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"?

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Fark.com’s censorship story is a striking insight into Google’s unchecked power

The founder of the community-driven website claims its advertising revenue was cut off for five weeks.

When Microsoft launched its new search engine Bing in 2009, it wasted no time in trying to get the word out. By striking a deal with the producers of the American teen drama Gossip Girl, it made a range of beautiful characters utter the words “Bing it!” in a way that fell clumsily on the audience’s ears. By the early Noughties, “search it” had already been universally replaced by the words “Google it”, a phrase that had become so ubiquitous that anything else sounded odd.

A screenshot from Gossip Girl, via ildarabbit.wordpress.com

Like Hoover and Tupperware before it, Google’s brand name has now become a generic term.

Yet only recently have concerns about Google’s pervasiveness received mainstream attention. Last month, The Observer ran a story about Google’s auto-fill pulling up the suggested question of “Are Jews evil?” and giving hate speech prominence in the first page of search results. Within a day, Google had altered the autocomplete results.

Though the company’s response may seem promising, it is important to remember that Google isn’t just a search engine (Google’s parent company, Alphabet, has too many subdivisions to mention). Google AdSense is an online advertising service that allows many websites to profit from hosting advertisements on its pages, including the New Statesman itself. Yesterday, Drew Curtis, the founder of the internet news aggregator Fark.com, shared a story about his experiences with the service.

Under the headline “Google farked us over”, Curtis wrote:

“This past October we suffered a huge financial hit because Google mistakenly identified an image that was posted in our comments section over half a decade ago as an underage adult image – which is a felony by the way. Our ads were turned off for almost five weeks – completely and totally their mistake – and they refuse to make it right.”

The image was of a fully-clothed actress who was an adult at the time, yet Curtis claims Google flagged it because of “a small pedo bear logo” – a meme used to mock paedophiles online. More troubling than Google’s decision, however, is the difficulty that Curtis had contacting the company and resolving the issue, a process which he claims took five weeks. He wrote:

“During this five week period where our ads were shut off, every single interaction with Google Policy took between one to five days. One example: Google Policy told us they shut our ads off due to an image. Without telling us where it was. When I immediately responded and asked them where it was, the response took three more days.”

Curtis claims that other sites have had these issues but are too afraid of Google to speak out publicly. A Google spokesperson says: "We constantly review publishers for compliance with our AdSense policies and take action in the event of violations. If publishers want to appeal or learn more about actions taken with respect to their account, they can find information at the help centre here.”

Fark.com has lost revenue because of Google’s decision, according to Curtis, who sent out a plea for new subscribers to help it “get back on track”. It is easy to see how a smaller website could have been ruined in a similar scenario.


The offending image, via Fark

Google’s decision was not sinister, and it is obviously important that it tackles things that violate its policies. The lack of transparency around such decisions, and the difficulty getting in touch with Google, are troubling, however, as much of the media relies on the AdSense service to exist.

Even if Google doesn’t actively abuse this power, it is disturbing that it has the means by which to strangle any online publication, and worrying that smaller organisations can have problems getting in contact with it to solve any issues. In light of the recent news about Google's search results, the picture painted becomes more even troubling.

Update, 13/01/17:

Another Google spokesperson got in touch to provide the following statement: “We have an existing set of publisher policies that govern where Google ads may be placed in order to protect users from harmful, misleading or inappropriate content.  We enforce these policies vigorously, and taking action may include suspending ads on their site. Publishers can appeal these actions.”

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.