Google Glass and the men's room urinals

commentary What mind-blowing breakthrough will result from the advent of Google's high-tech specs? Maybe redesigned men's rooms? CNET's Danny Sullivan considers the topic, and shares his stream of consciousness.

The urinal game

commentary I suppose it was inevitable. The debate about Google Glass has extended into the bathroom. For those who've never experienced the joys of a men's restroom -- generally the women of the world -- here's how Glass might change our glorious experience.

Nick Bilton of The New York Times penned a great piece about how "the future came crashing down" on him as he stood at a urinal next to a Google Glass wearer at the Google I/O conference. I immediately identified, having had a similar close encounter at Google I/O.

In my case, as I walked into one of the restrooms, a Google Glass wearer exited, and I experienced that same future-crashing-down feeling. Wow. We've got cameras in the bathroom. It hit me just for a second, the new reality in my face, then I continued on.

Cameras in the bathroom aren't new. People carry smartphones with them in all the time. Cameras at the urinal aren't new, either. There's no end of annoying men who stand peeing with one hand on their business and the other hand holding the phone. Note to these multitaskers: You look like what you're holding. And I'm not saying you look like a smartphone.

The existing lack of men's restroom privacy
This leads to the unique nature of men's restrooms. Do you know how men immediately know if they've made a terrible mistake and wandered into a woman's restroom by accident (assuming there are no women there)? They immediately realize there's no bank of urinals, just a row of stalls. Cold fear immediately crashes over you, as you run like hell toward the exit.

We have stalls in men's restrooms, but not many of them. Number one is more common than number two. Most of our business of relieving ourselves happens standing up, at urinals. And there's not a lot of privacy there.

Now, if you're the sensitive type, stop reading. To understand the unique role Glass may play in the restroom, I have to get into more detail.

What we can and can't see
There's a giant range of urinal types. At the high end, every urinal has a privacy barrier between it and the other one, so that if you're standing there, there's no way someone could look over at you. These aren't common, however, because the privacy barriers have a tendency to come away from the walls.

Usually, you're going to pee side-by-side with someone else. Maybe the urinal is designed in a way that it provides a bit of privacy, especially if you can stand fairly close to it. But some seem designed to force maximum exposure. They won't be tall, but rather nearly on the ground and short. The worst, the absolute worst, are the types you might encounter at sporting arenas of old, which are basically a common horse trough that everyone uses.

There are no real lessons in urinal etiquette that you learn growing up, at least none that I recall, nor that any of my friends do. It just seems naturally that you generally look ahead, not toward the other person, and never down. You have enough peripheral vision when doing this to understand if the other person next to you is doing the same. And if he's looking down, and toward you, you know that as well.

What is he going to see? That really depends first and foremost on his neighbor. For most of us, probably not a lot. There's natural hand blockage, for a start. Open pants provide more blockage. The urinal itself might shield. But you generally aren't going to see much.

I know this, by the way, as every man knows this, just from going pee. When you're done, you're typically going to look down before zipping up -- and that peripheral vision again gives you a sense of what's going on around you. It's not a lot, but there is exposure.

What's far more commonly understood is if the other person is actually peeing or not. You can hear. Your peripheral version will see a stream. And if the other person can't start, you say nothing. If you can't start, you're thankful the other person says nothing.

Yes, shy penis syndrome or shy bladder syndrome is a real thing. There can be pressure to start. The number one thing that would help ease it, speaking as an occasional sufferer, would be privacy guards between urinals. But the men, who I assume largely design most of our restrooms, don't think they're worth either installing or designing.

Raised not to expect privacy
I assume it's men who mostly ignore the privacy design considerations in men's restrooms because men have been brought up without having those expectations. It's either not an issue for most of us or we learn to live with it. Most women, on the odd occasion when this topic has come up, have expressed horror when they understand the situation that goes on in the men's restroom.

Maybe Google Glass will fix that. As a Wall Street Journal article points out today, there's already a law against "video voyerism" or taking pictures of naked people in places where they have a reasonable expectation of privacy. That means Glass is already covered. But that doesn't prevent anyone from ignoring the law. With Glass, it's potentially easier to ignore it and not get caught. Perhaps, just perhaps, Glass will have the side benefit of having more privacy designed into bathrooms.

In the meantime, men will continue to select urinals in a similar manner that The Urinal Game very accurately describes but with the new twist of perhaps avoiding Glass wearers as part of the general quest of enhancing privacy.

As for the wearers, my colleague Matt McGee at Marketing Land, who's had Google Glass for two weeks now, has adopted a "move to the top of his head" policy. Maybe that will become the new polite norm.

 

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