Google Glass - now available as shades. Photo: Ajit Niranjan / The New Statesman
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Google Glass launches in the UK, but don't expect to be wearing them anytime soon

Google just launched their prototype smartglasses in the UK, two years after they hit the US.

“Ok, glass.”

Two simple words, and a passable imitation of Benedict Cumberbatch’s public school tones – think Sherlock, not Smaug – start a frenzy of activity in the top right-hand corner of my eye. A list of voice commands appears on a screen that feels as if it's projected eight feet away, which I scroll through with the slightest tilt of my head. 

I triple-tap my temple and suddenly I can see the solar system from within the showroom by Central St. Martins on an overcast Monday evening. Constellations and planets are annotated in space but the text is unnecessary. I turn slowly on the spot till I locate the sun hovering over St. Pancras, and a soft voice reads out a Wikipedia-style entry of the star.

This is Google Glass, the latest in high-tech gadgetry. Star Chart, just one of the apps in the prototype I’m playing about with during Glass’ UK launch last night, is like a virtual planetarium which operates on a point-and-look model – no swiping or clicking needed. GPS and gyroscopes make it perfectly suited to Google’s hands-free headset.

The technology giant is selling the prototype of Google Glass for £1000, but don’t write it off because of the price-tag. Though the final version will undoubtedly be much cheaper, the current model is being released now to get public feedback on the project. Just as it has been in the US, Google is looking for British “Explorers” to test the product out and report their experiences of it. Speaking to The Guardian, 'Head of Glass' Ivy Ross – the intellectual counterpart to Blondie – said:

What you’re seeing now is that the people in businesses that acquired them are coming up with all these amazing use cases for it, but the same thing is happening with consumers – artists, mums, dads, school teachers, scientists – they’re doing amazing things with it too.” 

Their London video gives a little taster of how they expect it to take off.

Set aside the technological jargon – one of the team describes it as an “optical head-mounted display optimised for augmented reality” – and it's hard to deny that Glass is actually quite nifty, and user-friendly too: within ten minutes I've got the hang of interacting with the headset, through a combination of vocal commands, swipes and head nods. The employee demonstrating Glass to me – whose Polish accent is just a touch too strong for the voice recognition software – even showcases the surreptitious "wink-for-a-photo"  command. 

Fun as the applications are, there's a strong mood in the room that Google is onto something bigger than a snazzy gadget. Global director of marketing Ed Sanders believes Glass might help us interact more with the real world by taking us away from smartphones and tablets:

People are looking down; people are getting buried in technology. We have a deep, sort of philosophical desire to help people look back up. And one of the big things behind Glass is how you put people back in the moment.”

Supposedly, its functions can be called up without taking the user away from the action. The demonstrator puts this in perspective: imagine you’re on holiday. Want to find directions to a fancy restaurant? Translate the indecipherable Italian menu? Shazam the Pavarotti in the background? Google thinks Glass will let it embed technology in day-to-day life without detracting from the experiences.

Sanders – who managed to use Glass to record the first time his son said ‘Dada’ – thinks the company really might be onto something. The smartglasses were developed by Google X, a “Charlie-and-the-chocolate-factory” division of Google responsible for projects like the driverless car. The guiding mantra at the semi-secret research facility is to make technology ten times better, not just ten percent – hence the X in the name.

But Glass isn't without its shortcomings. The product's been plagued by bugs and it looks to be a long, long while before a polished, glitch-free version is on the market. Unfortunately the criticisms don't stop there. In the short time I used it, the demonstrator accidentally 'took control' of my glasses by saying commands a bit too loudly. In America it’s come under so much criticism for intruding on privacy that bars and restaurants in tech-hub San Francisco have banned it. Civil liberties groups have voiced concerns that the technology will enable stealthy spying.

Of course, there's the fashion angle as well. Despite partnering up with Ray-Ban and other high-end fashion brands, the fact remains that many users are reluctant to publicise their purchase. Google can make the design as streamlined and versatile as it likes, but something about the mini-computer sat on the bridge of your nose just screams "dweeb". 

So don't expect to see Glass becoming a part of everyday life anytime soon. The technology might be getting there but there's a whole marketing minefield that Google will have to navigate through first. After all, who really wants to be a "Glasshole"?

KARIM SAHIB/AFP/Getty Images
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Apple-cervix ears and spinach-vein hearts: Will humans soon be “biohacked”?

Leafy greens could save your life – and not just if you eat them.

