berlin" conference tries out Google Glass on April 24 in Berlin.

Google Glass isn't even for sale yet, but it's already facing backlash.

There have been articles in the Atlantic and Wired mocking techies who have a pair, and even Saturday Night Live got in on the jabbing at the technology.

The New York Times ran a front-page story about Google Glass and privacy, and the gadget has been banned from a bar in Seattle and casinos in Las Vegas.

But for the earnest Googlers who helped create Glass, and the enthusiastic techies who already have their hands on a pair, all this hate can be a little bewildering. Most of the people I've talked to who have the fancy eyewear just love them.

"Just taking a hike on a Sunday, I've been blown away by taking pictures and taking video," said Javier Echeverria.

Mary Lambert got cooking instructions using Glass. "The friend who I was doing it with could see what I was doing and was like 'No no no, that's all wrong,' which was really helpful and I didn't expect it," she says.

Right now, Google Glass might be the world's worst spy camera; if you go out in public with a pair on, you are guaranteed to attract attention. Still, the idea of techies mounting a tiny screen and a little camera to their faces makes millions of people uncomfortable.

According to Sarah Rotman Epps, a tech analyst at Forrester Research, that is why Google is rolling out Glass to the world slowly in stages.

"Google has been incredibly transparent ... with their Glass rollout," Epps says. "They realize that Google Glass will require shifting social norms to be accepted."

In that regard, the past few weeks have been rough for Google. If the company is going to turn around the public's impression of this product, it will need some help — from people like Sarah Hill.

Hill is a storyteller for the Veterans United Network and a volunteer for Veterans Virtual Tours. She wants to use Google Glass to take World War II vets on virtual tours of places they might be too old or frail to visit in person.

"Places like the World War II memorial, Arlington National Cemetery [or] Pearl Harbor even," she says.

Hill is convinced that leading a virtual tour for veterans while wearing Google Glass would be completely different for them than showing the group just a DVD. She says it gives them the ability to ask questions and request certain sights and sounds, like the waves on the beaches of Normandy or the waterfalls at the World War II memorial.

"And when people ask those ... veterans, 'Have you ever seen your memorial?' before they pass away, they can say, 'Yes I did,' " she says.

Google is hoping that people like Hill could begin to help the public imagine the positive things they could do with the gadget.

Last week, Google released a video of Andrew Vanden Heuvel, a high school physics teacher from Grand Rapids, Mich., using Glass to go on a virtual field trip to CERN and the Large Hadron Collider.

Sam Aybar wants to build an app to identify packaged foods that are free of the allergens that make his son sick. The app would use bar codes to create a list of safe products.

"I think Glass could be really helpful for 5 [million] to 10 million families in the United States that are dealing with food allergies," Aybar said.

For many tech enthusiasts, the upsides of Glass seem obvious.

"I've spent my life essentially helping to build the Internet, and this thing is the Internet in your field of vision," says Web pioneer and venture capitalist Marc Andreessen. "For me that's the big thing ... that's the killer app."

Andreessen, who founded Netscape, among other Internet properties, is now funding startups hoping to build apps on Glass.

But even in the Andreessen household, Glass has created controversy. He says his wife has likely wanted to rip them off and throw them out the window.

"I think she's been tempted to do that with almost every piece of gadgetry we own," he says.

And battles like that could determine whether Google Glass becomes the next iPhone or has a fate more similar to Apple's Newton.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Steve Henn is NPR's technology correspondent based in Menlo Park, California, who is currently on assignment with Planet Money. An award winning journalist, he now covers the intersection of technology and modern life - exploring how digital innovations are changing the way we interact with people we love, the institutions we depend on and the world around us. In 2012 he came frighteningly close to crashing one of the first Tesla sedans ever made. He has taken a ride in a self-driving car, and flown a drone around Stanford's campus with a legal expert on privacy and robotics.
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