Is Google Glass a toy, or a tool? Here are my first impressions and observations...

by ,

Ray Nicholus, Widen Developer

Mobile devices are already an important part of our lives.  Currently, these devices are mostly limited to smart phones and tablets.  Now, computers that fit in our pockets are the norm, and not particularly impressive.  We have come to expect such a powerful machine to be pocket-sized, and this reality is not as stunning as it once was.  

We've come a long way since the bag phone, though.  Smart phones exist as part of the continuing evolution of electronic devices.  This evolution must continue, and the next logical rung on this ladder appears to be wearables.  

We really pride ourselves on innovation at Widen.  Part of this way of life involves constantly evaluating new tools and possibilities.  This allows us to begin developing the future for our customers today.  A good understanding of cutting edge technology also allows us to help our customers easily adapt their workflows to benefit from these advances.  Currently, we are evaluating a revolutionary new wearable: Google Glass.


What is this thing?

Google Glass (referred to as Glass from this point on) is essentially a smart device that you wear over your eyes, like a pair of eyeglasses.  Interactions are short and referred to as "micro-interactions" by Google.  The recommended way to experience Glass is through micro-interactions.  

You may use your voice and/or a small mounted touchpad to navigate Glass.  Recharging occurs via a USB charger (Glass has one micro-USB port).  Glass also contains a bone conduction transducer speaker, a single right-mounted arm with projection display, a WiFi G network transceiver, a small non-serviceable battery, a camera, and a microphone.  


Fuzzy expectations

Quite frankly, I didn't know what to expect before Glass arrived.  Before Matthew dropped Glass on my desk, I never came in contact with Glass up-close and in person.  My time in the days before arrival of Glass involved the standard, prerequisite Googling with hopes of shedding some light on this enigma.

Suffice it to say, Glass really must be experienced to be better understood.  I've been using Glass periodically for the last few days, and still have a lot to learn and understand.  Nonetheless, I've done my best to articulate my initial observations in hopes that I can convey some of the experience to you.  


Getting started

My first few minutes with Glass were mostly unremarkable.  Glass was fairly light, and felt comfortable on my face.  With a press of a button, the device turned on, and appeared to be "booting up", as it was stuck on a black screen with a white Glass logo for about 10 seconds.  Initially, I was dumped to another black screen that contained the current time and the words "Ok Glass", all in white letters.

The next steps are outlined in Google's Glass' quickstart guide.  At a high level, I performed the following shortly after turning Glass on for the first time:

  • Paired glass with my iPhone via bluetooth
  • Connected it to Widen's office WiFi via the iOS MyGlass app 
  • Connected Glass to my Widen Google account

Setup was relatively simple.  I especially appreciated the QR code that popped up on my iPhone, representing my network's Wifi password.  It was simple to scan the code with Glass (just point your head at the code).  Glad I didn't have to speak the password!


Getting comfortable

During initial setup, you will likely start fiddling with the flexible nose bridge.  Don't worry about breaking the wire bridge - it's completely adjustable.  You'll want to spend some time getting Glass to sit just right.  The ideal position is one where the projected image is visible only in the top right-hand corner of your eye.  

When passing Glass off to curious co-workers for a look, the most common complaint was lack of an unobstructed (or any) image.  This can be easily rectified by properly positioning Glass on your face.  Getting Glass properly situated will require adjusting the bridge as well as the projector arm.  

After others reluctantly return Glass to you after a quick trial, you'll inevitably have to re-adjust.  After taking Glass out of its storage container, or placing it back on after letting it sit for a bit on your desk, you'll need to re-adjust as well.   In short, you may end up doing this quite a bit.  

Ok, Glass is connected to my phone, has internet access, sees my Google account, and is comfortably resting on my nose.  Hmm, what now?  


Where's the "any" key?

You might expect interactions with Glass to be daunting.  In order to avoid a Homer Simpson-esque maneuver, there's a quick touchpad tutorial that you must walk through when Glass powers up for the first time.  Before you understand how to navigate the Glass software interface, it's important to understand some basic concepts.  

