About a week ago I received Google Glass. I’m very excited about the potential applications, and I can’t wait to see how this dawning era of wearable tech will change our lives. In time we’ll see concepts from companies like Apple, Samsung and Microsoft that will help make wearables an intrinsic part of the 21st century. This is the first of a series of articles on Google Glass and wearable technology, and offers my first impressions of Glass.
It seems everyone is giving their first impressions of the device, though these impressions are often geared towards an audience already familiar with the product. I’ve been wearing it in public, and over the past week I have had several people asking me about the thing on my face. Most people already recognize it as Google Glass, but few seem to know what it does or how it works. In fact, it seems many believe that once Glass goes on, it never comes off – it has become a part of me. I’ve changed from a human to some sort of social networking “spyborg” from the future, and I no longer require food or drink that doesn’t come in pill-form. Rest assured I still eat and drink. I hope to clear this up some more with this article. I’ll talk about what it is, what it isn’t (for now), as well as a summary of the features and some of the available apps. In future articles in this series, I’ll also talk about analytics, safety, privacy & spying and industrial applications.
What it is
This isn’t intended to be a comprehensive list of the capabilities of Google Glass so much as a summary of some of its primary functions. As more apps become available and other uses are identified, this list may start to seem archaic.
A camera. It’s used to take pictures or video, and can be used with some apps for barcode scanning, rudimentary augmented reality, and live-streaming video. The camera could theoretically also be used for video analytics in real-time such as object or face recognition, collision detection or hazard detection (more on this in a future article). The camera is intended to see what the wearer sees, and the live-streaming functionality could have important industrial, educational or medical applications. I’ll write a post in the future exploring the potential applications of live-streaming with Glass. Anyway, pictures are automatically uploaded to Google+, and can be uploaded to Facebook, emailed, sent via SMS or IM or other means of sharing. It’s up to the wearer to decide who to share the image with. In addition to the forward camera, there’s also a sensor on the inside of Glass that can detect the wearer’s eye position, winks and blinks. In a recent software update, Google added the ability to take a picture just by winking. So if you see someone wearing Google Glass and they wink at you, they’re probably taking your picture.
A heads-up display (HUD). One of the most interesting features of Google Glass is its potential to support reality augmentation by providing a hands-free heads-up display. It’s important to understand that this display does not occupy a large portion of your field of vision, and therefore isn’t intended to provide an altered reality where you see things that aren’t exactly how they appear. Instead think of it like the heads-up data you might see in a video game. A compass, a mini-map with directions laid out for you, or a clock. In fact, these are all apps that come standard and are provided by Google. There are also fitness apps that provide tracking and show your mile time and other running or cycling stats in the HUD. The nice thing about the HUD is that it’s transparent, so you still have full use of your field of vision, especially when the display isn’t active. There’s even a golf app that allows you to see GPS distances to targets, hazards, satellite imagery, keep score as well as course data in real time.
An extension of your smartphone. Google Glass can allow you to make and receive phone calls hands-free, functioning in the capacity of a blue-tooth headset with voice recognition. You can also use it to send and read text messages, emails and IMs all through voice-input. If you can’t take the time to focus your eyes on the display, it even does text-to-speech. You can use it to search the internet, visit web pages and view data on businesses through Google+. It comes with a mono ear-bud with an optional stereo ear-buds upgrade, but it also has a built-in bone-conduction transducer that sits behind your ear and relays sound to you by vibrating your skull if you don’t wish to put anything in your ear. It’s not as frightening as it sounds, but it does take some getting used to.
An instant pipeline to social media. You can literally use Google Glass to share exactly what you’re doing and where you’re doing it with all of your friends, circles, followers and even the world in near-real- to real-time. You can post pictures and video to Google+, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and others as things are happening through winking, head tilts and voice commands. You can live-stream your life via Google+ Hangouts if you so desire. You can write captions and descriptions on any media you upload through speech recognition. Be warned, though: like most things, it’s best to exercise moderation in this regard, unless you truly are that interesting.
What it isn’t (at least not yet, maybe not ever)
X-ray specs. When I’m wearing Google Glass, I’m not using it to see you naked. It can’t do that. I probably don’t even want to do that. That’s what the TSA is for.
Video archive of everything I see. The day after I got Google Glass, I went to dinner with a friend of mine who also has Google Glass. Our waiter did his best to stay in our peripheral vision and out of view of the camera. He was visibly concerned, and if I looked in his direction he immediately walked away. Whatever he was afraid of, I would like him or anyone else I encounter in public to know that I am most likely not recording video or taking pictures of you. Most other people I interacted with were very positive and had a lot of questions about it, but it’s apparent that some people just weren’t comfortable with it. As wearable tech becomes more ubiquitous, the negative perception will subside. In the meantime, take my word that I’m not using it to spy on you, record you or disrupt your life in any way.
