Looking through Google Glass
MANILA, Philippines – I recently received an invitation to become a Glass Explorer – a term Google reserves for those brave souls who are willing to plop down $1500 to become the early adopters of Google’s latest wearable device called Glass.
Wearable technology is a bit of a gamble for Google, even my Silicon Valley friends are skeptical about the future of Glass. But it was too good of an opportunity to pass on, so I jumped at the chance of being one of the first Filipinos to become a Glass Explorer, and tasked myself with investigating how we can integrate wearables into our lives and if and how they will change the way we interact with others.
Once you’ve signed up as an Explorer you’re given the choice to have Glass delivered directly to your doorstep (only for US residents) or to have a fitting session at one of their offices. For practical reasons, I chose the latter and was met by a Glass assistant named Chelsea at Google Glass Basecamp in San Francisco.
My first impression upon handling Glass was how imperceptibly light it was. I held it very delicately as I took it out of the box for the first time, but Chelsea was quick to let me know that Glass was designed to handle the wear and tear of everyday life. Glass’ titanium frame is flexible and can be bended in various directions!
We then proceeded with the “fitting session” and I put on Glass for the first time.
True to my initial impression, Glass felt quite light on my head just like a pair of eyeglasses. Despite most of the Glass assembly being located on the right side, it was a balanced fit and not too heavy on one side. Chelsea chimed in at that point to mention that the ideal positioning of the device was to align the frame along my brow line, while adjusting Glass’ nose pads to make sure I had the right fit. It felt quite snug on my head, and not too tight.
Using Glass over the past few weeks, there have been moments where I felt a light strain on my right ear, much like when you wear a headset or headphones for hours on end, but that’s easily resolved by taking it off for a moment and then putting it back on. Glass was designed to be as unobtrusive as possible and I’ve been able to wear it throughout the day without any any discomfort.
Getting used to Glass
With Glass snuggly on, I then tried scanning the room to make sure I could see things properly. The display is positioned on the upper right above your right eye, but is designed to be out of the way of your field of view. So far, I haven’t experienced the need to move Glass aside or take it off to see properly.
When it comes to controlling the device, Glass responds to touch input via a touchpad that stretches from your right eye to your right ear. It is quite responsive and I haven’t had any issues with it so far. Beyond touch, Glass also accepts voice input through the use of its’ universal voice command “OK, Glass.” I was impressed by voice recognition on Glass as it doesn’t require Internet connectivity to work, unlike Siri on the iPhone. I also didn’t need to train it to recognize my voice, and with real work use it is accurate 90% of the time.
Setting up the device was a breeze, as Glass easily synchronized with my Google account (Google Now, Gmail, Google+ and Google Maps can be used on the device) and paired seamlessly with my iPhone over Bluetooth (Glass works with Android phones as well, and is actually built with a different flavor of Android).
With all the hardware basics and setup out of the way, Chelsea then walked me through the Google Glass experience.
The user interface
It took a few minutes for me to adjust to having a rectangular display floating above the upper right corner of my eye and to orient myself with the user interface. Given the limited screen area (640 x 360 pixels), Google has kept the interface simple by adopting the same visual cues from Google Now’s card interface. Browsing through Glass is akin to swiping through a series of cards.
You start at the Glass home screen, which only displays two things – the time and the voice command “OK, Glass.” From there you control Glass using either touch or with your voice.
I’ve found that while Glass works well either way, I use voice and touch input differently depending on the situation. I use voice most of the time to quickly perform actions or launch applications that would normally take several swipes and taps on my smartphone (e.g. calling my girlfriend, starting a timer to make sure I don’t overcook my prawns, or listening to the latest OneRepublic album among other things).
Touch, on the other hand, is required for secondary actions that come out of these initial commands, things like sharing photos on social media, ending a call or browsing through the entirety of Glass’ interface.
Glass isn’t a completely hands free device and doesn’t completely eliminate the need for a smartphone, but because it is so unobtrusive it does free up your hands and your eyes to focus on other more important things.
The beauty of the fitting session with Chelsea was that it accelerated my learning curve with Glass and I was able to dispel and clarify all the notions I had about it right at the studio. With that out of the way, I then set off to answer a question that was on my mind and almost everyone else’s – what exactly does Google Glass do?
What you can do with Glass
The answer to that question is neither simple nor finite. I’ve given a number of answers to people, trying to condense into a couple of words the enormity of what Google Glass is – a glorified Bluetooth headset, a sophisticated eyeglass camera, a head-mounted smartphone. None of these give justice to what the device really is or what it can do.
If a product category were to be defined for Google Glass, it would probably fall under the “smartglasses” category, much like how the Galaxy Gear and the Pebble are categorized as “smartwatches.” So think of Google Glass as smart glasses that are an extension of your smartphone, enabling Internet connectivity right in front of your eyes and at the sound of your voice. Most major smartphone features can be accessed by Glass without having to pull your phone out of your pocket. Calls, messaging, Internet browsing, maps, music and photography can all be launched with a single voice command. And that’s only the tip of the iceberg.
The beauty of being the first to market with smartglasses is that Google gets to define this product category along with its army of 3rd party developers and enthusiasts. By the time I joined as a Glass Explorer, Google was already able to work with its developer community and technology partners to develop 35 reviewed apps for Glass, which they call “Glassware”.
