I’ve always been interested in Google Glass, so on Friday I made the short journey to Kings Cross for ‘London Through Glass’, the launch of the UK Glass Explorer programme.
I spent around 90 minutes total testing each variant of the device; the standard ‘frameless’ version of Glass, the ‘shades’ and various styles of prescription frames. Here are my first impressions on Google’s most ambitious venture into wearables.
Entry to the event was painless and way less chaotic than I had anticipated. A brief 5 minute wait followed by signing a waiver I didn’t read, then onto a short group tutorial where one of the many event staff demonstrated turning the device on, adjusting it for focus and using the touchpad and voice controls.
After that, we were free to wander around to the different stands, each displaying a different variant of Glass; white (‘Cotton’) with no frames, black (‘Charcoal’) with prescription glasses, cyan (‘Sky’) with shades and so on.
The adjustment period
Immediately, something unexpected happened. Unlike the other attendees, my eyes took a painfully long time to adjust to looking at Glass. At first, the display was so blurry it was completely unreadable (I just winged it throughout the entire tutorial) even after multiple adjustments to the fit of the frame and the position of the display.
After around 30 minutes of forcing my right eye to focus on the display, text and images became clear – it seems my eyes simply took far longer than average to adjust. Glass obviously doesn’t feature a typical display, as the human eye can’t focus on anything closer than a few inches. The Glass display is actually a prism that projects an image onto a surface within the lens and reflects that back on the retina, so it’s not hard to see why it might take a while to get adjusted.
The display hovers just above your line of sight, so you have to look up and to the right to bring it into view. When you’re not focused on the display, it seemingly disappears. It’s quite incredible – it’s there when you need it and gone when you don’t.
Glass is very well-built. The first thing you notice when you start wearing the device is that it weighs almost nothing, but it’s titanium-plastic construction makes it feel solid enough for you to put your trust in.
Forgetting that you’re wearing Glass is paramount to Google [x]’s mission of ‘getting technology out of the way’ and they’ve certainly avoided making it cumbersome at least.
You can adjust the position of the display via a hinge on the frame that smoothly slides the lens inward or outward, changing the distance between the prism and your eye. On the outside of the frame sits a very visible 5MP camera, while on the inside a barely noticeable infrared sensor watches your eye, detecting winks and other movement.
The battery sits on the end of Glass’ right arm, behind your right ear. Google says Glass’ battery lasts ‘around a full day’ but I discovered that with heavy use of the camera, head tracking and data connection you can probably expect the battery to last between 3 – 5 hours at most.
This section of the frame also houses a ‘Bone Conduction Transducer’ which acts as a speaker for the device that only you can hear (those around you will hear a quiet garbled noise) but it’s illegible in noisy areas, so a mono-earpiece is also available.
Using Google Glass
The next thing you notice about Glass (or the first, if you’re not as design obsessed as some of us) and almost immediately upon encountering it – is how unnerving it is to have a conversation with someone wearing the device. The first time this happened to me wasn’t at the launch event but at Google’s London office about 2 months prior.
I was in the elevator leaving a meeting when an employee walked in wearing Glass. I didn’t notice at first, ironically because I was craning my neck and looking down at my phone, one of the things Glass was created to stop.
I only noticed when it came time to leave the elevator – we both politely gestured ‘after you’ but I took an extra second to process the words, because I was too busy thinking “Oh shit, that guy’s wearing Glass – and he’s looking right at me!” even though I knew he wasn’t recording anything (and I wouldn’t care too much if he was) it’s strangely startling to look someone in the eye and have a camera stare you back in the face at the same time.
I had a similar experience at the launch event – at any one time, there was probably 50+ people wearing Glass. Never have I been in one room with so many live cameras pointing in so many different directions. It’s also quite remarkable to be in a room full of people wearing robot sunglasses and swiping on touchpads attached to their heads while speaking commands out loud. It’s how I imagine I would feel if transported from the 80’s into 2014 and seeing everyone buried in their Smartphones. Glass may or may not ‘get technology out of the way’ but it certainly doesn’t avoid the drastic change in public behaviour that new technology inspires.
Finally, wearing Glass yourself and having a conversation with someone is also strange at first. I found myself looking away from people mid-sentence to stare at the display – then feeling incredibly self-conscious and wondering if they noticed how frequently I was doing it. It’s clear that like with Smartphones, it’s down to us to use wearables properly.
Most of the time, Glass’ display is actually switched off, with nothing visible on-screen. Tapping the touchpad wakes the device and displays the home screen, which shows the time and the prompt “ok, glass” underneath. Saying the command aloud brings up a menu of options including ‘google’, ‘take a picture’ and ‘get directions to’.
