Steve Mann, often referred to as the “Father of wearable computing” has posted a very interesting story on his blog. According to Mann, he was “physically assaulted” in a Parisian McDonald’s for wearing his “EyeTap Digital Eye Glass” invention. Similar to the prototypes created by Google and Olympus, the EyeTap is a wearable camera, resembling a pair of spectacles. Instead of using the device for skydiving, Mann has unspecified medical reasons for wearing this device everyday. According to his personal account, when he and his family visited a McDonald’s restaurant in Paris on July 1, 3 employees aggressively questioned him before assaulting him as they tried to remove the glasses from his face. Mann is more than just the father of wearable computing, he’s also a pioneer in this area.
Working as a professor at the University of Toronto in the department of electrical and computer engineering, Mann’s inventions have helped blind and visually impaired people see. More than a philanthropic inventor, Mann is also a bit of an activist against the rising trend of ever-present surveillance cameras.
For instance, in 2002, Mann was strip-searched and questioned by security at his hometown airport, St. John’s International. During this 3-day incident, Mann said $56,800 worth of equipment was damaged, including his futuristic eyeglasses, which he was using at the time to enhance his vision and track his vital signs.
Mann was on his way to the premier of his documentary, Cyberman, in Austin, Texas. In a Wired article just after the documentary premier, Mann explains an experiment he had conducted with his EyeTap glasses. To conduct this experiment, he streamed, in real-time, everything he saw through his camera-equipped glasses, effectively turning the “establishment’s” cameras back on the shooter. His experiment, entitled Shooting Back, was often met with suspicious questioning and funny looks. During a virtual presentation for Shooting Back, Mann explained his experiment thusly: “We explored what happened when we’d bring an ordinary handheld camera into places with surveillance.”
“I was often told only criminals were afraid of cameras (by store employees), but then I was told that I couldn’t record in those stores.”
One particular scene in Shooting Back shows Mann being questioned by 3 Wal-Mart employees about his EyeTap camera and the handheld camera he carried throughout the shoot. When the employees tell Mann he’s not allowed to record inside the store, Mann says he should be allowed to record if the store is recording their customers via their surveillance cameras. Mann and his filmmakers are run out of the Wal-Mart when the store’s assistant manager is unable to explain the difference between surveillance cameras and Mann’s cameras.
The most recent McDonald’s incident is just another to add to Mann’s storybook.
Mann gives an exhaustive account on his blog, giving the unnamed McDonald’s employees titles such as “Possible Witness 1 and 2,” and “Perpetrators 1,2 and 3.”
By his account, Mann and his family had just spent the day visiting museums and historical landmarks and, as such, was carrying documentation and a doctors note for his EyeTap device. When Mann and his family first walked in to the McDonald’s on 140, Avenue Champs Elysees, an employee asked him about his eye camera. He presented the documentation and doctors letter and was allowed to remain in the store.
However, as he was eating his food, another employee (referred to as “perpetrator 1,”) tried to forcibly remove the glasses from Mann’s face.
“He angrily grabbed my eyeglass, and tried to pull it off my head. The eyeglass is permanently attached and does not come off my skull without special tools,” Mann writes in his blog.
He once again presented his documentation to Perpetrator 1, who brought Mann to two other employees. Perpetrator 1 then handed the papers to Perpetrator 2 and Perpetrator 3. After they all had studied the papers for a while, Perpetrator 2 “angrily crumpled and ripped up the letter from my doctor.”
Perpetrator 1 then pushed Mann from the restaurant and onto the street.
The McDonald’s employees likely didn’t expect Mann’s camera to be capturing every moment of this altercation. According to the EyeTap inventor, when the computer is damaged by falling or, in Mann’s case, by physical assault, the camera buffers each image and stores them in its memory. The images are not overwritten.
Mann has clear a image of every person involved in this altercation, from the witnesses to the perpetrators and even innocent passers-by.
Mann has reached out to McDonald’s seeking restitution for his broken glasses, but has been unable to do so. As such, he’s asked for help from anyone who has any contact. His attempts to reach out to the Consulate, Embassy and Police were met without any luck.
There are a few questions left unanswered in Mann’s retelling. First, what condition does Mann have which would necessitate the EyeTap device? He does say he was wearing the EyeTap during his 2002 incident at St. John’s International to enhance his vision and track his vital signs, but he doesn’t say much more. While he doesn’t have to explain his conditions, any explanation could bring more sense to the somewhat puzzling account. He does say the device is affixed to his skull, which makes the part of the story about the employee trying to remove them from his head particularly cringe-worthy.
Secondly, Mann doesn’t say specifically what problem the McDonald’s employees had with his EyeTap device. At the end of his blog post, he does mention reaching out to an American who was physically assaulted in another Parisian McDonald’s for taking pictures of their menu. Were the employees simply upset that Mann may have been violating a McDonald’s “no photography” policy? Furthermore, why did they become so irate so quickly? As Mann’s is the only account of the incident we have, these questions will likely go unanswered until another witness speaks up.
McDonald’s has issued a comment to Forbes, saying only that they, “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 now, many are wondering: Is this the first case of cybernetic hate-crime? If these EyeTap devices become commonplace in the future, as Mann suggests, will there be more altercations like this in the coming years? Will this incident give McDonald’s and other retail chains a reason to review their surveillance and “no photography” policies?
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