Billed as the next best thing to being a cyborg, Glass promised all-the-time, always-on sharing and connectedness that has traditionally been the province of science fiction stories. Since their launch at Google I/O nearly a year ago, few tech gadgets have been more talked about than Google Glass.While still at least a year away from a true consumer product, early adopters have been able to get their hands on “Explorer” units and peer into the future a bit. This week marked my initiation into the Explorer community with a full-scale immersion into the unique world of Google Glass.
The basics of Glass
Google Glass hardware specs have been out for awhile, and most of you know that the device itself is an ironically named glasses frame with, well, no glass. Instead it — Glass seems to be singular rather than plural like glasses — features a small video screen “up and to the right” of your field of view. Google is considering other options for the display, including for those who need prescription lenses, reading glasses, or want to use their left eye, but for now Glass is best used by those with good distance vision or contact lenses, and who can use their right eye to read.
Along with the display is a 5MP (720p video) camera, a bone-conducting speaker near your ear, a microphone built into the temple, and a touchable control area. A battery, an on/off switch, and of course a CPU running Android round out the device. The speaker is really impressive, offering more clarity than many earpieces, while the microphone’s location above your eye gives it trouble in noisy rooms. The Saturday Night Live skit where Glass picks up someone else’s voice isn’t made up — that happened to me while I was first being fitted for my glasses.
While Google offers to mail Glass to its Explorer program participants — who plunked down $1500 for the early prototypes — picking one up at the Googleplex provides a much richer experience. Google’s Glass Guides swarmed about the lucky (dare I say) future glassholes offering advice about color choices to kick off the fitting process, and a choice of beverages. I chose Shale as my color — it looked good and less conspicuous than red or blue — and declined the offered mimosa, opting for a Diet Coke instead. Physically adjusting Glass is a quick process, as the frames are made from titanium and are easy to shape.Setting up Glass requires using a computer — in this case Google was showcasing Chrome OS-based Pixels with their gorgeous displays — where you connect your Google account to your Glass. You can also select what types of information you want streamed to your Glass. Current options include Google Plus and Gmail notifications, as well as Google Now and updates from the New York Times. The process is simple enough that I was able to duplicate it later at home when I wanted to change Google accounts.Pairing with your phone is also not difficult, using the free Myglass Android application (I didn’t dare even ask whether there would be an iOS version, as merely mentioning the idea inside the Googleplex might have triggered alarms). My Glass Guide, Patrick, helpfully explained how to navigate the Glass interface (there are really only a few gestures it understands when tapped or swiped on its touch-sensitive area, and one button which can be used to snap a photo or start a video). After learning tap, swipe backwards, forwards, and down, as well as “fling,” I was good to go.My Guide offered a tour of the Googleplex, but since I was there with a Google friend, we opted for a quick bike trip around the place instead. Unfortunately my video of the trip got accidentally deleted in a later Glass software upgrade, so I can ‘t share footage of how strange I look on a too-small yellow bicycle.
Navigate like a cyborg
Glass is at its strongest when you are interacting with it without having to twitch, wink or tap. Hangouts are one example of that, and navigation is another. Glass knows which way you are facing, so directions shift to match your view. It is easy to switch between driving, bicycling and walking directions as well. Voice guidance, turn-by-turn directions, and route overviews complete the picture. Using the Navigate app definitely made me think of Schwarzenegger’s character in Terminator. For the sake of science, I tried using Glass to navigate while driving, but it is clearly more of a safety hazard than a dash-mounted smartphone or in-dash GPS — although certainly less so than texting. For walking or bicycling, however, it has a lot of advantages — like not needing a hard-to-mount screen — and could be helpful for driving in a pinch.As Glass becomes more powerful and more integrated with Google’s vast store of information about you and your surroundings, this interactivity will expand and become more useful, more often. (See: Google Glass & Now: Utopia or Dystopia?) Because the Glass display is not an overlay on your field of view — it is up and off to the side — it won’t be the sort of heads-up augmented reality many people envision, but it will begin to provide information of interest to you as you move around. (See: Oculus Rift: Is the world finally ready for virtual reality games?)Next page: Do you really want to see what I see?