17th May 2013 | 19:16
The next generation of hands-free computing
Only at Google IO in techy-savvy San Francisco could a Google Glass wearer walk the streets relatively unnoticed. A limited number of these new wearable computing devices have been among the public for months now, and they generally elicit double takes and curious stares.
There were plenty of those lucky Glass owners among the IO crowd, as well as Google reps standing by to demonstrate the technology. At the conference, we had the opportunity to try on Glass, and unbox one of the kits passed out to select developers.
Just like a normal pair of glasses, Google Glass needs just a bit of adjustment to be worn properly. It mainly comes down to the nose pads, which make sure that Glass' titanium band runs slightly above the eye line, like a sunshade or visor.
That way, the rectangular screen, which looks something like a prism, sits just above the eye. Using the screen requires you to look up slightly, which helps to keep your field of vision unobstructed.
The striking thing about this new tech is that even though you're wearing it, it does a good job of getting out of the way when not in use. Glass' display quickly goes dim, like an idle smartphone. Still, even when it is in use, it's easy to see the world around you.
Wearing Glass for the first time, we were struck by how light and unobtrusive it was. Lighter than a pair of normal spectacles, we imagine it would be easy to forget you were wearing them, if not for all the stares.
Turning on Glass
Glass is initially activated with a power button found on the inside portion. When you wear it, this switch is not easily accessible, so turning it fully on or off is done only when they are removed.
Glass goes to sleep when not in use, and you can wake it by simply nodding up. This isn't just to save power, but to keep your field of vision clear when you don't need any info. Google reps said that Glass' battery would last all day with "average use." Just like a smartphone, it has micro-USB for charging, and lots of video recording will wear it down before the day is out.
The Google Glass interface is a lot like Google Now, which is found on any Android Jelly Bean smartphone. From the main screen, saying "Ok, Glass," gets the device's attention, so to speak, and prompts Glass to show you available commands.
There are also Google Now cards - screens of information related to recent searches. They're pretty minimalist, white text on a black background, sometimes with a single image. We swiped through nearby restaurants, email chains and recently captured pictures and videos. This is done using a touchpad built into the right side of the headset. You can also tap to make selections.
An extension of your smartphone
While Glass has its own hard drive (ours had 12GB available), Wi-Fi connection, GPS, and processor (no specifics on the core), all working from Android 4.2 Jelly Bean, it works best as an extension of your smartphone.
It can pair with an Android phone using Bluetooth, which allows it to make calls as well as send and receive text messages. In that way it felt more like the ultimate hands-free device than a wearable computer.
It also suffers a similar stigma to the Bluetooth earpiece, in that it's distracting, and a bit goofy looking. Basically, you're like something out of Star Trek. Whether that's Geordi La Forge or a Borg drone is in the eye of the beholder. The irony is that it's technology designed for subtly that ends up speaking volumes.
It talks back
Speaking of speaking, Google Glass can actually talk to you. There's a little speaker that sits over your right ear. Google reps described it as a bone-vibrating speaker, like something Snake would use behind enemy lines in Metal Gear Solid. Really though, it struck us just your average speaker, and was completely audible to someone standing within earshot, providing the room wasn't too loud.
We asked Glass who the president of the United States was, and it responded with a snippet of Barack Obama's biography. We had trouble hearing it over the din of the show floor, but moving to a back room, it was perfectly audible, and spoke in the sort of lady robot voice of Google Now.
Not Mission: Impossible material
The Google rep guiding our demo joked that Glass would make terrible surveillance technology, and that's by design. Google is actively trying to reduce the voyeur factor by making it rather obvious when Glass is engaged. The screen emits a glow when in use, and spoken commands like "take a picture" make sure those around you are clued in to what you're doing.
You also have to look up to read the screen, so broken eye contact will be a dead giveaway. Your friends will know when you're checking football scores instead of listening to them.
It was also far less like augmented reality than we'd imagined. Putting it on, we thought we see an HUD of some sort, like in a first-person shooter video game. Really though, we felt more like a multitasking administrator than Robocop on patrol for creeps. Even the GPS function just gives you a top down view, with a blue arrow representing your location, just like Google Maps on your phone.
The version of Google Glass on demo at IO was a prototype, an early developer or "explorer" version, as Google likes to call them. Given that, there wasn't a whole lot of functionality available to it.
Facebook, Twitter, The New York Times and a few more have apps on the way, but until then, Glass feels more like raw potential than an actual tool.
- Read more: 7 Google Glass apps we can't wait to use.
The interface is also pretty unintuitive, especially the touchpad part. Since only one "card" is visible at a time, you're stuck swiping through them all until you find what you want. We found it easier to just ask Glass to find something again, rather than swipe around for previously accessed information.
Is Glass cool and entirely novel? Yes, it certainly is. Is it a device that will change the life of, or even just prove useful to, the average consumer? That's doubtful.
Glass as we tried it felt like something that would be useful to folks in specialized roles. A surgeon, an engineer, a warehouse foremen or a certain type of viral video filmmaker will likely find a lot of compelling things to do with Glass.
As for the average person, it's a bit of a paradox. We can think of a dozen times where we've been cooking, cleaning or driving and would've loved to have had hands-free, subtle access to Google's wealth of information. But to do so, we've got to wear a piece of headgear that's distracting to those around us.
We also wondered how Google plans to curate the apps that become avaialable for Glass. We've heard about plans for apps that will allow wearers to snap pictures with a wink, which seems to go against Google's plan to keep Glass behavior obvious to those around you.
Google Glass is expected to arrive for public consumption in 2014. When it does arrive, it may change lives, but most likely not your life, or the lives of those around you.