The Truth About Google Glass

Wednesday Jul 31st 2013 by Mike Elgan
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What's it like to wear Google Glass full-time?

Since Google's Glass project was first announced, and since people have been openly wearing Glass in the wild, the whole subject has been bloated with hype, exaggerated claims, fear, contempt, ignorance and confusion.

I've been wearing Google Glass nearly full time for a week now and I'd like to give you the truth about what Glass is really all about.

Reactions vary.

Most people don't know anything about Google Glass and don't care. A few know all about it and still don't care. I've been accosted several times by people who've heard about it and want to try it on or want me to explain what it does and how it works.

There's a little paranoia, but less than I expected. I've been asked: "Are you filming me right now?" But no one so far has been rude to me or accusatory about privacy.

Ultimately, wearing Glass in the real world administers a Rorschach test to the public. People see a dream or a nightmare depending on their personality, their experiences with life and their beliefs and feelings about technology.

People who fear technology fear Glass. Those who love technology love Glass.

Without any understanding of what Google Glass does, how it works or what it's like to use Glass, most people focus on the appearance. I've heard them described as "cool-looking" and "futuristic" or "creepy" and "ugly."

I've been surprised also by mild hostility from a small minority of tech-savvy people on the social networks. They see in Glass a coveted geek status symbol. (You currently have to be "selected" for the program, and it's very expensive—with taxes it costs more than $1,600.) I've been asked "what makes you think you're better than the people who don't have Glass?" and received negative comments about a few pictures I posted of myself wearing them, implying that my intent was to show off and make people feel bad.

It's sometimes hard to wear Glass in public.

Because Glass is so new, and because people notice it and can have emotional reactions to Glass, it can feel weird sometimes to wear Glass in public. I still do it. But sometimes I feel self-conscious about it.

Even when you wear Glass all the time, you rarely actually use it.

In fact, you can't. The battery life wouldn't last more than two hours or so of constant use.

I suspect that people believe that wearing Glass means you've been assimilated into the Borg—that you're constantly plugged into the machine and are in direct mind-meld with an artificial intelligence entity of some kinds.

Glass is on your face "just in case," for the most part—just in case you want to take a fast picture or video, get a quick answer to a question or in case a message or notification comes at you. It's common to wear it for hours without it ever turning on.

Glass can be socially awkward.

The tiny display on Glass doesn't go in front of your eye, but above and slightly to your right. That means, you have to look up and to the right to see it.

What you see is a cards interface, with the default screen showing the current time.

Scrolling to the right takes you back in time to screens and cards and pictures based on strict reverse-chronological order. Scrolling to the left takes you into the future—upcoming directions, appointments and, when you get to the end, settings.

To move through these cards, you generally scroll using the touchpad on the outside of the headset.

When you're with a small group of people and you're looking up and to the right while repeatedly swiping Glass with your finger, well, it's a little awkward.

The technology is all about miniaturization.

The truth is that Glass doesn't really do anything that a phone can't do. And a smartphone can do a million things that Glass can't do.

The hardware technology is only bleeding edge because it's all so small and light. It's impressive on those grounds. But it raises the question: What's the point of duplicating smartphone functionality in a low-resolution, low-battery powered version?

The best answer is to make a comparison between a laptop and a smartphone. Your phone does pretty much the same things your laptop does, but with a smaller screen, keyboard and so on. So why do you use your smartphone so much and why do you find it so valuable and fun to use?

The answer is that a phone goes with you everywhere. It's more instant and immediate to use.

So what a smartphone is to laptop, Google Glass is to a smartphone.

The sound and brightness don't auto-adjust, and that's a problem.

There are no volume or brightness controls, and these aren't automatically adjusted either. As a result, you can't hear Glass in a noisy environment unless you cup your hand over your ear. And in dim light, when your pupils dilate, Glass' super-bright screen is uncomfortable to use. In my case, it made my eye feel sore after I did a hangout that lasted about 20 minutes. (Such a hangout in brighter ambient light or with a dimmer Glass display would have been fine.)

Also: The sound technology is bone conduction. But other people can still hear it if they're nearby in a somewhat quiet place.

Glass is still useable without a connection.

Glass is best when you have a fast-connection Android phone (to which you pair via Bluetooth), plus the Android app, plus an external WiFi connection. When you eliminate any of these elements, Glass becomes less useful. For example, with Wi-Fi but no Android phone (even if you connect to an iPhone), you can't get turn-by-turn directions.

However, Glass remembers all the data it gathered when it was connected. So you can load it up with notes, facts, messages, pictures, addresses, maps and even Wikipedia pages. And these are all available to you when you can't connect—for example, while you're on an airplane that doesn't have WiFi.

It's hard to take a secret photo.

Everybody's freaked out about Glass users taking privacy-stealing pictures. But the truth is that taking pictures is obvious. You either say "OK, Glass: Take a picture," which is loud enough to hear for anyone within 15 feet away, or you press a shutter button which looks just like taking a picture with a regular camera. As soon as you take the picture, the screen lights up conspicuously. When you take a picture, people near you know it.

It's easy to take secret video.

Video can be more easily done in secret. The reason is that you can get the video started privately then keep it running as you approach people. People can see the screen lit up over your eye, however, and if they're really close they can actually see themselves in the video. But if people don't see you start the video, they probably won't assume you're recording one.

There aren't many apps.

If your smartphone had no apps except for a camera, phone, maps, a few social networking apps, email and notifications, it would be about as functional as Google Glass is right now.

The real revolution lies ahead when developers create apps we can't now really predict. (My advice is: Never say you'll never get Glass because you'll likely change your mind when the killer apps start coming.)

Glass changes your life.

Despite all its beta problems and the social weirdness that happens with wearing something so new on your face, Google Glass is truly life-changing for the better.

I've never heard other Glass user write or say this, but I think the biggest benefit of Glass is how it "feels"—or how it affects your psychology.

Taking pictures and videos feel a bit like memorization; Google Now information feels a little like knowledge. Hangouts and phone calls through Glass feel sort of like telepathy.

Glass makes you feel like you have extraordinary mental gifts and even super-powers, rather than being merely the user of devices that let you do pretty much the same things. And that feeling is strangely compelling and possibly addictive.

Wearing Glass all the time, then suddenly going out into the world without it (or without battery power), makes you feel naked, limited and powerless by comparison.

So here's the truth about Google Glass as I see it: The technology is both more ordinary and more revolutionary than you may think. You're probably going to get one, or something like it, within the next three years when it works better, looks better and has thousands of apps.

And—it's an overused cliche—but Google Glass really is going to change everything.

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