Saturday, May 18, 2013

72 Hours Under Glass

In May of 2012, I was one of the 2,500 folks who chose to commit to plunking down $1,500 at the 2012 Google I/O to become a test subject for a device that few people had touched, and whose public face appeared to the world to be an expensive GoPro. (Skydiving stunt, not withstanding.) Still, it felt like something interesting was going on here - and I was curious enough to put my money down to see if there was fire under the smoke. Besides, $1,500 to test out the future, seemed like a good idea at the time.

This action caused me to become what Google calls a Glass Explorer,  a clever term for beta field tester. Over the next year, I became indoctrinated into the program, which was being administered beautifully by +Sarah Price. I was one of the earlier classes, I believe - and met up with my particular pairing of 5 other lab rats. The first day there, after a brief orientation, I put on my first Google Glass headset -- essentially the same hardware that is now currently in the field, but the operating system and applications were severely limited. Still, it was very clear that this was more than just a GoPro device.

A full year after agreeing to pay out the $1,500, I received "The Email." A polite, brief note thanking me for my patience, and telling me how to place the final order. I have to admit, after the recent spate of #glasshole jokes, I began to second guess myself -- but in the end forged ahead with my original plan. As the days wore on, and people began to receive their units, the term #glasshole began to take on the air of a badge of courage, rather than the insult as it was originally intended.

As timing would have it, my Glass was ready to pick up at Google I/O 2013, just a few days ago in fact.  There was a brief orientation in a hotel room suite, accompanied by a nice glass of prosecco, just to cement the whole "glasshole" thing. Putting on my personal Glass for the first time, it was immediately apparent that they had been busy at Google... the OS was clean, crisp and responsive. There were already a smattering (very small smattering) of apps from companies willing to put themselves out there.

I wore the unit over the next couple of days at the conference, which, paradoxically, was the worst possible environment to try these things out. Google I/O was so jammed with people with cell phones, tablets, laptops....and Glass.... that WiFi connections and most cell service connections kept timing out. I had T-Mobile and Verizon hotspots, and none could keep up...and even the conference WiFi was crapping out more often then not.

Still....there was something interesting here.

The Good....

...and by that I mean there was something to this whole Glass nonsense. Putting on the Glass I was immediately presented with information that I instructed it to feed me from the handful of available applications. eMail, CNN news, NYTimes breaking news, Twitter, Facebook, SMS, G+ (naturally), it was all there...and all available.  The tiny little screen presents your eye with 640x360 images and text, and then disappears when its not necessary or needed. The little prism in the upper corner of your vision feels initially like a thumb-smudge on the top right of a pair of glasses. It becomes very easy to ignore.

As I said, the responsiveness of the unit was pretty incredible. Not only is scrolling around and looking at your timeline of events easy, it's easy to move to settings menus, maps, and nested levels of events from, say, your SMS history.

Some of the available applications, even in this early stage of things, are phenomenal. Both of the news services, for instance, provide timely, breaking news. They get out of the way quickly if you don't want to see anything right now, but allow you to drill down deep enough if you want to hear more about the story. The New York Times will even read you the news if you'd like.

Walking directional maps on this thing is pure Terminator territory. It will not only display your location on a map and direct you there, but it will track your head movement and indicate with arrows which direction you should be headed in... it's a lot more convenient than looking down at your phone to find your address, and - in sketchy areas of unfamiliar cities - it's probably a hell of a lot safer. Glancing at your phone and taking your attention from your surroundings makes you a target - if you have your eyes about you at all time with momentary glances up and to the right, you do not look as vulnerable...despite having a computer on your head.

The bone induction system for both the mic works surprisingly well - the mic was able to pick up and transcribe my voice without missing a beat, even in the crowded conference hall. In fact, I used it to compose a two paragraph business email, and it worked without a hitch.

Speaking of speaking, the Google Now implementation on Glass is an amazing experience. Tap and hold the sidebar and ask Google Now literally anything. Most of the time the answers are read back to you, but it will always display a proper response. I haven't been able to stump it yet, and what it tells you is specifically useful for the environment you are in.]

...the Bad....

I know it's early, but a lot of the basic apps are phoning it in. The Path app is pretty ridiculous, since it's not really an app so much as it is a giant G+ circle. I believe that anything shared to that circle is picked up by Path and sent. There's no way to comment on a Path "moment" during the initial send. 

