Google's wearable computer prototype Google Glass will go on sale this week to all British residents over the age of 18, with the company claiming the device will "bring people the technology they rely upon without drawing them out of the moment".
Glass connects to the internet through a paired smartphone and displays messages to the wearer on a small transparent screen positioned in the corner of their vision. It will cost £1000 (NZ$1954) and can be worn with or without prescription lenses.
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Google is keen to stress that the device is still a work in progress but hopes that it represents the future of computing - offering users hands-free access to the sort of information and apps available through a smartphone.
"It's not ready for mass consumption or a broader audience," Ivy Ross, Head of Google Glass, told The Independent. "But we've learned a tremendous amount from the people - from the Explorers, - we sold to in the US on this level and we want to do the same here."
Google first offered the product in the US to tens of thousands of these early adopters before putting the device on general sale in May this year. This "open beta" has allowed the company to process feedback from customers and developers but it's also thrown up a number of problems with the technology.
French junior minister for Transport, Maritime Economy and Fishery Frederic Cuvillier tries on Google Glass. Photo / AFP
In January this year San Diego resident Cecilia Abadie was given a ticket for wearing Glass while driving and in the same month Columbus-based software engineer Tiberiu Ungureanu was ejected from a cinema and detained by police for wearing Glass while watching a movie.
Abadie and Ungureanu were eventually acquitted after no evidence was found that Glass had been used, but in both cases it was the (relatively) inconspicuous nature of the device that led others to suspect that it was being operated covertly - a problem of trust that has been compounded by the device's built-in camera and widespread public concern about surveillance.
"We've designed the unit with privacy in mind meaning you can see when the screen is on," says Ross. "One of the reasons that we are doing these beta launches is to learn. With any new technologies there are always issues that will arise, I mean, Kodak cameras were banned from parks in the 1890s. So we're listening very carefully and taking that feedback."
However, it's not just Glass' functionality that has caused tension but the type of user it attracts. In February one wearer had the device snatched from their face after recording patrons in a bar in San Francisco, and Google has published advice in the US telling users "don't be a glasshole" - a word that has emerged in the US tech scene to describe inconsiderate Glass users.
"We don't go into it anticipating that," says Ross about Google's 'Dos and Don'ts'. "There's always - in anything you do - people that will use something for the wrong reasons but that's not a phrase we want to coin or own. Our hope is that the British are better behaved but if we need to create our own list for you guys we will!"
Despite this, Glass may still be unwelcome in certain situations. The Department of Transport pre-emptively banned Glass from being used while driving (it now says it's investigating ways to allow Glass to be used legally on the road) while cinema chain Vue has said it will ask users to remove Glass during a film.
Since its launch in the US Google has been working hard to demonstrate all the potential uses for the technology, including setting up a charity named Giving Through Glass that invites non-profits to show how they'd use the device to help their causes.
In the UK Glass has been trialled by the University of Newcastle to aid individuals suffering from Parkinson's, helping them to access the web through voice commands when tremors stop them from using a computer and providing reminders to take their medicine.
The researchers found that although reactions to Glass were "generally positive" there were lingering concerns - including that the device's high price tag might make wearers a target for thieves, and the worry that the technology might simply make users dependent on others in new ways.
Ross says that the idea behind the UK launch is simply to get the device into the hands of "a wide variety of people who will help shape the future of this new category," adding that she hopes especially to reach out to groups who have concerns about the device.
"Ironically, often, when they actually get to wear Glass they realise - they get to understand it better. The unknown is worse sometimes than the known." Whether we love Glass or hate it, we're certainly going to know more about it over the coming months.
- UK Independent