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Google Glass hands-on preview

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by David Cardinal, 16 May 2013Features
Google Glass hands-on preview

Since its launch at Google I/O nearly a year ago, few tech gadgets have been more talked about than Google Glass. 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. While still at least a year away from a true consumer product, over in the US 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 a while, 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, catering 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 5-megapixel (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 off 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.

Getting Glassed

While Google offers to mail Glass to its Explorer program participants – who plunked down $1500 (£980) 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 colour choices to kick off the fitting process, and a choice of beverages. I chose Shale as my colour – 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 ask whether there would be an iOS version, as merely mentioning the idea inside the Googleplex might have triggered alarms). My Glass Guide, Patrick (pictured below), 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 it 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. 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.

Do you want to see what I see?

Just like the millions of pictures of meals posted to Facebook once people discovered how easy it was, Glass will no doubt create an avalanche of “look ma, no hands” video uploads. Whether your friends or family actually care what you saw coming down that awesome ski run is another matter. After the bike ride, my next video was a first-person-instructional attempt at a cooking video. The 720p video quality was great, but I learned that you really need to look down at your hands if you want them to appear in the frame. For the curious, here is what a straightforward attempt at an instructional video – in this case how to bake bacon – looks like with Google Glass:

How good can such a tiny camera be?

The Glass camera is remarkably good for such a tiny unit. It has a fixed focal length of 3mm, but is about f/2.5 so it can get reasonable images even indoors. Glass will tune the ISO from as low as 60 (or at least that’s as low as I saw it go) to a high of at least 960. Obviously shutter speed suffers in low light even with that ISO, resulting in the expected blurry images when a flash or a larger sensor would normally be needed. A piece of good news is the awesome depth of field Glass boasts. The camera’s very short focal length means that it has reasonably good focus from only inches away from the lens all the way out to infinity.

The above shot of my business card in the foreground with trees outside the window in the background helps illustrate this depth of field – which is important since Glass’s camera is fixed focus. The image also shows that the optics and sensor do a pretty good job of handling high dynamic range scenes.

Glass Hangouts are like backwards Skype

In many ways Hangouts are Google’s answer to Skype – except if you use them on Glass. Since the only camera on Glass faces outward, the person you are hanging with doesn’t see you, they see what you see. That can be pretty cool for sharing an experience, but it takes a little getting used to. You do get to see your Hangout buddies, although paying too much attention to the frightened expression on their face while you perform that cool X Games-style bike trick might be a bit of a safety issue.

Can Glass make you look less like a dork?

Until, and unless, Glass becomes commonplace, wearing it will make you at least a curiosity, if not an obvious geek. Fortunately, Google provides “sunglass” inserts which actually make the Glass itself a lot less visible – especially if you have the Shale colour I opted for. In addition, for walking navigation, Glass has a real style advantage. Instead of having to pull out and stare down at your smartphone screen in the bright sun every few blocks, you can simply glance up at your route – or listen to voice guidance through the bone-conducting speaker.

Glassware will be a key factor in adoption

Glass is a new platform. It may run a version of Android, but you wouldn’t know that from using it. Specially designed applications, called Glassware, need to be written to take advantage of Glass. They use Google’s Mirror API to show cards and “bundles” (an awkward term meaning sets of more than one thing) as well as get limited user input. It’ll clearly take time for developers to learn how to do this effectively.

For example, the current flagship application, a New York Times reader, puts the unhelpful phrase “X new updates are available” as the top card of a bundle. This requires a tap to find the first headline – even if there is only one. The read aloud feature only reads the first sentence or so of the article, often leaving you wanting to know more with no way to get at it.

Remember: This is a preview

Of course, it would be silly to attempt anything along the lines of a review with Glass in its current state. The software is evolving quickly, and there are plenty of rough edges and odd behaviours – including crashes – to go around. No doubt those will be a thing of the past by the time Glass appears in the market as a real product, so in this article I’ve focused on the capabilities Glass provides – or is on the verge of providing – not the glitches along the way.

One of the toughest issues for Google to address may be battery life. Battery technology evolves notoriously slowly, and Glass is currently pretty short on it. In my case, recording video rapidly drained the unit (it is hard to measure precisely, but I don’t think I could get an hour of video on one charge for example). But to repeat the point, this is not a review here, and hopefully other power conservation measures will enable Glass to truly be an “all day” device – even if not an all-day video camera – by the time it ships.

What does Google want out of Glass?

Like Nexus phones, it is unlikely that Glass hardware is destined to be a huge money-spinner for Google. Google, though, wants to be your lens onto the world – 24 hours a day if possible. All those hours you’re not at your computer, or behind the wheel of your future Android-powered, self-driving car, perhaps you’ll be wearing Glass or one of its successors. The Glass project represents more screens, and more eyeballs, to drive the advertising engine that makes Google work.

While you’re here, you might also want to take a look at our article entitled Google Glass: So what's the big fuss about a glorified camcorder?

Image Credit: Hy Murveit

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