sxsw 2014

Through the Looking Glass: What Happens at a Google Glass Gathering

Among the Glass-wearers at SXSW

It stood out on my SXSW conference program, a morsel of easily mockable geekery amidst a sea of boring panels about ninja marketing and social platform building – “A core conversation with Google Glass Explorers.” Oh, good, I thought, some fish in a barrel.

As it turned out, though, the Google Glass meet-up I attended over the weekend will almost certainly be the most heartwarming thing I see in Austin this year. Far from a gathering of smug geeks bearing $1,500 face computers, the meeting became a safe space for people who, by virtue of their choice in eyewear, have set themselves apart from the rest of society, and a venue for Explorers (as Glass’s beta-test wearers are called) to compare notes on the daily delights and frustrations of life with the world’s most polarizing gadget.

The meet-up is called to order by Mark and Serena, the two Explorers serving as moderators. Mark, a middle-aged man with a white goatee and an untucked shirt under his blazer, runs a video blog about homeless people, and he’s been using his Glass to give his readers a first-person perspective about what it’s like to, say, walk through a tent city. Serena is a social media guru for a business-news wire service. Both wearing black-framed Glass, they begin by acknowledging that even at a gathering like SXSW, surrounded by fellow nerds with fashion errors of their own, a person wearing Google Glass can attract the wrong kind of stares.

Even in tech communities, there’s a little resistance,” Serena admits. “We’re kind of eating our own.”

There are currently north of 10,000 Explorers in the world, and roughly two dozen are here. The rest of the room is filled with curious onlookers, eager to ask questions and perhaps, one day, pick up a pair of their own. They start off by asking the Explorers some basic questions – What does Glass do? How do you know if someone’s recording you? Which apps are available for Glass?

Mark begins telling the story of Cecilia Abadie, a woman who was pulled over by California police last year for wearing her Google Glass while driving. (The officer claimed that Glass was an illegal video display, like having a TV mounted on your dashboard.) On cue, a woman pops up from her chair. It is Abadie herself.

That was me!” she says. She tells the rest of the story – her ticket was eventually thrown out, she says, because the officer hadn’t been able to prove that her Glass was turned on at the time she was pulled over. “You can be a cyborg, and it’s okay,” she says, summing up the verdict.

“Anybody else have a Google Glass story?” Mark asks.

A man named Jeffrey raises his hand. He has on a sky-blue pair of Glass, and he runs a podcast called “This Week in Google Glass.” He wants to talk about the long-term implications of Glass – not so much the everyday email and text-messaging features, or even the photo and video capabilities, but the effects Glass will have on things like health care and education. He asks us to envision how Glass might end up saving lives:

“We’re sitting in a room like this,” he says. “And all of a sudden, someone has a heart attack. Imagine: You go into the emergency medical area, there’s a pair of Glass sitting right there, you press a button, it connects you to a hospital, and a doctor walks you through the proper steps.”

After some more discussion of Glass’s possible humanitarian benefits, the Explorers start to exchange etiquette tips. Nobody, it seems, quite knows how to act while wearing Glass, and how best to navigate the hundreds of daily conversations that inevitably take a turn for the weird once Glass is involved.

“For me,” Serena says, “it’s all common sense. If someone straight up asks you if you’re filming, be responsive. I just say, ‘It’s nothing to be afraid of! It’s just like I’m wearing my phone on my head!’”

This is a point more than one Explorer brought up – that, practically, wearing Glass was no more socially intrusive than carrying around a phone with a camera on it. In fact, several people contended that it was ruder not to have Glass in a social setting, since Glass allows the wearer to look straight ahead and carry on a conversation while reading news headlines or checking email, rather than having to look down at a phone every time it buzzes.

I look forward to the day when I can argue with my wife and read the New York Times at the same time,” Mark says, laughing.

For the rest of the hourlong session, the Explorers exchange more tips on living with Glass – this presumably being the first time some of them have been in the same room for an extended period of time with another Glass wearer. They ask each other if you can go for runs with Glass on (verdict: yes), if Explorers get motion sickness (sometimes, at first), if Glass is tax-deductible (if you’re in the tech industry), if the battery life is good (no), and if the feeling of being judged by passersby ever goes away. (“This should be a safe room, but even here, I’m insecure,” Mark says.)

An audience member asks if any of the Explorers have worn Glass during, um, more private times. “Glass is amazing in the bedroom,” says Abadie, the driving-while-Glassing woman, barely missing a beat. “You can play with the video,” she adds. The room titters.

Most of the Explorers admit that being a Google Glass-wearer has some social drawbacks, especially in cities like San Francisco (where terms like Glasshole are popular, and where the last thing the tech community needs is a visual indicator of its special status). They agree that it will get easier as more people apply to test Glass, and as subsequent versions of the device are made to look more like the glasses you might get at Warby Parker or the local optometrist. The Explorers, it seems, are very much looking forward to blending in.

The form factor needs a little bit of work,” one man says. “I get a lot of ‘Goober Goggles.’”

The meet-up hasn’t exactly been a ringing endorsement for Google Glass, at least in its current incarnation. But hope soon arrives in the form of a latecomer – a start-up founder, sitting in a wheelchair, who says that he doesn’t feel any compunction whatsoever about using Glass in public.

To me, it’s very normalized,” he says. “I have a bit of an excuse, because people naturally want to help me. But I’ve reached a level of comfort. When someone says, ‘Is that Google Glass?’ I immediately say, ‘Yeah, want to try it on?’ Then they take a photo, their eyes light up, and they get it.”

This pep talk seems to lift the group’s spirits. By the end of the gathering, the mood is positively giddy. In his New Yorker essay about being a Glass Explorer, novelist Gary Shteyngart wrote that “seeing someone with Glass is like running into an old countryman on the docks of Manhattan in 1905. Few others can understand the mediated life we live.” And being in each other’s company seems to have rejuvenated the sense of wonder many of the Glass-wearers felt when picking up their pairs.

On Mark’s suggestion, the Explorers gather for a group photo. They seem sad to be leaving each other – back to sticking out, to having to explain what’s on their faces (and how it works) a hundred times a day. Like kids on the last day of camp, they exchange email addresses and promise to keep in touch. The iPhone photos are taken, and the non-Glass-wearers start pressing in.

Who wants to try them on?” Serena shouts, taking her Glass off her head. She intimates to a friend: “I try not to be a Glasshole.”

What Happens at a Google Glass Gathering