Sam McManis

Discoveries: Google Glass not quite rose-colored in San Francisco

When you step into a bar in the lower Haight called Molotov’s, you’ve got to expect a certain attitude, a certain in-your-face atmosphere, replete with crusty characters who pull a moue as bitter as the cans of the Hamm’s beer they crack open.

But when you’re on the verge of stepping into Molotov’s wearing Google Glass, Silicon Valley’s first foray into wearable, interactive facial technology, you’d better expect sneers, leers, derision and maybe even harm to your person or pricey eyewear.

Even knowing the harsh milieu, my 24-hour immersion donning Glass would not have been complete without a visit to the site that has emerged as a symbolic ground zero of the simmering tension between technorati with their sleek, fancy devices and big, fat wallets moving into The City, and the less wired and monied citizenry feeling oppressed by the transformation of San Francisco from an unaffordable city to an egregiously unaffordable city.

It was at this very neighborhood bar – dimly lit, sporting blood-red walls accessorized by punk-rock stickers, with the crack of pool balls competing with the Giants on TV – that in February a loud, obnoxious and profane Glass-wearing woman saw her device swiped off the bridge of her nose and, while she gave chase, saw her purse and smartphone get whisked away as well. Shaken, she retrieved her Glass and posted the video the device recorded on YouTube. Naturally, it went viral and escalated the city’s cultural war that ranges from rage about Google buses clogging streets to rants about rising rents.

Consider me merely an imbedded correspondent in this ongoing skirmish. A newspaperman’s salary hardly allows purchase of the $1,500 smart eyewear. Fortunately, the Stanford Court, a Nob Hill boutique hotel, has made it possible for anyone with a decent credit-card limit to strut like a techie peacock – snapping photos and shooting video through simple voice commands, sending them instantly to texting buddies, charting your pedestrian path with a map emerging, hologram-style, slightly above your right eye’s field of vision. You can do Google searches and make phone calls as you power walk, a white glow emanating from the right frame. In short, you can make a spectacle of yourself in these specs (with or without tinted lenses) that weigh no more than a pair of Ray-Bans and come in many hues.

So why not take the hotel up on its one-night “Google Glass Explorer Package” offer, forking over $220 (plus tax) for the privilege of being envied by one subset of the San Francisco populace, reviled by another subset and just considered foolish by those with any fashion sense?

You cannot say I didn’t know what I was getting into. Two days before my check-in date, an “assumption of risk, waiver of liability & indemnity agreement” popped into my inbox. I needed to sign and date this document, which said I “freely acknowledge” that “using the Device exposes me to many risks and hazards including but not limited to, collision with pedestrians, vehicles and/or fixed moving objects, becoming the target/victim of criminal acts or assault, battery and robbery and risk of death, physical or mental personal injury, including but not limited to severe spinal or head injury.” The legal form further stated that I was responsible for any loss or damage to the “Device” and that the “Releasee” (the hotel) would be “harmless of all claims.”

Clearly, I was on my own here. But it’s not as if the Stanford Court staff wasn’t helpful. Oh, no, when I checked in, Austin Phillips, the director of sales and marketing, was there with a firm handshake and a glossy black tote bag bearing the coveted Glass, which though on limited sale to the public this spring has yet to achieve anywhere near mainstream use even in this tech-Mecca.

Inside the bag was a brochure showing how to synch Glass with your smartphone and/or laptop – a somewhat laborious process for we Luddites, too boring to detail here – and, on the flip side, a tip sheet titled “Don’t Be a Glasshole.” Among the hotel’s recommendations to avoid such an ignominious label:

Phillips seemed less concerned about a negative Glass experience than his own brochure expressed.

“People were equally as concerned when they first put cameras on phones,” he said. “Like, whoa, you’re going to film me? People freaked, but now they are OK with it. It’s just a matter of time until people get used to it. There are a lot of places in the city saying Google Glass is not welcome, but our stance was to embrace the technology. The first thing we did was offer a free drink to any local person who came in wearing the glass at our (lobby) bar. We gave away dozens of drinks that night. It was quite a sight. So, don’t worry. You should be good to go.”

With that send-off, I was free to explore The City literally through a different prism. I hoped not to be mocked or mugged while walking down teeming city streets tapping my right index finger to my right temple as if I suffered from a tic and shouting such militaristic commands as “OK, Glass. Record a video” and “OK, Glass. Share with circle.”

But it would take self-esteem much higher than mine not to feel acutely self-conscious wearing Glass in public, especially when a user must sound like a school marm carping “OK, class!” whenever giving the mandatory prefatory injunction “OK, Glass” to the device. (Oh, and a quick aside: Those in the know say to always refer to the device in the singular, Glass, since, don’t you know, these are hardly mere glasses.) After adapting to the initial unsteadiness of trying to walk while peering up and to the right at the “screen,” I felt confident enough to venture forth.

Not to Molotov’s. Lord, no. You don’t immediately face the angry hordes with untested weaponry; you test it out on easier subjects and go from there. Debuting my Glass at Molotov’s would be like storming the beaches at Normandy without first dipping a toe in the water.

Union Square seemed a safe enough first foray. On the precipitous downhill of Powell Street, some people coming at me did almost comic double-takes and engaged in shameless rubbernecking. Others were too busy yakking away on their comparatively low-tech, hand-held smartphones to pay any attention to my tricked-out eyewear. No one accosted me. Heck, no one even stopped me to ask about this technological marvel. Not even in line at Starbucks, where caffeine jitters usually make folks chatty.