You are what you eat, and now bioengineers are repurposing culinary staples as “ghost bodies” – scaffolding on which human tissues can be grown. Nicknamed “biohacking”, this manipulation of vegetation has potentially meaty consequences for both regenerative medicine and cosmetic body modification.

A recent study, published in Biomaterials journal, details the innovative use of spinach leaves as vascular scaffolds. The branching network of plant vasculature is similar to our human system for transporting blood, and now this resemblance has been put to likely life-saving use. Prior to this, there have been no ways of reproducing the smallest veins in the human body, which are less than 10 micrometres in diameter.

The team of researchers responsible for desecrating Popeye’s favourite food is led by bioengineering professor Glenn Gaudette and PhD student Joshua Gershlak at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI). They were discussing the dearth of organ donors over lunch when they were inspired to use their lunch to help solve the problem.

In 2015 the NHS released figures showing that in the last decade over 6000 people, including 270 children, had died while waiting for an organ transplant. Hearts, in particular, are in short supply as it is so far impossible to perfectly recreate a human heart. After a heart attack, often there is a portion of tissue that no longer beats, and so cannot push blood around the body. A major obstacle to resolving this is the inability to engineer dense heart muscle, peppered with enough capillaries. There must be adequate flow of oxygenated blood to every cell in order to avoid tissue death.

However, the scientists had an ingenious thought – each thin, flat spinach leaf already came equipped with its own microscopic system of channels. If these leaves were stacked together, the resulting hunk of human muscle would be dense and veiny. Cautiously, the team lined the cellulose matrix with cardiac muscle cells and monitored their progress. After five days they were amazed to note that the cells had begun to contract – like a beating heart. Microbeads, roughly the same size as blood cells, were pumped through the veins successfully.

Although the leafy engineering was a success, scientists are currently unaware of how to proceed with grafting their artificial channels into a real vasculatory system, not least because of the potential for rejection. Additionally, there is the worry that the detergents used to strip the rigid protein matrix from the rest of the leaf (in order for human endothelial cells to be seeded onto this “cellulose scaffolding”) may ruin the viability of the cells. Luckily, cellulose is known to be “biocompatible”, meaning your body is unlikely to reject it if it is properly buried under your skin.

Elsa Sotiriadis, Programme Director at RebelBio & SOSventures, told me: “cellulose is a promising, widely abundant scaffolding material, as it is renewable, inexpensive and biodegradable”, adding that “once major hurdles - like heat-induced decomposition and undesirable consistency at high concentrations - are overcome, it could rapidly transform 3D-bioprinting”. 

This is only the most recent instance of “bio-hacking”, the attempt to fuse plant and human biology. Last year scientists at the Pelling Laboratory for Biophysical Manipulation at the University of Ottawa used the same “scrubbing” process to separate the cellulose from a slice of Macintosh red apple and repopulate it with “HeLa” cervix cells. The human ear made from a garden variety piece of fruit and some cervix was intended as a powerful artistic statement, playing on the 1997 story of the human ear successfully grafted onto the back of a live mouse. In contrast to the WPI researchers, whose focus is on advancing regenerative medicine – the idea that artificial body parts may replace malfunctioning organic ones – Andrew Pelling, head of the Pelling Laboratory, is more interested in possible cosmetic applications and the idea of biohacking as simply an extension of existing methods of modification such as tattooing.

Speaking to WIRED, Pelling said: “If you need an implant - an ear, a nose - why should that aesthetic be dictated by the company that's created it? Why shouldn't you control the appearance, by doing it yourself or commissioning someone to make an organ?

The public health agency in Canada, which is unusually open to Pelling’s “augmented biology”, has supported his company selling modified body parts. Most significantly, the resources needed for this kind of biohacking – primarily physical, rather than pharmacological or genetic – are abundant and cheap. There are countless different forms of plant life to bend to our body ideals – parsley, wormwood, and peanut hairy roots have already been trialled, and the WPI team are already considering the similarities between broccoli and human lungs. As Pelling demonstrated by obtaining his equipment via dumpster-diving and then open-sourcing the instructions on how to assemble everything correctly, the hardware and recipes are also freely available.

Biohacking is gaining popularity among bioengineers, especially because of the possibility for even wackier uses. In his interview with WIRED, Pelling was excited about the possibility of using plants to make us sexier, wondering whether we could “build an erogenous interaction using materials that have textures you find pleasing [to change how our skin feels]? We're looking at asparagus, fennel, mushroom...” If he has his way, one day soon the saying “you are what you eat” could have an entirely different meaning.

Anjuli R. K. Shere is a 2016/17 Wellcome Scholar and science intern at the New Statesman

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