Whenever Taylor Jones travels on business lately, he receives confused looks and knowing grins in equal measure from the people he passes.
A 26-year-old principal partner of Whiteboard, a web development company on the Southside, Jones isn't especially remarkable looking, but as one of the 8,000 people in the world who's testing the Google Glass wearable computer, he has become something of a tech celebrity. And, given the Google Glass' unusual appearance, he's treated something like extra on the lam from a science fiction film set while wearing it.
"It would look cool if everyone had one on," he says. "Right now, it kind of stands out. ... You can't wear this around without people looking at you with a strange look on their face."
Jones picked up his early access, "Explorer" model of Glass in New York on July 19. Another Chattanoogan, app developer David Shellabarger, also received a pair. In a June 23 post to his Google-Plus account of his travels in Rome, Shellabarger writes that he experienced a similar mix of awe and confusion from strangers while wearing Glass.
"I was in Italy for [two] weeks, and I'd say I had between [two] and [four] groups of strangers ask me about Google Glass each day and about 50 strangers each day whisper and point," he writes. "This happened so often that when one of the friends I was traveling with got separated, he just asked some whispering strangers which way the guy with Google Glass went."
Glass is Google's first foray into the burgeoning field of wearable technology. The device resembles a pair of prescription glasses that were accidentally sold without lenses. A 1.5 ounce, titanium frame houses a battery, a speaker and a computer processor, which sit on either side of the right ear. A fingernail-size projector is set about an inch in front of the frame and feeds information through a prism into the user's right eye.
When paired to a smartphone, wearers interact with Glass via voice commands to search for information online, interact with their social networks, take videos or photos and receive texts, emails and turn-by-turn navigation.
"Our vision behind Glass is to put you back in control of your technology by giving you a simple, elegantly designed hands-free device that's on only when you need it and off when you don't," reads a Google news release about the device, expected to be released later this year or in early 2014.
But not everyone is thrilled with the device, especially its ability to surreptitiously record photos and video from a first-person perspective, which has raised privacy concerns. Following a demo of Glass to Congress in May, the eight-member Congressional Bi-partisan Privacy Caucus sent a letter to Google CEO Larry Page asking the company to address their concerns.
"We are curious whether this new technology could infringe on the privacy of average Americans," the letter reads. "Because Google Glass has not yet been released and we are uncertain of Google's plans to incorporate privacy protections into the device, there are still a number of unanswered questions that we share."
Google submitted a response in June, but the caucus' co-Chairman Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, issued a statement in July that Google's reply was "disappoint[ing]" and that the questions were "not adequately answered."
Jones says he has encountered similar concerns from the public, some of whom assume he was recording them using Glass. Taking a picture or video with Glass is accomplished by pressing a touch-sensitive panel to "wake" the device, then issuing voice commands such as, "OK, Glass, take a picture," or "OK, Glass, take a video." These are "explicit signals ... to make ... it clear to those around the device what the user is doing," according to a Frequently Asked Questions document released by Google.
Given Glass' ability to record and share video content simultaneously, casinos and movie theaters have expressed concerns about potential misuse as well. The gaming commissions in Nevada and New Jersey were so concerned over the potential of Glass giving an unfair advantage at the card tables that they have proposed or issued pre-emptive bans well before the device's release.
Concerned by the potential of Glass' text abilities to impair drivers' concentration, the West Virginia House of Representatives in March amended the language of a proposed ban on texting while driving to expand from handheld devices to "hands-free devices ... [including] using a wearable computer with head mounted display."
Culling potential misuse and smoothing out a device's rough edges is the point of Glass' current beta testing phase and, despite its less-refined aspects, Glass and similar devices have the potential to impact consumer technology the way iPhones and other smartphones did five years ago, says Jonathan Cutrell, 24, Whiteboard's director of technology.
"When I used it ... I almost felt like I was using an Apple II (personal computer). It's the beginning of a technology," says Cutrell, who also applied for the beta program but wasn't selected, so he borrowed Jones' pair. "I think it will shape how people think about technology as a more integrated part of their life."
Google unveiled Glass at its annual I/O Conference in June 2012, simultaneously opening exclusive beta testing of the device to 2,000 developers. In February, the company used a public Twitter contest to select 8,000 additional testers, who also were given the opportunity to help test the technology. Those interested in taking part had to post a tweet that included the subject "#ifihadglass" and an explanation of how they would use the device, if they were allowed to buy the early model for $1,500.
Jones won entrance to the program by tweeting about how he hoped to use Glass to create a first-person documentary of a day in the life of Andong, a Cambodian village for which Whiteboard and its building-mates - analog-to-digital transfer company Southtree - previously had done humanitarian work. He says he would like to act out this plan, although Google makes no obligations of its testers to follow through on their proposals.
Google encourages beta participants to share their experiences with Glass via online forums and by responding to the company's weekly surveys. A self-described habitual early adopter of consumer technologies, Jones says he enjoys the notoriety of helping to shape Glass and is continuing to find ways to take advantage of the hands-free interaction it offers.
After he picked up his unit in New York, Jones and his wife spent two days in Manhattan. While sightseeing, he used voice commands with Glass to take pictures, post them to his Facebook page and to escort his younger brother on a tour of Times Square via a live video chat. On the way home, he used Glass to check his flight's status.
However, the reality of Glass hasn't always lived up to Google's slick marketing videos. Users of Apple devices, including Jones, who uses an iPhone, remain unable to access certain core features, including viewing and sending texts or accessing turn-by-turn navigation.
Additionally, while the device works well enough with contact lenses, the current model of Glass - which Jones describes as "clunky" and "awkward" - is uncomfortable to use while wearing glasses. Google has acknowledged the ocular incompatibility. In the company's Frequently Asked Questions document, Google writes that the device is designed to be "modular and extensible" and that work was proceeding on frames that allow users to add prescription lenses.
Victoria Yorke, the owner of Good World Goods, a fair trade and locally made artisan retailer on East Brainerd Road, tried to get in the Explorer program but failed. Still, she avidly has followed the experiences of those who made the cut. She says she would be willing to pay $500 to $1,000 for the final device based on what she's seen of Glass' current capabilities and the refinements she expects to be made.
"It's technology in the making," she explains. "We're now exploring brand new ways - whether they fall to the wayside or become a huge success - to communicate and gather information that we've never done before. That is really exciting to me."
Contact staff writer Casey Phillips at email@example.com or 423-757-6205. Follow him on Twitter at @PhillipsCTFP.