Google Glass(es)

Tuesday, August 27, 2013
By dreeves

Google Glass hovering in the sky

I’ve been wearing Google glasses [1] every day for almost three months now. If you’re excited enough about Google Glass to be reading yet another review of them then I shall proceed to burst your bubble. But I’ll start with the good parts!

These things are super light, comfortable, and indestructible. They’ve survived significant rain a couple times, and have been dropped and even stepped on (which caused them to helpfully take a picture of the perpetrator’s other shoe [2]). I wear them all day — long after the battery has died (more on that shortly) — and forget I have them on.

For anyone who hasn’t seen it, let me now bring your excitement to a fever pitch by pointing you to Google’s promotional video, “How It Feels, Through Glass”. I’ll wait for your shivers to subside. And now I will yank you back to reality by pointing you to a brilliant SNL sketch skewering Glass, mostly funny because of how true it is. If you thought the Saturday Night Live skit was exaggerating, here’s a friend trying my Google glasses. Actually I’d say the reality is dead center between Google’s version and SNL’s. They are genuinely useful, like when you can’t use your hands to take a picture of something.

Kid's face being smooshed into a smile

And the GPS navigation is quite slick, especially while biking. It might not even be an exaggeration to say that it’s like having a magical orientating fairy whispering in your ear. It does seem better than handheld GPS devices, once you get it to understand your destination.

As Amber Case puts it in an article on the Reality Augmented Blog, “The features of Glass are not ‘consumptive’, as in, they don’t cause you to get away from reality. … This is not a media device for sitting back and getting information to you. It’s a device that allows you to quickly act instead of pause and grab your device from your pocket.” I agree with that, mostly. And it’s nice that all the fears about trying to have a conversation with someone who’s seemingly staring glassy-eyed into the void are unfounded. But I’m actually disappointed that that’s all you can do, glance at things that it flashes up there. It’s just nowhere close to computer-augmented vision (overlays/annotations), no surfing the web as you walk around, no additional screen real estate while working on a normal computer. Just an exceptionally convenient camera, an excellent navigation device, and a handy way to get notifications. Not that that’s anything to sneeze at. Just not quite flying-car levels of futuristic awesome.

Privacy Problems and Public Perception

First, if you did want to surreptitiously take pictures and videos, you wouldn’t use Google glasses. You have to talk to them or press a button to record anything, the screen lights up in an obvious way when you do so, and if you did hack them to record passively, the battery would last all of 40 minutes (I checked). Of course it also matters how they’re perceived.

“Everyone who thinks of it like a Segway for your face presumably just turns their head away from me and rolls their eyes and I’m none the wiser.”

I’m too socially oblivious to know how uncomfortable it makes people but after one person, who clearly wishes to remain anonymous, expressed acute discomfort at having a camera pointed toward them, I’ve taken to pushing them up onto my forehead in social situations. I think that makes me look less bizarre and discomfort-inducing, but note my aforementioned social oblivion. Other than that one time (at a tech conference, ironically) everyone seems delighted with the concept. Especially since I hand them over to anyone who asks about them. People tend to be blown away on first impression, once I got the hang of talking newbies through taking their first picture on it. This seems to be true across demographics. Soon after I got mine, I encountered a huge group of teenagers at a fast food restaurant. Only a minority had heard of Google Glass. They all passed mine around and seemed to all be completely blown away by the coolness of it. Even so, I’m surely getting a highly biased sample of reactions. Everyone who thinks of it like a Segway for your face presumably just turns their head away from me and rolls their eyes and I’m none the wiser.

The Technology

Augmented vision pioneer Steve Mann wrote an article in IEEE Spectrum expressing disappointment at how far from his own state of the art Glass is. It is indeed disappointing in some ways. I think eye strain — one of Mann’s big concerns — isn’t so much of a problem, but for a reason that’s even more disappointing: it’s designed so that you only ever want to briefly glance at things. It’s not remotely close to being a viable replacement for a phone, and of course it doesn’t even function, other than the camera, without being bluetoothed to a phone. And of course the biggest shortcoming is the battery, which lasts at most 5 hours and much less if you’re using the GPS navigation or taking videos. On the plus side, it charges very quickly. And, as I said, the hardware quality is very impressive.

The Interface and User Experience

I keep hearing complaints about Glass’s UI but I think it’s perfectly simple. My six-year-old thinks so too, or at least it’s not navigating the UI that’s her problem.

The most deceptive thing about Google’s promotional video is that it glosses over how you have to activate Glass — even before you can get its attention with “OK Glass” — by touching it or tilting your head. If it were always showing you things on its own or always listening for “OK Glass” that would be a surprisingly big step towards what you imagine it would be like after watching Google’s video. Also, googling images of tiger heads while you’re making an ice sculpture works fine (if that’s what you’re into) but it’s far too difficult to actually look at that screen. Again, it’s only good for glancing at things.

Eventually I believe the usefulness/awesomeness of Google Glass will be all about the apps, which of course don’t exist yet. [3] One app that’s built in is Google Now, which is gradually getting useful and impressive — showing flight status right when you need it, upcoming appointments, weather, etc — and it’s especially useful on Glass. Though I also recently got a Pebble watch and find that to be a more convenient way to glance at incoming messages. Google Now for Pebble would be really nice.