Fully-active, immersive reality augmentation. Google Glass doesn’t beam a stereoscopic 3D image into your retina. Furthermore, the camera is a wide-angle view of everything in front of you while the display occupies a very small portion of your field of vision. It won’t be able to highlight objects in your field of vision, help you see farther or better, make you better at sports or hunting, or make you into a soldier or a super hero. Don’t expect to see an overlay of the constellations and celestial bodies superimposed into your full field of vision when you look up at the night sky (though it’s more than capable of displaying that in the corner of your vision on the display, it won’t sync up perfectly with the rest of what you see). The HUD is better suited to providing statistics, contextual analysis or metadata-based (or partial) reality augmentation.
- The hardware provides plenty of room for growth and development, and lots of ways to interface for future applications. With 3-axis accelerometers, magnetometers and gyroscopes, a light sensor and a proximity sensor we may start to see more fitness, sport, health and safety applications alongside the countless social networking apps already available.
- Google Glass comes with a removable sunglass shield that fits the device nicely. In the future, prescription lenses and shields will be available for Glass.
- Smartphone integration with the MyGlass app is very good. You can tether your smartphone’s data connection using Bluetooth, screencast Glass’s display to your smartphone and add and configure Glassware (apps for Google Glass) directly from the MyGlass app or webpage.
- Google Glass has Wi-Fi, so it’s capable of a high-speed data connection even if you don’t have an Android phone.
- The 720p camera is decent. It takes good pictures and smooth video.
- The device is lightweight and comfortable, and the display isn’t too invasive to your vision. It’s easy to forget you’re wearing it.
- The bone-conduction transducer allows the wearer to hear, even if their ears are plugged.
- Google Glass is not great for people who have impaired vision, at least not yet. As Google Glass has its own frame, it doesn’t fit comfortably around the frame of your eyeglasses if you wear them. It can be hard to focus on the display, especially if you’re vision impaired. Prescription lenses may be available starting in the early part of 2014, so this may be resolved in the near future.
- The display is fairly low resolution. Given the size of the display, this isn’t too big of a deal, but don’t expect to be able to scrutinize your photos on the device’s display.
- The battery doesn’t last very long. This isn’t so much of a surprise if you consider how lightweight it is. It is possible to attach a third-party rechargeable battery via the device’s micro-USB port, but that’s not very convenient, and it prevents you from using ear-buds as the ear-buds would connect via the same micro-USB port.
- It’s difficult and even impossible to hear using the bone-conduction transducer if you’re in a noisy area. The ear-bud solves this problem, though.
- The web browser is very limited. There’s no way to input text into form-fields, and it’s difficult to get used to highlighting links. It’s still useful to be able to view a web page, though, even if your ability to interact with it is limited.
- The trackpad allows you to control your timeline and cards through gestures. This is not bad by itself, but the gestures are sometimes misinterpreted. You may have meant to swipe down, but Glass detected a swipe forward.
The damnably annoying
- There are at least 4 ways to take a photo, the least useful of which is the camera button on top of the arm of the Glass. Every time I put Google Glass on or take it off, I inadvertently take a picture.
- Winking to take a picture is very cool, but again I inadvertently take pictures with wink even after calibrating the wink feature. Maybe I just have an expressive face, but I have ultimately decided to disable wink due to this annoyance.
- Apps. Yes, I know the available Glassware is limited and will improve over time, but some of the apps do nothing more than inject spam into your eye. I haven’t called out any of the third-party apps by name in this article, but the Field Trip app is the most annoying one I’ve used yet. All it does is fill your timeline with ads for nearby businesses. The Evernote app is similarly useless. It is meant to allow you to sync photos and video as well as voice-dictated notes to your Evernote account. Unfortunately, it doesn’t allow you to edit notes, delete notes or even see notes you created elsewhere. I’ll need to see improvements from Evernote before I can consider this a useful app.
- The timeline is the only way to view calls, messages, photos or videos, and it gets cluttered very quickly. Furthermore, there’s no way to manage your timeline outside of the device itself. If I get a message from a friend with an address where I’m supposed to meet them later, then over the ensuing hours I happen to make a few phone calls, take a few pictures and send some messages to other friends, I’m left wading through my whole timeline searching for the address my friend sent me. Likewise, there’s no simple way to recall a picture you took or view all of your photos in a gallery. You have to scroll through your timeline full of other content, messages and media in chronological order.
In summary, it’s a great concept and positive entrant into the era of wearable tech. In time, competition will drive innovation, and we’ll start seeing even more capable or user-friendly devices and interfaces, as well as better applications for wearable computers. I’m still learning how to use Google Glass myself, and I can’t wait to see what’s to come as it reaches general availability.