While the “ok, glass” command activates common functions, the majority of your interactions with Glass will be through the touchpad. The touchpad itself is very responsive, but like most things with Glass it takes some getting used to. It’s like mystery meat; you’ll need to do a lot of swiping and tapping to get a sense of where you are and what you’re doing. With a device like this, there’s not much room to hold the user’s hand.
Google have proven to be masters of voice recognition with Android and Search and Glass is no exception – it’s impeccable, in-fact. I’m told the devices I demoed were using British voice recognition (being the UK Explorer edition) and the device understood every word perfectly.
It was almost too good – while talking to someone at the event, I said “Okay, cool.” Glass must have heard this as a command (like “ok, Google” on Android) and started initiating a Google search. I didn’t even think you could use that command, but it worked somehow. Perhaps it was contextual and based on whatever I was doing with Glass at the time.
One thing that really impressed me was the audio translation. Saying “ok, glass, what’s ‘where is the train station’ in Japanese?” prompted Glass to say the translated words out loud and display them on the screen. This is so useful.
Glass’ built in camera is the subject of much discussion (in this post and elsewhere) but there’s no denying how well it works. Saying “ok, glass, take a photo” made Glass bring up the camera, auto-focus and take the shot. The whole action takes about 3 – 5 seconds. That short delay can be a little jarring at first, but it was still faster than reaching for my phone and the resulting image was usually pretty accurate.
The camera was very responsive when recording video, with the image on the display perfectly mirroring what I saw at the time with no visible delay. With head-mounted displays, even a minuscule delay is enough to make you nauseous. Thankfully, Glass avoids this and shoots surprisingly good video.
The most impressive and useful feature for the camera again involved translation. Google’s acquisition of WordLens (the visual translation app for Smartphones) means this technology is embedded into Glass locally, meaning it requires no data connection – a must for travel. A section of the event was reserved for this, with signs on the wall in different languages.
Saying “ok, glass, translate this” launches the camera and the device begins looking for something to translate. Once it finds the text you want to translate, it quickly zooms in on only that text and after a couple of seconds, takes whatever text you’re looking at and seemingly changes it into your language. It’s truly remarkable and something that I featured in my Glass concepts back in early 2013.
You can also use the touchpad for the entirety of the action if you don’t want to draw more attention to yourself in an unfamiliar place.
Like the translation features, navigating with Glass was easy. Saying “ok, glass, get directions to Kings Cross” intelligently brought up turn by turn navigation to the train station.
The map isn’t fixed in place either; it moves with you, shifting and changing perspective depending on where you’re looking and how you’re moving, with no visible delay. Very impressive indeed.
Google says the battery will last for around a single day with moderate use. The devices at the London event were in near constant use and only lasted around 2 – 3 hours each, with staff routinely coming around to swap out all of the devices on display for freshly charged ones.
Additionally, such heavy use makes Glass very hot. The right arm of the frame houses all of the visual tech, computing and battery. Toward the end of the battery’s charge, the device felt about as hot as a laptop under pressure. This is potentially very uncomfortable, but if you’re using the device that much, you’ll probably be more concerned about your eyes than your temperature.
Back to reality
After spending 90 minutes staring at the display, my eyes were clearly strained and focusing on real objects again was difficult.
I didn’t feel nauseous or dizzy, just perpetually distracted and spaced-out. Not long after, I developed a pretty strong head-ache, likely as a result of the eye strain. Really, this is unsurprising.
Looking at a Smartphone or computer monitor for extended periods of time is one thing, but staring into a prism that’s reflecting a projected image onto one eye while having the other eye attempt to focus on real objects is certainly something you shouldn’t over-use.
Side note: the Porsche dilemma
He wasn’t the only one either. I saw at least 5 more people purchase Glass while at the event; all of them were middle-aged white guys. That’s the down-side to the ludicrous Explorer price-tag; while there are undoubtably some interesting and exceptional people testing the device, you do run the risk of recreating what I call the Porsche dilemma, where the majority of the early users – the people who inform the future of the product – are impulsive old dudes going through a mid-life crisis.
I’m still undecided on the viability of Google Glass as a consumer product and I won’t be ready to ready to come to a firm conclusion until I can either test it further or see it get a wide release at an affordable price.
I can certainly see myself using Glass, mainly for its navigation, audio/visual translation and camera features while travelling. The battery life and social issues are my biggest concerns and I’m not sure I can see the general population choosing Glass as a wearable over something like the Moto 360. Again, this is something we’ll know more about if Glass ever sees a real consumer-launch.
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