McDonald's Staffers See Red Over Prof's Digital Eyewear

Steve Mann's "Glass Eye" invention as designed by S. Mann and C. Aimone, 1999

It’s a safe bet that Google and other inventors of digital eyewear never envisioned this: A Canadian university professor says he was assaulted by employees of a McDonald’s in Paris who objected to his wearing a cyborg-style eyepiece while eating dinner with his family.

Steve Mann, who teaches engineering at the University of Toronto and designs his own high-tech eyegear, says he fled a McDonald’s outlet on the Champs Élysées on July 1, after employees tried to knock the device off his head and tore up a note from his doctor explaining why he needed to wear it. His account of the incident, posted on his blog, includes photos of the alleged attack that Mann says were taken by the device’s built-in camera. “They were acting like lunatics,” Mann told Bloomberg Businessweek.

McDonald’s, in a statement posted on its French website on July 19, confirmed that employees had talked to Mann because they thought he might be secretly filming customers and employees in violation of French privacy laws. “The exchanges with Mr. Mann were respectful and courteous,” the statement said. The company said it was continuing to investigate and asked that no “hasty conclusions” be drawn. Spokesmen at McDonald’s French and U.S. headquarters did not return calls.

In the meantime, Mann’s story has gone viral, drawing responses on websites around the world, including hundreds of scathing comments about McDonald’s on the company’s French-language Facebook page. France has more than 1,200 McDonald’s outlets and has long been one of the chain’s most profitable markets.

Mann says his device, called the Eyetap, is the latest version of a “computerized vision system” that he invented more than 30 years ago and has been wearing for more than a decade. The device, attached to the head by a frame that can only be loosened with special tools, is a “computer controlled light source that causes the eye to function as if it were both a camera and a display,” according to a description on Mann’s blog.

“I use it to help me see better,” Mann says. “Sometimes if I can’t read something, I photograph and zoom into it.” He declines to say whether he suffers from a visual handicap.

Google has gained attention in recent months as the technology company prepares to release its Google Glass product within the next year, hoping to move computing and Web surfing from desktops and phones to a new venue: a small screen in front of your eye.

Mann says that when he first entered the fast-food outlet with his wife and children, an employee questioned him about the eyepiece.  He says he pulled out a note from his doctor as well as written documentation about the device, which he had brought along on vacation in case museum security guards thought he might be photographing works of art. The employee spoke good English, Mann says, and after a “very long discussion,” agreed to let him into the restaurant.

After ordering a meal and sitting down to eat, Mann says, he was approached at his table by another man who appeared to be an employee. “He was swinging his left hand hysterically at me, he hit my eyeglasses. He had an ID around his waist, and when I tried to look at it, he covered it up and turned it around.” Then, Mann says, he was approached by two other men, one of whom was wearing a shirt with a McDonald’s logo. One of the men tore up the note from his doctor, he says. “I called my family and said, ‘We’d better get out of here.’”

The photos posted on Mann’s blog include one that shows a man extending his hand toward Mann’s head, and another showing a man tearing up a sheet of paper. The men’s faces are obscured on the blog by labels identifying them as “Perpetrator 1,” “Perpetrator 2,” and “Perpetrator 3.” French privacy laws generally forbid publishing or posting images of individuals without their consent.

After leaving the restaurant, Mann says he spoke to a police officer on the sidewalk nearby, but the officer declined to get involved. He says he left a message at McDonald’s customer-service telephone number in France and heard back later from a representative who promised the company would investigate. However, he says, “They never called back.” In the statement on its website, McDonald’s said it first became aware of the incident after Mann’s blog post on July 17.

Mann says he wants McDonald’s to pay for repairs to his eyegear, which he says was damaged during the incident. Also, he suggests that McDonald’s make a donation to support vision research.

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