Thoughts on Glass

For the past month I have been wearing the Explorer edition of Google Glass and I thought I’d share some thoughts as to the utility and future of the device and experiences wearing them.

Unlike most consumer electronics, even including Apple, the purchasing experience was something special. Glass Explorers were invited to Google’s offices in either New York, San Francisco or Los Angeles to pick up the device, have them fitted and spend time learning how to use them. New York was the logical choice for me and I turned up, entourage in tow, to meet Margo, my “Glass Guide”.

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Google’s loft space at Chelsea Market was light and airy, with beautiful views of the city, fitting probably about a dozen people at a time. We were invited to relax, sip champagne and snack on cookies while the fitting took place. All in all I think we were there for an hour or so, talking to members of the Glass team and learning about the device.

Oddly, this was not the experience I’d have expected from Google and I think it is indicative of a larger shift that has been occurring within the company over the past few years - an increased focus on design and user experience, likely spurred on by the realization that in todays environment this is one of the most important competitive advantages you can have. Glass was beautifully packaged, complete with all the small details you would expect from the likes of Apple. If it wasn’t for the discrete Google logo, you may easily think that this was the new iGlass.

Fitting and setup was just as pleasant - Margo adjusted the nose pads to fit my face and helped me log into my Google Account to begin adding contacts and connecting services. Within a few minutes I was done and data was already flowing to my eyeball. She showed me how to take pictures and other things I could do before we joined my friends at the bar to chit-chat. It was definitely refreshing to hear someone talk about the vision for the product and answer our questions in such detail.

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So the big question on everyone’s mind is what is it like wearing Glass? From a purely ergonomic perspective, it is hard to notice. Wearing glasses on a day-to-day basis anyway I don’t notice any extra weight or bulk. The only big difference is now I occasionally glimpse the transparent prism of the display in the top right of my vision, otherwise it does a really good job of staying out of my way when I am not engaging with it.

When it is activated, the prism lights up and if I look to my top right I see the display, semi-transparent, floating in mid air. That combined with the subtle chirps from the bone-conducting speaker make for a fairly pleasant experience. It’s never directly in front of you, or in your way, but rather off to the side. I’m sure many people expect it to be more like Terminator-vision from the movies, where everything in your vision is overlaid with information, it really isn’t like that and in its current form factor, I don’t think it ever will be.

The best metaphor I can think of is to imagine you are sitting in a sports bar with a friend, you are enjoying your beer and conversation, but over their shoulder you can see the HDTV on the wall showing the latest football scores. Its in the background but can provide you with timely information if necessary.

Interacting with Glass follows this minimalist, simple, philosophy. You have a touch pad on the side that you can tap and swipe forward, back, up and down. There is a physical button on the top which is used to take pictures or record video. If you don’t feel like touching, then you can always utter voice commands.

Activating the device is achieved by looking up and then back down. Perhaps not as dramatic as in the Saturday Night Live skit, but the same general idea. You can adjust the activation angle so that you are not craning your neck backwards all the time, or accidentally activating Glass when walking around. Once activated, either tapping or saying “OK Glass” brings up the menu.

I have to say the speech recognition is rather good and I’ve encountered very few issues even with my British accent, though any Brits from the south may have trouble if you pronounce it Gla-arse , northerners should be fine however! The only problem I’ve had is that in loud environments such as on the street or in a crowded room the microphone sometimes has trouble making out your voice, and you look a bit silly loudly talking to yourself!

As with any computing device, the software really makes the device. Glass is simple and intuitive to navigate, with the core experience represented as a timeline of “cards”. You can move back and forwards in time with a swipe, tapping to drill down into the card’s content. Each card represents a notification, email, photo or other artifact which has been pushed to your Glass by one of your activated services.

In the previous paragraph you’ll notice I said “service” rather than “app”, this is because you can’t actually run apps on the current device (though Google says it is coming later in the year) . Instead you enable web services which either become sharing destinations for photo/video or push their own content to the device, so for example the New York Times service may push the latest news headlines and breaking news to your timeline. There are various other apps available for the likes of Twitter, Facebook, Path, CNN etc. and I’m sure more will come over time, Google Now is also present and is one of the best and most useful.

Whilst the software is very intuitive and simple, really it has to be given the choice of input methods, Glass suffers a bit from the limitations of the platform. Not being able to run native apps means, for example, that you can’t do real-time image processing on data from the camera or access the various other sensors on the device. You are left with a stream of content, which whilst timely and useful, leaves you wanting more.

Glass is a great device for notifications, but you have limited options for responding to them. It tells me when I get an email, but I will pull my smartphone out of my pocket if I want to compose a reply.

I’m not sure this is a problem that is easily overcome, sure native apps will help, but you are still limited by input methods. I see similar challenges with any kind of smart watch too so we shall see how the software and hardware evolves.

One area where Glass excels is the camera. It is so useful to be able to quickly and easily take photos hands-free and it often leads to some interesting first-person perspective shots. Whilst there are better camera sensors out there, with more megapixels, Google are really doing a good job with both the hardware and post-processing in the software. My only complaint would be that it would be nice to have some wobble reduction since I’m sure that I am not the only one who moves their head around.

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So far I’ve had very few reactions from people who see me, the occasional stare, the odd person who will whisper to their friend “He’s wearing Google Glass”, but thats it. Most people don’t tend to notice it, possible because I have the charcoal version attached to black rimmed prescription frames. The people who talk to me are genuinely interested in the device and ask the usual “What is it like?” questions.

Ever since I got my Glass, I’ve been asking myself “Is this the next big thing?” Honestly, I’m not sure, it is probably not for everyone but I think it does have some very interesting applications.

For most people the form factor will be the biggest turn-off, I don’t blame them - people who wear bluetooth headsets all the time look stupid, imagine if people now start walking around looking like the Borg. For others, I don’t think the utility is quite there yet, and whist Glass does certain things exceptionally well there is a lot a competition. I see devices like the Pebble, GoPro and maybe the iWatch as being the biggest competitors.

For businesses however Glass could be a breakthrough product, especially when Google unlocks native applications. I can totally see Glass replacing costly warehouse inventory management systems, providing live data feeds from emergency responders and revolutionizing remote training and instruction. I’m just not sure this is the market Google are actively interested in at the moment. but time will tell.

For the time being I’m enjoying Glass for what it is, an interesting experiment and a chance to play with a new form-factor and new interaction metaphors. It may not be perfect but its great being a part of the evolution!

 
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