Making a sortie into the Mission District, a hipster haven with pockets of Google resisters amid the trendy young urbanites, seemed a suitable challenge leading into a full Molotov’s assault. The BART ride over was uneventful, and I was starting to think that people were just too caught up in their own tech-bubble to look up and pay attention to anyone else.

That theory was summarily shot down as I walked past the 16th and Mission BART station toward Taqueria Cancun, where my college-age son reluctantly agreed to meet me for dinner. A mariachi trio glared at me as I passed, the accordion player curling his upper lip in obvious disdain while, nearby, homeless man seemed to shake his coin cup with extra aggressiveness. OK, so maybe I was a little hyper-sensitive, paranoid even, but there was no disputing the intent of the dismissive head-shake a 30-something hipster in a fedora, horned-rimmed glasses and 6-inch black beard gave as I neared the taqueria.

Once inside, waiting for my wary dinner companion to arrive, I caught out of the corner of my eye a young couple staring at me.

“I’m sorry for staring,” she said. “But I’ve never seen one before.”

I took that as an invitation to chat up Jennifer Jansonn and partner Noah Fichter, visiting from Portland, Ore. They agreed to a video interview, and they both giggled when I gave the “OK, Glass” directive.

“Is this investigative journalism?” Jansonn asked.

Just then, the video switched off at the 10-second mark – only later would I learn that 10 seconds is the default setting for video and you have to tap your temple to extend the run indefinitely – and started again. I asked them if they would ever buy Glass.

“No, no,” Fichter said, without pause. “It’s not that it looks silly or anything ...”

“It looks a little silly,” Jansonn interrupted.

“But,” Fichter added, avoiding eye contact with me, “I don’t think so. ”

My son arrived shortly thereafter. First words: “Gawd, Dad, take those off.”

“No Glass, no burrito, son.”

He relented. We ate. He made a hasty retreat soon thereafter, something about having to work early the next morning.

I decided I needed one more preliminary bout before Molotov’s, so I ambled over to Dog Eared Books, the Mission’s version of the über-hip City Lights Books in North Beach. As I browsed, I was startled when I tilted my head up to check the top shelf for Don DeLillo’s novels. My Glass suddenly activated, a ping ringing in my Bluetooth-wired ear and the words “OK, Glass” flashing before my eye. (Only later would I learn that I had discovered the “head tilt” function for turning on the device without words or a tap.)

A clerk in a green trucker’s hat eyed me as he shelved books. When I approached the counter to pay for DeLillo’s “Great Jones Street,” hoping the literary purchase would offset any Glassholian presumptions the clerk harbored toward me, he asked me a question:

“What’s it like? I have no knowledge of what it is you’re experiencing behind those things.”

I fumbled for a response. “It’s, well ”

“Self-conscious?” he ventured. “Alienating?”

“Both,” I said. “Do I look like a Glasshole?”

He smiled, and told me to enter my pin number for the purchase.

I could avoid Molotov’s no longer. As I approached its fiery red facade, where several smokers lingered out front, my eye (and Glass) caught this sign in the window: “No recording of audio or video on the premises. You may be asked to leave if you violate this policy.”

A bearded man with a cast on his right leg looked me up and down and said, in Tom Waitsian tones, “I wouldn’t go in with that thing.”

I compromised and turned off Glass’ glowing prism. Approaching the bar, the pony-tailed, bearded bartender said, simply, “No,” and turned around. He did not face front again for at least 30 seconds. By that time, I had taken Glass off and hid it in my jacket. He eventually took my beer order. I paid and told him I was a reporter working on a Google Glass story. This time, he said, “No comment,” and turned his back once more.

I was able, however, to chat up a patron, lower Haight resident Sam Clark, outside the bar. He said he was at Molotov’s at the now-infamous Glass snatch caper. He said the woman was being rude – in essence, a “Glasshole.”

“It was fundamentally a situation of not respecting other people’s wishes,” Clark said. “She showed up at 1:20 in the morning at a bar. It could’ve been any bar. It turned out to be this bar. She was making people uncomfortable. They asked her to stop and she would not.”

Clark said he’s not anti-tech. In fact, he said he works “in corporate communications for a tech company,” though declined to say which one. (Not Google, though.)

“I understand there are periods of transition when people are uncomfortable with certain technologies,” Clark added, “When people started texting in restaurants, that aggravated people.

“This is a private place. It’s up to a private place to make a decision on what it wants to do. They made the decision: We’ll bounce you.”

Consider me bounced, then. I took my Glass and retreated to the Stanford Court. But first, I stopped at the Trader Joe’s on California Street. In line with my bananas, I looked behind me and saw a slight man in a ponytail sporting – can it be? – a red, white and blue Glass.

I lurked outside until he bought his groceries, then chatted up the man, San Francisco illustrator (Marvel and DC Comics, among others) Justin Chung. Turns out, he was selected by Google a year ago as an original Glass “Explorer.” He exuded enthusiasm, said Glass has changed his life, made it so much easier.

“The only thing that separates us from animals is opposable thumbs and a superior intellect,” he said. “But we lose the opposable-thumb advantage when we have to handle a phone and press all those buttons and look down. I have my hands free and I’m aware of my environment. I see people on the street looking down all the time and it’s just too bad.

“They miss so much. With Glass, you don’t miss anything.”

At long last, I had found a member of my tribe – at least until my 24 hours with the Glass were up and I would return to life among the downward-looking rabble, alas.