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It’s been hailed as one of the best inventions of 2012 by Time Magazine, and been condemned as a dangerous invasion of privacy. Some people believe it will revolutionise mobile technology, for better or worse, while others think it will struggle to find any sizeable audience.
Google Glass has been dividing opinions since the moment it was first unveiled, back in April 2012. A product of Google X – the company’s secretive experimental division, led by co-founder Sergey Brin – Glass aims to bring the functionality of a smartphone to a wearable device resembling a pair of glasses.
Using a small prism display over the right eye, Glass projects a virtual screen – the equivalent of looking at a 25” high definition screen from eight feet away, according to the device’s specs. A common misunderstanding is that this display appears in the centre of vision, but it actually requires the user to look up and right in order to check the screen.
Glass has a 5MP camera, and can record video at 720p, with files stored on its 16GB internal storage. Wi-fi and Bluetooth connectivity are built in, but the device has to be tethered to an Android smartphone to access GPS or mobile data.
All this is driven through a mixture of voice commands and gestures on the touchpad which runs along the right side of the device. Voice controls are triggered with the phrase “OK Glass…”, which brings up a menu showing the commands available – six in total, from “take a picture” to “get directions to…”.
Natural language questions – such as “how old is Barack Obama?” – can also be used to search. In certain cases the answer will be delivered aurally through the device’s bone conduction transducer, which vibrates the user’s inner ear directly, without the need for headphones or an external speaker.
Touch controls are limited to tapping the device to make selections, swiping forwards or backwards along the touchpad to navigate left and right, and swiping downwards to go back a step, like the ‘back’ button on a smartphone.
Work in progress
We’re still a long way from consumers getting their hands on Glass. Since the launch of the Explorer program in February 2013, a limited group of early adopters – growing from an initial 2,000 to 8,000 and beyond – have been able to purchase an early prototype version.
Nevertheless, there’s been no official word on a full-blown launch. Most estimates have it arriving at some point next year, with a price point ‘significantly lower’ than the $1,500 (£970) charged for Explorer models. The initial roll-out looks set to be US-only, with Google admitting it’s currently focused on its home market.
As it stands, the Explorer edition of Glass is very much a work in progress. Google has been pushing out software updates on a monthly basis, improving the user experience and introducing new features. Among the more notable additions are the ability to navigate by moving your head, as if using a mouse, and the introduction of web browser functionality, which wasn’t initially available.
“If it launched in its current form, I don’t think Google Glass would be a roaring success,” says Naji El-Arifi, product innovation manager at mobile agency Somo, who has been using Glass for two months. “It’s quite limited in how you interact with it, and what you can do with it.”
And what about the hardware itself? “The camera is reasonably good but it could be better, especially when compared to modern smartphones, but the main thing is the battery life. Heavy use will drain it in five hours, and I find myself always thinking about where the next power point is, just in case.
“You can tell it’s a prototype just by looking at it, really. For something that’s on your face it’s really noticeable and bulky – but you can imagine the second or third version of Glass being built into a more attractive frame.
No glass here
Google currently seems to be negotiating exactly how open the device will be, especially when it comes to third-party apps, and for good reason. As Glass really started to seep into the public consciousness this summer, concerns about technology’s impact on security and privacy were making headlines.
“Google know how much flak they’ve been getting for Glass,” says El-Arifi. “When it was first announced, there were bars in San Francisco banning Glass altogether – and this was before anyone even had it.”
On top of that, casinos and cinemas have banned the device. Both the UK and the US state of West Virginia are considering making it illegal to wear Glass while driving. Anti-espionage laws in Russia and the Ukraine might mean that there are entire countries where you’re not allowed to use it.
It’s not hard to see why people are concerned about the device, and especially its built-in camera, but could all that change once people get a chance to try it on?
“Glass doesn’t have a viewfinder, so if I want to take a photo, I’m going to be staring at you for a while, and then I either have to say ‘take a picture’ out loud or press the camera button,” says El-Arifi.
“People who haven’t encountered the device yet presume you can’t tell what someone’s doing with it, but when you look at someone wearing Glass and they’re using it, you can actually see the screen element light up. That kind of misunderstanding is something that will disappear with time, as Glass comes into the market and more people start wearing it.”
