So Google Glass is finally available in the UK, and sitting here in our office. It turned up in a nice white box that is not dissimilar to an ipad's packaging, although for £1000 it wouldn't be unreasonable to expect the box to be titanium with a hand-written note of thanks from Larry Page enclosed. I’ve spent a few days with it and the following are my first impressions of the device that has stirred up so much interest.
There are 2 ways to control glass, using the touch controller on the side with your fingers or using voice recognition. Voice is the fastest method but takes some getting used to. You can only do web searches with voice, and conversely system settings can only be accessed by touch.
The best way to visualise the interface is to imagine a series of “cards”. You can “swipe” from left to right, “tap” to go down a level and “swipe down” to return to the top.
All navigation starts from the home screen (which just displays the time). Any voice command starts with “OK Glass” – followed by a command (e.g. “Take a Photo”).
The top level contains a “timeline” which apps can post anything they like to. Photos and videos also live on the timeline.
For me it works about 70% of the time, no doubt over time this improves as you get used to it. You do have to speak clearly & with a good volume, so there’s no chance you using it inconspicuously – although this is hardly going to bother anyone who’s prepared to wear this in public.
When it does work, voice recognition is extremely impressive, particularly on Google web searches, and it is noticeably better than Apple’s Siri. Most of the voice issues occur when starting from the home screen, for example you can say “OK – glass…. Google….” only to be presented with the compass app instead.
The screen takes some getting used to as it’s semi-transparent which can seem odd at first. Initially you’ll go cross eyed – but after a while your brain adapts to looking straight ahead yet being able to absorb the image.
It’s surprisingly comfortable, additional nose pads are included for further adjustments although they seem to fit fairly well on everyone who tried them.
For those with prescription glasses, the results were mixed. Some people had to wear Google Glass over the top of their glasses to see anything, others commented on how clear it was without their regular specs. The actual prism can be adjusted back and forth which can aid focusing on the screen.
Although I haven’t tested it, apparently these titanium specs can be severely twisted and bent without any issues.
You can only search using voice commands and this works very well. The results you get are dependent on the query. Search for anything contained within Google’s knowledge graph (e.g. “how high is the empire state building”) and you’ll get a factual answer.
Other searches return more standard results mirroring the normal SERP but with one result per “card” and just a simple title and description. Swiping forward/backwards takes you through the results, and occasionally you’ll see some image results instead of text (searching for a celebrity or cats tends to trigger this!).
Tap on a search result, and you’ll load the web page in a browser.
Browsing takes some getting used to, with a combination of single and double finger actions used to scroll, zoom and click. It is usable but only really works on mobile optimised sites with less screen area to wade through and less assets to tax the hardware. Loading a desktop site full of images and scripts takes an age to process and render, regardless of connection speed.
If you want to use navigation and 3G without wifi, then you’ll need to pair Google Glass with your phone and install the myGlass app. Both iphone and android are supported, although on the iphone the personal hotspot and Bluetooth pairing is very temperamental to say the least. Glass can handle phone calls, and SMS (on android devices only).
To connect to a wifi network, then you’ll either need a phone with the myGlass app, or any web browser. Since you can’t really voice a wifi key, you enter it in on your pc/phone then get the Glass to look at a QR code on your screen. Adding wifi works flawlessly on any device and is very quick.
Performance & Heat
Inevitably when cramming so much into such a small space, there are going to be problems. Google Glass uses the same chip found in 2012’s Kindle Fire - not particularly fast, but when you add GPS, Bluetooth and flash memory chips into such a small space, you’re going to get heat – and sometimes lots of it.
When my 3 year old daughter tried it on the first thing she said was “Daddy, it’s too hot!” and then refused to wear it. Fully taxed it’ll reach a toasty 48°C – slow down to a crawl, and then it’ll inform you it needs to cool down. At this point you either turn it off and wait for 20mins, or perhaps put it in the fridge (N.B. probably best not to put it in the fridge).
To be fair this isn’t too much of an issue for the bog-standard apps produced by Google and if you just stick to these Glass is nice and snappy. It’s obvious why these standard apps are so graphically simple – they just can’t afford to tax the hardware too much. The problem is that all the cool 3rd party apps such as Word Lens & layar require so much cpu if you use them for more than 5 minutes Glass will just heat up and ground to a halt.
Use it heavily, and the battery will be empty in less than an hour. It does charge quickly but still it’s not great. External battery packs with a long cable running up to Glass are available, in case you didn’t already look ridiculous enough.
There’s not a huge quantity of apps around yet, all the standard Google apps (Google Now, gmail, search etc) are perfectly functional, but really only benefit someone who already uses Google’s services to organise their life and communicate. Similarly the various social apps are fairly basic, allowing you to post a photo or update to facebook, twitter etc. There’s a few games, again simple but effective at showing the devices potential by harnessing the gyro and accelerometer.
The standard apps are installed by simply toggling an on/off button on your phone or in the glass website. It’s extremely neat and very quick.
The more exciting apps aren’t in the store yet, and require some technical skills to load in via the android developer kit.
Word Lens is frankly awesome, and really shows the potential of this sort of tech. Point it at a foreign sign and as if by magic it appears as English – in matching font and colours. The star gazing app is also fantastic and gains bonus points by not taxing the hardware too much.
Initial Thoughts – A long way to go.
The current version of Google Glass is clearly a prototype and there’s a long way to go before it becomes a viable consumer product. The key hardware related issues that need addressing are size, heat, battery life and processing power - none of these are going to be easy to solve – but in time that can be addressed.
A platform is only as good as its apps, and having tried most of them to be honest I can’t really find anything so far to justify this sort of wearable tech, even if it was a fraction of the cost. Again that will change in the future, but the 3rd party app developers are going to really struggle to produce what they want within the processing limitations of the hardware. The sort of apps that will succeed on this will have to be simple, streamlined and data orientated.
The cost is ridiculous, but it seems to be a deliberate barrier to entry (recent tear-downs suggest a manufacturing cost of $105), rather than an attempt to claw back R&D costs. I would suggest Google just doesn’t want too many people walking around with a prototype in such an early stage of development.
Ultimately the unavoidable issue with Google Glass is that you’re wearing a camera on your face. In the post-Snowden world this issue is more important than the way it looks, as finding a way to make it less conspicuous would make things worse. It’s telling that at this year’s Google I/O conference Glass didn’t get a mention – it’s as if Google is embarrassed they’ve created something so socially alienating and contrary to today’s privacy-sensitive culture.
Having said all of the above this wearable tech clearly has potential, especially in “non-public” arenas such as medicine, industrial work and even around the home. For public use, it seems inevitable that in the long term a way will be found to make it work and adapt it to be socially acceptable. Google Glass is the beginning of that process, and maybe in a few years we’ll look back it with nostalgia, akin to the original “brick” Motorola cell phones.