The app I’m really dying for on Glass is an instant replay app, where it takes pictures (video is probably out of the question for a while, battery-wise) constantly but throws them away unless you tell it that something interesting just happened. In other words, it keeps the last so-many minutes’ worth in a circular buffer that overwrites itself. Then anything hilarious, interesting, adorable, or otherwise noteworthy that you ever see, you can effectively go back in time and get a picture of. Assuming it’s before breakfast when the batteries die, of course.

Related Reading

  1. A previous Hacker News discussion.
  2. For more gory details of what it’s like, this review on Android Police is spot on. Except maybe the “reading on Glass is just fine” part. I think you would quickly give yourself a headache trying to read more than a sentence. This is what Steve Mann is most disappointed about.
  3. Another Google promotional video, “20 Searches, Through Glass”, is apparently filmed entirely with Google glasses, but is misleading. Worst is the official summary for the video: “One of the most magical things about Google Glass is its ability to get you the answers you want almost instantly. As soon as you think of something you want to search, all you need to do is ask.” I can confirm that that video is reasonably authentic, if you don’t count having to repeat some questions with perfect enunciation in a quiet room. I tried ones I was skeptical about, and variants, just in case they cheated, and it worked. But googling things on your phone works better.


[1] Grammatical note: It feels all wrong to refer to glasses as a singular noun, as Google would like us to do in referring to Google Glass. If Google comes out with cybernetic pants next — even if it’s technically only in one pant leg — you’ll put on your Google pants, not your Google Pant. So the technology may be “Google Glass” but when I’m talking about this specific smartphone-on-my-face, they’re a “they”, not an “it”.

[2] Not that it was anyone’s fault but mine.

[3] I’ve started making one for Beeminder, of course. Mind your dessert consumption, for example, by taking pictures of each serving and sharing with Beeminder, which will notify you when it’s time to shut your piehole. Something like that. I haven’t actually gotten much past Hello World just yet.


Illustration by Kelly Savage and video editing by Bethany Soule


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  • Faire Soule-Reeves

    i’m faire the one in the video i’m typing this all by my self.I think Google glasses is cool. I think that it is good that diforint people can like them and not like them because they have prsonel reasons for it and I think that is good.and my babysitter does’not like them because they are right there the hole time and you would think that it was recording the hole time and he does not like that.

  • Daniel Reeves

    Holy cow, Faire, wonderful comment!

    (For the record, I neither suggested she write a comment nor suggested any of the content, other than to explain how Messy Matters is a highly intellectual place and you have to put a lot of thought into what you say here. And when I saw her first few sentences I suggested she mention her babysitter specifically so people would know why she was saying this. Oh, and I suggested, when I first saw she was adding a comment, that she make clear that it was all her.)

  • Justin

    What did you use to record that video? It sounded like surround sound kiddos.

  • Daniel Reeves

    Just my phone. The kiddo surround sound is from literal kiddo-surrounding. Ie, Faire’s little brother behind the camera.

  • Justin

    Ah, I didn’t realize you could get surround sound from a phone. Brain is probably extrapolating the surroundness.

  • aleksj

    If you enjoy science fiction, I’d recommend for some examples of potential Glass apps – in the gamification vein.

    Hopefully Google Glass won’t be the Microsoft Tablet PC of tablet computing. Google search results have deteriorated in past years, not improved.

  • Alexei Andreev

    One interesting application I want to see on it is being able to gesture with your fingers to highlight a word or text in real world, and then copy it to some buffer / send it as email / look it up in dictionary. This will speed up physical -> digital text transfer significantly.
    Also, doing day-to-day quantified self stuff will be much easier with Glass. “Ok, Glass, start commute timer” or something like that. I’d love to track how I spend my time on granular basis, but it’s too cumbersome/annoying even with a phone right now.

  • Michael van Lent

    He Dan,

    Mike van Lent here. I’d be very interested in an invite for Google Glass if you still have any. I’ve been working on games for autism spectrum assessment and training social skills. I’m wondering if Google Glass might be useful as a Social Orthotic, making social cues more explicit and helping to translate social cues across cultures.


  • Zachary Paul

    I’m very intrigued by the Google Glasses, particularly to see how the bone conduction works for sound transmission. I’m deaf in my right ear and wear a removable wireless system that uses a device I wear on my back molars to transmit sound. I’m hoping that technology like this will mean one day in the future I can just have my glasses transmit sound from my deaf side. So #mememe ! Zach Paul

  • Brian Noble

    We’ve done some usability testing of in-vehicle apps. It would be interesting to think of similar work with glass(es), assuming the EULA does not forbid it…

  • Daniel Reeves

    I invited you. Sadly, your first idea is not possible with the current hardware. Your second idea — starting and stopping a timer — is possible but I’ve found that there’s surprisingly high friction for waking up the device (tapping it or tilting your head) before you can talk to it. I think a Pebble watch would work better for this.

  • Daniel Reeves

    Invitation on the way! I’ll be pretty surprised if such a social orthotic is possible with google glass any time soon. But I bet it will be possible eventually so I’m highly in favor of such research!

  • Daniel Reeves

    Invitation on the way! I’m pretty nervous about people using such things while driving but for GPS navigation it doesn’t seem any worse than a dashboard mounted device.

  • Daniel Reeves

    Zach, so sorry, I ran out of invitations! I can tell you though that the bone conduction thing is complete crap. You can hear the computer generated voice fine (as can anyone next to you!) but you can’t have a phone conversation via Glass. It’s so bad that the next iteration apparently has a normal earbud that you can plug in.

  • Michael van Lent

    Thanks very much. Just placed my order. We’ll see what can be done with today’s google glass and how it can show the promise for the future.