Apps already exist for a number of the major technology services available online. Google’s major products are represented. Sharing via social media has already been enabled by the likes of Twitter, Facebook, Path, Youtube and Tumblr; sports fans and athletes can use SportsYapper and Thuuz for the latest scores and sports news, GolfSight for a round at the nearest golf course, or Strava for running and cycling; news junkies can get their fix of the latest headlines through CNN, Elle, Mashable, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal; and moms can make the most out of Glass in the kitchen with recipe apps like KitchMe and Allthecooks.
Similar to other Android devices, you can side load APK installers with Glass’ Debug Mode to use other apps that haven’t been fully vetted by Google. You can even design and load your own app if you’re an aspiring Glassware developer.
I could devote an entire article on the things Glass can do, and I most probably will, but during my session with Chelsea that day, she demoed what I think is the most powerful feature of Glass, its camera. Google Glass can take 5 megapixel photos and 720p videos, hands free, exactly from your point of view. You can take photos 4 different ways – 1) with your voice by saying “OK Glass, take a picture,” 2) by navigating the menu using the touchpad, 3) through a dedicated shutter button on the top edge of the frame and, for me the coolest and most discreet way, 4) just by winking your right eye!
Seeing the world through your own eyes
That Google has put in so much thought into the design of Glass’ camera and how users interacts with it says a lot about it being an essential feature of the device. We humans are visual creatures, and we’ve been able to tell our stories through drawings on cave walls, painted and sculpted works of art, and photographs. Google Glass now offers us the chance to tell our story exactly as we see the world and how we experience it firsthand.
While the tendency is to compare photos taken on Glass with those from a high-end smartphones - an unfair comparison that Glass will lose, Glass takes fairly decent pictures and video in well-lit environments.
Poorly lit settings require keeping a steady head, to ensure that the photo is in focus and not blurry. Being an avid photographer myself, there are a number of things I would like to see improved like zoom, flash, better low-light performance and the ability to frame photos before taking them (currently I need to reposition my head and retake a photo if I find that some areas get cut off).
Personally, I’ve found photography and video recording to be one of my primary uses for Google Glass, which I estimate to comprise about 60-70% of the time I’ve used Glass over the past few weeks. I’ve used it to take photos of friends, notable PowerPoint slides projected at conferences, interesting things I’ve seen walking down streets or in shops, touristy photos of new places I’ve been to, live performances of my favorite bands at concerts, and the obligatory kitten photo and video, without having to pull out my phone, without blocking anyone else’s view, and exactly the way I see it.
Almost ready for primetime
With its current feature set, the potential for Glass is just astounding and I am sure it will find success once it goes for a wider consumer launch later this year. However, there are a number of issues with the Explorer Edition that still need to be ironed out before Glass is released to the mass market.
As with all electronic devices, extended battery life tops the wish list for this Glass Explorer (and I’m sure I’m not the only one!). Google has mentioned that Glass’ 570-mAh lithium-polymer battery can endure “one full day of typical use” but in reality I find that I’m able to consume the battery with 5-6 hours of usage tops. Using processor-intensive applications such as video recording, language translation or Internet video calls drains the battery even faster, and Google has actually put an automatic stop at 10 seconds when recording videos (you can extend it at your own discretion by pressing the camera button). An Internet search on the longest video recorded with Google Glass clocked in at 48 minutes, after which the device conked out immediately.
I recently brought Glass to the 7107 International Music Festival in Clark, Pampanga, where I took a number of photos and videos of the performers. For both days, I started each day with Glass fully charged and was able to use it continuously throughout the festival without it conking out on me (with only two brief charging periods of 30 minutes each in the middle of each day, just to ensure it would last until the very last band). I already foresaw Glass’ battery life becoming an issue, so I always carry a 4500-mAh external battery with me wherever I go to help prolong usage.
Another opportunity area I have for Glass is the sound level of its bone conduction speaker. As the name implies, Glass sends audio waves to your ear by conducting vibrations through the bones of your skull. As the sound doesn’t pass through your ear canal, it gets blended with the ambient noise in the surrounding area, which is okay when indoors but gets tricky once you step outside. I’ve had to cup my right ear and put a finger in my left ear at times when taking calls to make sure I was hearing the person at the other end of the line correctly. Thankfully, Glass comes with an earbud you can attach to the device to enhance the sound quality, but it is quite cumbersome to carry around. Granted, bone conduction technology is still in its infancy and there is much room for improvement in this space.
The road ahead
I could go on and on about areas for improvement for Google Glass.
On the Glass Explorer Community website, there is an actual wish list which is already at 4250 items long! For something that’s billed as a prototype, I’m pretty amazed at all the things that Glass can already do. I firmly believe that Google has gone in the right direction and opened the doors for a whole new industry to grow around this device.
After I finished my fitting session and was done tinkering with Glass at Basecamp, I bid Chelsea a fond goodbye and ruminated on the promising future of Google Glass while walking the streets of San Francisco. That evening, I made a bet with one of my skeptical friends from Mountain View about whether or not the Glass consumer launch will be a success.
On hindsight I should have wagered more than a mere Bitcoin. I’m quite confident Glass becomes a roaring success by the end of 2015! - Rappler.com
Carlos Miguel Lasa is a Filipino-American computer scientist who shuttles back and forth around the world as his life revolves around the various passions he has for technology, design and travel. A former IT manager for a multinational consumer goods company, he’s currently engaged with several locally based social enterprise start-ups and is the Associate Chapter Director for Startup Grind Manila. Follow his adventures with Google Glass at throughthegooglingglass.tumblr.com.