Similarly, Twitter setup is pretty messed up - Twitter has been on a rampage lately to funnel people to it's own applications, rather than use third party client apps. So, the initial setup for Twitter on Glass requires you to download the "official Twitter app" for your phone if you want to change the defaults, otherwise you will get unwanted tweets sent to your Glass unit, and the screen goes on and off like a Christmas tree. Even if you get the defaults set the way you want, if you were an early Twitter adopter you'll still have a bit of a problem: in the early days of Twitter, all new contacts had "notifications on" by default... this flag is recognized by the Twitter Glass app, and you will be notified every time one of your early contacts tweets. Again, this can wear the battery on Glass down pretty quickly - but the only solution I found is to go into those old contacts one by one and turn off the notifications flag. It's annoying.

The initial Glass release has made some very odd choices with regards to the UIX. Despite it's reputation of taking photos, videos, etc, Glass is currently a consumption device more than it is a creation device. There is no way currently, for instance, to begin a Twitter conversation (although you can contribute to an existing one). Likewise, in order to SMS a contact, you need to go to the MyGlass application on your phone and manually tell Glass which contacts you would like it to store locally on Glass - it does not import your whole address book. (I'm assuming this is because they haven't discovered an easy way to let you select from 1000's of phone contacts.) However, like Twitter, if someone SMS's you directly, you can respond right from Glass.

The contacts issue in general is one that the Glass team needs to grapple with very seriously before this is released to the public. Even Google's own G+ system needs to be manually curated by you on the MyGlass app, before you can share anything directly from Glass. I haven't played with the Facebook app yet, but I am assuming that it is similar.

Battery life is, of course, also an issue....probably the main issue....with the pre-release units. If you get 4-5 hours of battery life, you're doing very well. With 3 radios (WiFi, BlueTooth, GPS) constantly firing, I'm not sure how they plan to pull off power management -- but cell phones do it, so they should be able to as well.

...and the Ugly.

OK, so it's not as hideous as a first gen product could have been, but it does stick out like a sore thumb. In the 72 hours I've worn Glass, I've been interviewed about 7 times, and I get people coming up to me at the rate of about 20-30 a day. (Seriously.)  That's fine, and I completely understand it, but that sort of attention is going to wear thin after a while. Making the unit less conspicuous and partnering with existing eye wear manufacturers is going to help quite a bit in this area.

Finally, the speaker. Hmmmm. What to say about it? It's also bone induction, but there's no volume control, and you cannot really hear it well in a crowded environment. I wouldn't really recommend it for phone calls in it's current state, unless you like saying "What??" a lot.

Oh, also, Glass crew? Please stop tagging my SMS and email with "Sent By Glass" at the end of each message...or at least allow me to turn that off.

My Conclusion?

Despite the warts, this is a direction that the world will head. It doesn't take a lot of imagination to see the potential here, and Google is making it very easy to get involved. The development program is open to all, the operating system for Glass is Android, and the amount of help that the developers receive is truly impressive. 

Is the current implementation of Glass ready for prime time? No, probably not - at least not until some of the UIX, battery and application concerns get addressed.

However, none of those things really matter - those are engineering and execution problems that absolutely will get solved. What is important to take away here is that Glass is, truly, a new paradigm for interacting with a computer. Everything from the display to the interface is new, and the immediacy of the system lends itself to a "Notification First" environment, which is a different world from which we currently operate.  Plus, there is more that Glass can do than it is doing now. +Lance Nanek was able to dump an API that lists a surprising number of sensors on this current device: 13 in total. When those devices are revealed to application developers, the magical usefulness of Glass will increase tremendously.

We're beginning to enter a different world - people throw around terms like "wearable computing" (which it is) and "augmented reality" (which it is not), but those are just hyped up media terms. What does matter - what is truly important - is the connection between you, this machine and the growth of truly personalized social and information retrieval and dissemination.

Unlike the original Sony Walkman that caught media flak for isolating the wearer from his/her environment, Glass does the opposite: it peels back the layers of what is around you: people, places, things and events. It puts you more, not less, in touch with your immediate environment. It has the potential to increase, not decrease, communication and understanding in a way never before possible. It was my childhood belief in technology like this that made me get into this business in the first place.

I have gone from skeptic to believer in a very short time. I guess that makes me kind of a Glasshole, but that's sorta ok with me...

Update: 5/22/2013

It's been a full week under glass now, and I'm still digging the experience.  Here's my interview on +Revision3's +Tekzilla being interviewed by the always-charming +Patrick Norton ...