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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