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World through the looking glass


Glass0800Google’s newest gadget has gone skydiving, been to the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, sat over the eyes of an artist doing a drawing and joined one naked tech enthusiast in the shower. Doctors at a Connecticut hospital are testing it, a Vegas strip club banned it and I brought it to Guantánamo.

It’s Google Glass, a computer with a camera that you wear like eyeglasses — a once unimaginable technological tool. It lets you glance up and see a news bulletin on its tiny screen or dictate an email. Ask it a question, out loud, and you’ll hear an answer in your ear.  

And because it’s so new, on the heads of just 8,000 so-called Explorers, it’s seen as the ultimate status symbol in certain techie circles, drawing curious stares and the occasional giddy giggle of recognition.

A geek grew wide-eyed at the Apple Store's Genius Bar on Lincoln Road and asked to see it. A waitress dashed over when I wore it to dinner at the Khong River House restaurant. As she leaned in for a look, I told it to snap her picture. “OK, Glass: Take a picture.”

And it did.

The device is in its infancy, finicky — and expensive. 

A few examples:

  • • The first time I dictated a post that mentioned “Gitmo,” the military’s nickname for Guantánamo, it wrote “Got Milk.”
  • • It runs on Wi-Fi but not all kinds, notably not on two-step logons like we have at the Miami Herald. 
  • • I paid $1,633.12 including tax for one of the 8,000 Beta versions, plus the cost of getting to a Google Glass studio in New York City to pick it up and get it started.

That’s a long way to go to snap my first “selfie.”

Thanks to today’s chic, oversized sunglasses, Glass can mostly go undetected. One night, a parade of people and their pets paid me no notice, just weaved around and past, as I practiced making video clips at the iconic Havana Cafe, standing cross-armed in the middle of Lincoln Road to steady my eye-camera head.

Just about the only place where I was thwarted in using it was while reporting at the U.S. Navy base at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba — in part because of the base’s backwater communications, and in part because it is a U.S. military censorship zone. More on that later.

Google Glass is a combination computer and camera packed in a frame that looks like eyeglasses. Its name is singular — Glass — because its display is a sugar-cube-sized chunk of glass that perches above the user’s right eye.

When I wear the frames and look straight ahead, I see normally. When I glance up and to the right, I see a floating video monitor.

Technologically, it’s both clever and hard to fathom. It’s a camera. It’s a computer. It can tether to your cellphone and make calls. It responds to voice and finger-swipe commands.

It lets you search the Web (using Google, of course), stream a YouTube video, dictate and send emails to up to 10 pre-programmed contacts, and take really decent photos and post them on the Internet using the maker’s designer site Google+. It reads aloud news items on command.

It also lets you make videos and live video-casts that are as steady as you can hold your head.

It’s like a real-life version of the imaginary helmet cameras worn by cinematic U.S. Marines in the 1986 sci-fi movie Aliens.

Which brings me back to how I got the gadget.

Earlier this year, Google had an “If I had Glass” contest. Anyone could enter, by posting a proposal on the Internet.

As the Miami Herald’s Middle East correspondent in the ’90s, I was the first at my paper to send a story by computer from Cairo, no small feat pre-Internet. I sent my stories from Iraq during Saddam Hussein’s time on one of the first satellite telexes, a huge contraption that took two of us to heft around Baghdad.

So I had to get a first look at Google’s new device.

I posted my pitch on Twitter: #ifihadglass, I’d take it on assignment to a place most people can’t go.

I’ve been reporting from the prison camps at Guantánamo since 2002, arguably one of the strangest foreign correspondent assignments ever. So I told Project Glass I’d take it there.

Then I forgot about it — until late March when Google announced on Twitter that I’d been chosen.
Woohoo,” the tweet said.

I was going to be an Explorer. But would the Pentagon permit my using the new tool? By the time I got mine, Glass was already stirring controversy. A movie theater chain, some Vegas strip clubs and a Seattle dive bar already had banned it. One Explorer filmed his shower, a stunt seen as overexposure.

Nothing prevented me from taking it to Guantánamo, where writers get to send their dispatches uncensored. But it’s a closed military zone and only journalists who agree to submit their photo or video images to military censorship are allowed in.

Troops go through photos in a “security review” and delete those that don’t pass. Prisoners’ faces are forbidden, as are photos of soldiers who don’t consent and nearly everyone else on the base, which has a McDonalds, school system, Irish pub, airport and seaport.

Still, I was hoping to use it for interviews at Guantánamo’s prison camps for a report on this year’s Ramadan — the 12th for most of the 166 prisoners there, the first for nearly all the soldiers.

That was the theory, anyway, when I arrived from Fort Lauderdale on July 22 and showed the device to U.S. Army escorts. They’re from the Kentucky and Indiana National Guard and work as Army journalists writing stories and press releases and taking pictures for the prison staff newsletter, The Wire.

TroopsGiven our parallel professions they reacted just as I expected — they were psyched. They stared at the device. They tried it out. We were inside a wooden shed built in a dilapidated aircraft hangar, far from anything remotely sensitive. So they clowned around for the camera.

It was downhill from there. Army Lt. Col. Samuel House, acting public affairs director, said the command staff was suspicious and forbade me from taking it anywhere near the detention center zone, a decision I hope they’ll revisit in the future.

Meantime, I settled for video clips from the gift shop and commissary, approved for you to see because it just shows stuff, not people.

Plus, with a little bit of coaxing, my censors let me keep the 10-second clip of them, some of the freshest soldiers at the place the president vowed to empty of prisoners four years ago.

Next time, perhaps, I’ll get to do more with it. The way I see it, whether it’s technology or politics, change comes slowly to Guantánamo.


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