All items visible in Glass are represented as "cards".  For example, by default, a settings card exists.  After revealing and "clicking" this card, contextual sub-cards are in turn revealed.  Two of the settings sub-cards deal with network and volume configuration.  

There are two general ways to navigate through and interact with these cards:


On the right side of your Glass frames, along the side of your head, you'll find a thin, long multi-touchpad.  You can swipe to advance/rewind through cards and content, dismiss menu items, and go back.  You can also tap to select/click, and two-finger-touch to position the cursor on a web page for easy selection of a link/button.  Glass is good about letting you know how this all works.

Voice control

Many actions can also be performed via voice control.  In fact, some actions, such as entering text, can only be performed by speaking into Glass.  Voice interactions with Glass start with "ok glass".  When voice control is possible or expected, you will be prompted with an "ok glass" message at the bottom of your screen.  After initiating voice control, Glass will then display a list of options to speak, followed by final directions to complete your voice command.  


It has many useful and interesting features that I've tried

It turns out that, for a beta product, there are a surprising number of available features and integrations.  Over the course of my first few days with Glass, I was able to try out a few.


Gmail integration is a feature that you would expect from a Google-developed wearable like Glass.  This integration allowed me to receive notifications on Glass whenever an "important" email arrived in my Widen inbox (Widen uses Google Apps/Gmail). The key word here is "important".  That is to say, not all emails make their way to Glass, only emails that Google deems important.  

The specifics of the email importance algorithm are not published, but Gmail attempts to separate important emails from unimportant ones based on your sending, receiving, and message management habits.  You can correct a prioritization mistake by manually marking a mis-classified message as important, or not (via the Gmail web page only).  Ostensibly, Glass only shows you important messages to prevent a barrage of notifications for high-volume email recipients, and to save battery life.

When an email is received, you can read the entire email, have Glass read the message to you aloud, reply to the message aloud, archive it, or delete it.  

Google Calendar

A rundown of the calendar events associated with your connected Google account are available as a pinned card.  While I believe you are supposed to receive a notification before events, consistent with the reminders/alerts settings on your Google-managed calendar, I was unable to get this to work.  In fact, calendar event notifications never appeared on Glass for me.  

If you have multiple calendars associated with your account, you're out of luck.  Only your primary/default calendar will be picked up by Glass.  Luckily, there's an app for that!  At least, one that will create a pinned card on your timeline with a rundown of events for any calendars associated with your account.


Integration with Evernote seems fairly basic.  You can share pics, videos, and notes to your connected Evernote account.  No obvious way to search for existing items in your Evernote archive.


I'm not a heavy user of Google+.  Basically, I only follow a few people (mostly Linus Torvalds and Douglas Crockford for their entertaining takes on technology & programming).  Glass does automatically back up all photos and videos to your plus account.  This is a nice feature, and perhaps I'll make more use of plus to share anything interesting I create with Glass as a result.  

Note that Glass only auto-syncs media with your plus account when it is plugged into a power source.  You can manually trigger a backup via the Glass settings section.  

Google Searches & Browsing the Web

This is, in my opinion, one of the coolest features of Glass.  I usually start searches by landing on the default/time card, saying "Ok Glass, Google", followed by a search command.  For example: "What is the weather going to be like in Madison on Saturday".  The response is what you'd expect: a voice that summarizes the result, accompanied by a display of the same information.

You can ask specifics questions, search for videos or even a list of of sites.  Videos play nicely in full screen, for the most part.  However, I've occasionally run into issues where the video stutters, is not fully visible, or is unable to take up the entire viewable display.  

If you want to select a button/link, simply hold the touchpad with two fingers, tilt your head until the cursor is over the button/link, let go, and tap to click/select.  Pretty neat!

