No shirt. No shoes. No augmented reality glasses. No service. Earlier this month, human cyborg and University of Toronto Professor Steve Mann, claims he was brutalized and kicked out of a Paris McDonald’s after employees objected to his headset and its ability to record photos and videos of his experiences.
Update: McDonald’s issued a statement confirming that Mann had been ejected, but denying that there was physical contact. In response, Mann released a photo which appears to show an employee grabbing his glasses.
“I’m not sure why the perpetrators attacked, but ‘Perp. 1′ [Mann’s name for one of his assailants] did mention about cameras not being allowed,” he told us in an exclusive email interview. Mann was unavailable for a phone call because his iPhone was also damaged in the alleged attack.
Though augmented reality headsets like Google’s Project Glass have just started making headlines this year, Mann has been wearing his own home-brewed “EyeTap Digital Glass” computers every day since the early 1980s.
The current generation EyeTap, which runs on customized WearComp OS, captures images at 120 frames per second in 1080 x 1920-pixel resolution, but according to Mann, these images aren’t stored permanently. However, when Mann’s EyeTap Glass was damaged, it failed to erase some images of his experience at McDonald’s.
“It merely delays rather than records, but when [the EyeTap was] damaged (computer), the leftovers were recovered,” he said. “In this sense Perp 1 [the person who allegedly assaulted Mann] was the person who took all the pictures in the last hour or so, by causing the computer to be broken.”
Mann, told us that, on July 1st, he, his wife and their two children were in line to purchase food at the Paris McDonald’s when an employee approached and informed them that cameras were not allowed in the establishment. After Mann presented the employee with a doctor’s note he carries with him that states he needs to wear his headgear, the employee let him through and a cashier took his order.
According to Mann, after he and his family had received their food and taken a seat by the entrance, another McDonald’s employee, whom Mann refers to as Perpetrator 1, approached and angrily tried to pull the EyeTap, which is permanently attached and cannot be removed without tools, off of his head.
“Perp. 1 reached his left hand out and pressed against the frame of my eyeglass, and swung his left hand around a few times pushing and pulling at it,” he told us.
Mann then tried to calm Perpetrator 1 and showed him his doctor’s note, which the employee showed to two coworkers, whom Mann nicknames Perpetrators 2 and 3. After Perpetrator 2 crumpled up his doctor’s note and Perpetrator 1 tore up some other documentation he provided, Perpetrator 1 then allegedly pushed him out the door and onto the street, damaging his gear.
“My Glass started acting a little erratic but I could still see to some degree, but with crosshatches and kind of a freeze-frame like motion as the Eye Glass stopped and started intermittently,” Mann said. The alleged assault apparently loosened a ribbon cable within the device, causing the eye piece to malfunction and flood Mann’s eye with laser light.
However, the device was still functioning until Mann had an embarrassing bodily reaction upon hitting the street, which caused his circuits to short out.
“The actual cause of the final stoppage (which happened shortly after he pushed me out the door) is a bit embarrassing as what happened also is that I had had to really use the toilet, at the time, and it was that I’d been going toward using the toilet but got attacked, so as a result, later, it turned out that my pants became the toilet,” he said.
“The cargo pants I wear have large number of pockets most of the way down both legs, so my iPhone and the processing boards, motherboard of miniature PC, control board of Glass, etc., went dead shortly afterwards, and that’s when the Glass went totally dark. My iPhone and some of the other pieces still don’t work.”
Mann said that, after picking himself up and dusting himself off, he sought out Police in the Champs-Elysees area, but none of the many cops he approached were interested in taking a report or investigating.
“Some of the parts of me started shutting down at different times afterwards,” Mann told us in an exclusive email interview. “I’m still online now but a lot is not working.”
To draw attention to his plight, on July 16th Mann posted an account of the alleged assault on blogspot, causing an international uproar. The incident has so far been covered by more than three dozen major news outlets, including Tech Crunch, Forbes, Mashable and The Verge. A group on Reddit had more than 2,000 comments as of this writing. Sci-fi blog io9 even described the alleged attack as “the world’s first cybernetic hate crime.”
“After first trying with the Police (no luck) and then the Consulate/Embassies (no luck), and then the legal experts and human rights commissioners (no luck), some of whom suggested “the court of public opinion,” I finally brought this matter to the public’s attention, but only after exhausting all other possibilities,” he said.
A representative from McDonald’s told us that the company is still investigating the incident.
“We strive to provide a welcoming and enjoyable experience for our customers when they visit our restaurants,” the company told us in a statement. “We take the claims and feedback of our customers very seriously. We are in the process of gathering information about this situation and we ask for patience until all of the facts are known.”
For his part, Mann said he is not seeking punitive damages, just enough money to fix his EyeTap Glass and perhaps a commitment from McDonald’s to support vision research as his glasses are also designed to eventually help people with vision and memory problems.
No matter how this ends, Mann’s story raises serious questions about technology and privacy. As we carry cameras with us everywhere we go, the question of where and when we can capture our experiences looms large. Google’s upcoming Project Glass will certainly be swept up in the same type of controversy as augmented reality eyewear proliferates.
In a paper on wearable computing, Mann describes wearable devices and recording as similar to human memory and says that public establishments like businesses should not discriminate against people whose memories are captured by computer devices. He sees a future in which everyone from memory-impaired Alzheimer’s patients to healthy adults uses wearable tech as an extended memory.
“The ‘Silicon Brain’ of the Mindmesh thus asks the question ‘is remembering recording?’ As more people embrace prosthetic minds, this distinction will disappear. Businesses and other organizations have a legal obligation not to discriminate, and will therefore not be able to prevent individuals from seeing and remembering, whether by natural biological or computational means,” he writes on Interaction-Design.org.