Sensibly, Google has established some clear rules about how Glass can and can’t be used. Of course, with a bit of technical ingenuity, these rules can be circumvented.
Winky, for example, is an app – or ‘Glassware’, to use the official terminology – which means that it’s possible to take a photograph merely by winking. It’s a function which actually appears to have been coded in by Google, but disabled before the Explorer edition launched. The device has also been hacked to introduce facial recognition, something which is banned by Google.
Selling or sharing user’s data without permission isn’t allowed, nor is sexually explicit content, but most worryingly for mobile marketers, the terms of service also state that developers “may not serve or include any advertisements” in Glassware.
Google has acknowledged that the rules are likely to change over time. As the official FAQ puts it: “part of having good, strong developer policies is to make sure that they evolve with the times”.
For now, though, Glass looks like it’s going to be a relatively closed marketplace. The MyGlass Android app, which is used to install Glassware, only features third-party apps from selected partners, including CNN, New York Times, and Facebook. All other Glassware will have to be manually reviewed by Google before it’s made available to the public.
It’s a far cry from the open ecosystem of Android, especially in its earlier days, but it’s a compromise we just might have to accept. Google has all the advantages of being first to market with a piece of potentially revolutionary technology, but it has to face all the difficulties too.
Speaking to friends since I tried out Glass, I’ve heard two main reactions – often both at once, from the same person. There is a genuine worry that it be will harmful to society, whether by eroding our privacy or just ruining people’s table manners, but there’s also a lot of excitement. They’ll ask whether this is possible, or ponder what they’d do with it… In short, there’s something about Glass which captures the imagination.
Somo’s El-Arifi tells me about the number of people who have done a double take when they see him wearing the device, or have approached him to ask about it.
“Recently I was in a bar, and this lady just kept on looking at me,” he says. “Finally, when she was leaving, she dragged her son over to me, and asked ‘are those those computer things?’. We ended up talking for five or ten minutes, but what struck me was that she really wanted her son to see it. By the time he grows up, wearable devices like Glass will probably just be normal.”
Putting Google Glass on for the first time, everything feels a little clumsy. I found myself squinting at the projected display, which is transparent and a little blurry if you focus on it too hard, and struggling to get the voice controls to pay attention to my mumbled commands.
It didn’t take long to adjust to the experience, though. It helps that the UI is extremely simple to use, even if that is partly a result of the device’s limited functionality – there are just six main commands at your disposal. Glass also uses Cards, the widgets seen in Android’s Google Now service, to push information to the user, whether it’s weather updates, details of local restaurants, or news from an app like the New York Times.
The photo and video functionality is perhaps the device’s most obvious draw, and it’s easy and fun to use, but it’s the location-based functionality which provides the clearest look at Glass’ potential. Glancing up at the screen rather than having to pull a phone out of your pocket every couple of turns feels like as a jump almost as big as the one that took us from maps to smartphones.
Glass has a few technical restrictions. The battery life is limited, the voice recognition can be flawed, and the device crashes every now and then. But for my money, it’ll be the need to tether Glass to a smartphone – which can be a little shaky, in my experience – is the most likely to disappoint, especially for iPhone users. Having to add the cost of an Android handset to Glass’ already sizeable price tag might just prove too off-putting.
Most likely, though, these bumps can be ironed out in the time before Glass hits the consumer market, or in later versions – when Apple shipped the first iPhone, remember, the App Store still didn’t exist.
At the end of the day, what mattered about my time with Glass was how comfortable I felt wearing it. Not in the sense of how they sat on my nose and ears – as a lifelong wearer of specs, I’ve built up an immunity to that – but rather how natural it all felt. Despite the occasional person staring, I felt little embarrassment tilting back my head to activate the screen and commanding “OK Glass… take a picture”.
In general, having this block of perspex over my right eye just didn’t feel as alien as I’d expected. Forget the technical limitations, the worries about privacy – it’s this which will win over the public. After a couple of hours, it felt perfectly natural to have a computer attached to my face. And when the time came, I found myself surprisingly reluctant to take it off.