Google’s ambitions for its new Glass product far exceed what current technology is capable of delivering. It also falls far short of being the harbinger of the technological armageddon some privacy advocates and politicians say it will be.
It falls short because in the end the only people who likely will be willing to immerse themselves in 24/7 digital living are the several thousand “Glass Explorers” Google invited to purchase the $1500 product. Glass is available only to those hand selected few, and the product must be picked up in person at Google offices in New York City, Los Angeles, or its Mountain View, California headquarters.
It’s not that the product is poorly designed. It’s actually quite the opposite. Glass is comfortable, extremely lightweight, and well intentioned. Where it fails is that it assumes that everyone out in the world is like a Google software engineer and needs to have a screen attached to their head at all times.
Watch Lon’s video of the Google Glass hardware:
Even that could be forgiven if Glass provided functionality lacking in smartphones. But it doesn’t do anything that different than Google’s wildly successful Android phones. It just packages data up differently for its small screen. In fact, it does a lot less than a smartphone.
Glass can reply to any email it receives, but it can only initiate an email to a handful of contacts that the user pre-loads. It can’t create calendar entries, nor can it access the Internet without being “tethered” to a smartphone or WiFi hotspot. There is no onboard cellular modem.
The data it presents comes mostly from Google’s Now service, a frighteningly useful notification system that looks at activity in Gmail, Calendar, and Search and presents alerts that it feels are relevant to the user. For example, it will display flight departure information if it finds an airline confirmation email in the user’s inbox, or provide traffic information and directions for an upcoming appointment in a Google calendar. This isn’t unique to Glass, however. Google Now runs on both Android and iOS smartphones.
The screen is translucent and works well both in dark and bright environments. It sits above the user’s field of vision, requiring the wearer to take their eyes off the road or conversation and shift their vision up in order to read what’s on screen.
Text input is done through speech, but it will only accept speech if it has an active Internet connection through a smartphone or WiFi connection. A bulk of its core functions, like snapping pictures and videos, also can be initiated by voice. It cannot, however, distinguish its owner’s voice from somebody elses, so it is easily sabotaged.
Glass’ only killer feature is the camera. It’s wonderful to capture videos of my 8-week-old daughter looking right at me, something that’s very hard to do with a smartphone or digital camera. But a high quality pair of video recording glasses can be had at a fifth of the price with double the resolution.
And while the camera is the killer feature, it’s also the most restricted. Google is so terrified over the privacy uproar the product received upon its initial announcement that they’ve locked developers out of many of the core camera functions. So a lot of the innovation that might come from a head-mounted display and camera is, for the moment, dormant. The few apps that are available are mostly head-mounted mini versions of smartphone applications.
Watch Lon’s video of the Glass software:
While some commands can be given by voice, a bulk of the navigation is accomplished through a touch sensitive surface on the right temple. So not only is the user looking up in a very odd way, they’re also swiping their finger across their temple appearing to be immersed in some other world.
And that touch surface is sensitive. Very sensitive. It’s nearly impossible not to touch it when putting on or removing the device, and it will on occasion share photographs from errant touches (all it usually takes is a swipe and a double tap). A lock button is included but it’s positioned against the user’s head and often hard to get at without setting off the temple control.
But the real issue for me is how Glass puts up a very noticeable social barrier to basic human interaction. It inserts a digital wall between me and the rest of the world. It’s there and it’s noticeable for both me and the people with whom I interact, irrespective of whether I’m actually using it.
Google’s Apple-like decision to limit what developers can do with the product does little to help it find useful applications in industries like medicine or law enforcement where a hands-free camera and screen can be beneficial.
All of this is not to say that wearable computing has no future. Glass software could work well on a watch or some other less intrusive device that can be built with today’s technology. People might actually buy one and wear it.
Google Glass has thus far been a nice attempt toward integrating digital tools into a wearable and hands-free device. But the product comes across as a little obnoxious and as-yet unnecessary. Technology for the sake of technology.
And with that said I’ll be getting my $1,500 back.