Google Glass: there'll be tears before bedtime

Bettings on the first lawsuit?

Mmm, in two minds, or should that be having double vision over Google Glass.

Can’t be the only one still wary of people approaching one on Westminster Bridge waving their arms like an Italian chef and talking animatedly, seemingly to themselves. Are they hands-free on their phone talking to a chum in Kilmarnock, or a recent escapee from a facility who might toss one summarily over the parapet merely for looking at them awry? And now people will be issuing instructions to their glasses, or rather the embedded computer screen in their specs’ interactive Google Glass, something recent facility escapees likely do anyway, possibly imagining they already have a computer screen there. How much more wary will that make you feel as you’re crossing a bridge alone at dusk, or standing too close to the crowded Underground platform edge?

At the same time, trying to navigate the side streets with the map app on the phone, or sat nav, can be a literal pain in the neck. So I can see the advantages and convenience of being able to see your directions on your specs.

I’m also of the generation where wearing glasses as a kid, especially if pink plastic NHS-issue with the obligatory sticking plaster holding together the broken bridge, labelled you four eyes, specstic, Joe 90, Piggy (see Lord of the Flies) or, for some reason the one I found least offensive, Milky Bar Kid.  But now the bespectacled boot will be on the other foot and the Google Glass generation presumably won’t be seen dead without their intelligent face furniture. And, as they’re already used to donning specs, not to mention finding them first thing in the morning crushed under the pillow or suspended from the toothbrush stand, existing glasses wearers will also be the most successful early adopters of the new technology. Finally, we’ll be ahead of the pack and be able to look down our noses through our Google Glass at the uninitiated as their heads swim trying to focus going down the stairs.

So far, according to Google’s YouTube vid, besides using them as a heads up walking or driving sat nav, you’ll be able to  take pictures  or video with your Google Glass glasses – generally, it seems according to the film, while , stunt flying, skiing or roller coastering – or you can browse the web or skype.  All you have to do is say “OK glass, take a picture” etc.  You can see how that is going to make you appear one anchovy short of a pizza.

And you’ll probably be able to do more besides following Google Glass glasses experiments with real users – as opposed to Google people, including Sergey Brin himself, who was recently spotted putting a pair through their navigation technology paces on the New York subway. Had he even thought of consulting the map?

The company is currently looking for 8000 “bold, creative individuals” in the US to field-test them (for which privilege they will have to pay $1500 to buy their own). As part of the deal they have to say how they’d use them in their 50-word application for the trial and are being invited to come back later with other ideas and “be part of shaping the future of Glass” – there’s an ambition.

Google Glasses guinea pigs have to be 18,  pick up their specs in New York, Los Angeles or San Francisco and get their applications in by 02.59 am US Eastern Time (for some reason) on February 28.

As well as talking to your Google Glasses, it seems, you will be able to listen to them through your skull. A patent filing to the Federal Communications Commission included a system for playing sound via a “bone-conduction” device rather than earphones or plugs (buds to our US readers).

So when will Google Glasses be on general release and all of us trying to look at at least two things at once?  There seems to be no definite date yet, but it will likely be sooner rather than later given that others are snapping at Google’s smart specs heels. Motorola is on the case with a more technical “headset computer system” for professional users like engineers and emergency services, while Oakley has Airwave ski goggles with a heads up display giving the wearer’s speed and telling them what music they’re listening too in cases where they’ve taken a tumble, bumped their heads and forgotten. 

Other companies offered up prototypes of similar devices at the last Las Vegas Consumer Electronics Show in LA.  Among them were Vuzix, with its Android-driven M100 smartphone specs including computer screen and video.

Also driving the market are forecasts that annual international  “wearable mobile” sales could be worth over $1.5 bn as soon as 2014.

However, you do also wonder how soon after these things become de rigeur for the wired that the first lawsuit will be lodged against Google and/or Apple by someone who walks under the bus or taxi they neither saw nor heard due to videoing and following directions on their glasses, while listening to AC/DC or talking to someone on their iPhone.

As a further caution before the big launch, Google could also do worse than watch that Steve Martin comedy film classic The Jerk.  Here the humble gas pump attendant Navin R Johnson (Martin) helps out a customer with loose specs by welding a small wire prop-cum-handle to the bridge. This becomes the patented Optigrab and makes Johnson a fortune, but then ruins him when it renders wearers cross-eyed and they launch a class action. He’s left with just a remote control, a thermos and a paddleball. Even his dog Shithead deserts him.

Mr Brin, you have been warned. 

Photograph: Getty Images

Mike Jeffree edits the Timber Trades Journal.

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.