Taking Pictures & Videos

You can take pictures and videos via voice control, touchpad control, or by the button on the top right of the frames.  Pictures are of average quality, but the fun is in sharing.  Videos are also average quality, and Glass only records video for 10 seconds at a time by default.  You can easily extend this default by pressing the camera button again before the initial ten seconds have expired.  

I usually found it most convenient to use the button to record video and take pictures.  It seems a bit inconvenient to use voice control for this, which is probably why the dedicated button exists.  Press the button once for a photo.  Hold it down for a few seconds for a video.  Click again to extend an in-progress video recording.

An experimental feature is also available that allows you to take a picture simply by blinking your right eye.  This feature must be calibrated, but I'm not sure that was enough in my case.  I found myself accidentally snapping pictures, so I turned it off.  I may give it another go at some point in the future, but the button seems convenient enough.  

Eye Glance Notification

Another eye-related experimental feature allows recently received notifications to be displayed simply by glancing at the Glass arm/prism.  This glance apparently must happen shortly after the notification sound is heard.  I had it enabled for a bit, and it seems to work well enough.


This is another killer feature that builds off of Google Maps.  I tested this out on my way to the eye doctor to get my Glass prescription filled.  The screen lit up and a voice announced upcoming directions much like the Google Maps app on my iPhone.  The screen turns itself off shortly after each announcement.  After getting out of my car, I switched to walking directions, and found this to be quite helpful and convenient.  Much more so than staring at a phone while I walk.


...some that I have not tried

The Glassware store, a Google curated collection of approved apps for Glass, contains a number of other apps and integrations, such as

  • Twitter
  • Facebook
  • Google Play Music
  • Livestream, which allows you to stream video as you see it to connected viewers
  • various news and weather notification apps
  • Word Lens, which will translate printed words using the glass camera and then overlay the translated text on top of the original text.  

...and many other apps.  You can also load apps available in 3rd-party stores, but the process is a bit more involved, and Google suggests being careful with unapproved apps.  


...and opens up so many avenues!

Glass is a bit odd (okay, maybe more than a bit).  There's a lot of useful attributes here though.  For example, I find turn-by-turn and walking navigation to be much more convenient and usable with a wearable like Glass, compared to a smart phone.  It's quite nice to be able to see a preview of incoming SMS and email messages without any effort at all.  Also, taking photos and video is much more intuitive.  Want to take a picture or video with Glass?  Look at your subject and press a button.  How about with a smartphone?  Take the phone out of your pocket, unlock it, find the camera app, aim, and click a button.  

We've only scratched the surface though.  Glass is very much a beta product, but many more exciting possibilities are already obvious, even at this early stage.  For example, as an amusement park owner, you could fit a customer with Glass and record their experience on your latest monster coaster as a killer promotional item.  Surgeons can have a front-row seat to an operation without even being in the room, and perhaps communicate in real-time with another surgeon performing the procedure.  

Once we better understand the benefits, restrictions, and quirks of Glass, we are going to investigate development of apps for Glass to bring new possibilities to our customers as well.


But, it's a bit rough around the edges

Impressive?  Check.  Bubbling with potential?  Of course!  Ready for prime-time?  No, not yet.  Glass has a number of immediately obvious technical issues.  

Spontaneous reboots

The first day, Glass rebooted about 3 times.  I've seeing at least 2 reboots a day so far.  Apparently this used to be a much bigger problem, as Google has been attacking this with firmware updates over time.  Still, this is a big problem.  A reboot in the middle of a video recording or navigation is going to be annoying, to say the least.  

Battery life is poor

Everyone on earth seems to already know this.  Battery life is one of the most widely publicized shortcomings of Glass.  It's not clear what "normal" use it yet, but I have not been able to get more than 5 hours of battery life so far, and I suspect that I am not using Glass nearly as heavily as others.  Video recording apparently drains the battery much faster.  

Glass seems to turn on spontaneously while in storage

Often, after retrieving Glass from its pouch in the morning or the evening, I'll find that the battery is completely drained, even after charging it earlier and turning it off.  I made sure to re-read the instructions that detail turning Glass off, and I believe I am following the correct procedure.

Speaker is unusable in some situations

Glass comes with a bone conduction transducer speaker that rests against the right side of your head.  Even with the volume cranked up to 100%, I have a hard time hearing the audio from Glass in anything other than ambient background noise.  For example, driving directions are hard to hear on the highway, or when out walking a noisy street.  A single-ear earbud is included, but I'd really rather not wear that or carry it around.  I had high hopes for the BCT speaker due to its convenience, and I hope this can be improved in future versions.

Frequent WiFi disconnections

Sometimes, I wonder why Glass is not notifying me about new emails/events.  Often, the culprit is a disconnected network connection.  After turning on the display, a good 20 seconds passes before the connection is again restored.

Occasional unresponsiveness

Sometimes Glass will simply not respond at all.  In some cases, I can actually hear acknowledgement of my touch actions, but the display remains blank.  When this happens, a forceful shutdown and restart is the only obvious remedy.  This has happened at least once each day so far.  

Outgoing phone calls are extremely limited

In order to initiate a call, you must first setup the intended contact on glass via your connected phone or via the web config tool.  This is quite inconvenient, and it's not clear why Glass can't simply access your Google contacts directly.  

The microphone is poor

When making calls on Glass, I often was told that it was hard or nearly impossible to hear me.  Mind you, I don't whisper, but I certainly don't want to have to shout.  One particular call occurred in an empty room without any exterior noise whatsoever.  


Is Glass socially acceptable, or just creepy?

As with most things in life, the social implications of Glass are not necessarily as binary as the title of this section suggests.  In my daily use of Glass, I observed some who were genuinely concerned about the potential privacy and ethical issues surrounding the use of such a device.  Some were noticeably uncomfortable around it.  Many were more curious and amused than anything else.  Others seemed to be entirely uninterested.  

I think a device as unique and "extreme" as this one will be harder for some to accept.  Why is this?  Well, quite frankly, wearing Glass makes me look like a cyborg.  It's not very subtle.  It doesn't look natural, and perhaps is even cold and threatening.  The cosmetic issues are just as important to iron out as the software/hardware limitations and bugs.  In fact, I'm still a bit apprehensive about wearing glass out in public all the time, but I'm slowly getting over that.  


For us four-eyed folk (or is it five?)

I, like about 60% of the population, wear prescription eyeglasses.  Earlier versions of Glass did not have a solution for us.  In fact, if you wanted to wear Glass, you were mostly out-of-luck.  Current versions allow the Glass arm to be installed over a number of Glass-tailored prescription lens frames. If you wear eyeglasses, you may be lucky enough to be able to deal with Glass over your current frames for a while (as I have been doing).  You'll eventually either need to switch to contacts, or get prescriptions filled for a pair of Glass frames (as I have just done).  Your distance vision is used when looking at the projected image, so, if you are nearsighted, you'll find the image quite difficult to read without proper vision correction.  Transferring the arm over to your Glass frames seems to be as simple as dealing with a single screw with the provided tool.


What's next?

I plan to provide more blog entries periodically as I become more familiar with Glass.  Here are our goals (somewhat in order):

  1. Setup Glass (complete)
  2. Understand its limitations, benefits, and quirks (in progress)
  3. Become more comfortable with the device in everyday life (in progress)
  4. Find ways to deal with its limitations
  5. Understand the mirror API and/or GDK (in progress)
  6. Develop some simple but useful apps for Glass
  7. Come up with some really useful Glass apps that will greatly benefit our customers.
  8. Engage customers and schedule development & field testing.  

Note that it is certainly possible that our little experiment will end prematurely or be put on hiatus if we don't think that Glass is going to be ready for production field use by everyday people soon enough.  If you have some ideas, questions, or comments, please let us know!

Topics: Culture & Company

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