Sunday, November 17, 2013

Google Glass

Google Glass, a sometimes controversial wearable device, has potential to change the way people interact with technology. It's Google's second independently created hardware device that straps the equivalent of a Galaxy Nexus phone to your head in a very compact form factor. For the large time that Google's Nexus line of hardware has been around, all (except the short-lived Nexus Q) were assembled and co-branded by other companies such as HTC, Samsung, and LG. The only difference between Glass and a phone is that Glass has no cell phone radio and a smaller battery (~570 mAh). This means that you can't make calls directly from Glass or get 3G/4G data directly to Glass, but you can still use it as a bluetooth headset and tether Glass to your phone for data. Glass can also connect to wifi for those who want to conserve their data usage. Just to be clear, Google Glass is most often referred to simply as Glass, not glasses or a pair. There is only one set of the device's electronics, so it's not really a pair. Google is also working on Google Goggles, an app that lets you run a search based on a picture.

As some may have heard in the news, Google recently expanded their Glass Explorer program, which allowed most Explorers to invite up to three friends, following the same Google method of expanding their test product programs. This means that the number of Glass Explorers will jump from around 10,000 to somewhere between 30,000 and 40,000. In the past, Google ran other invite-only programs such as Google Plus, Google Voice, and Gmail before releasing them to the public. I got invited to Gmail by Mitsuo and made my Gmail account back in 2005, only a year after Gmail was released, during a time when email and the Internet in general were beginning to really take off. It was my introduction to a Google service. To give you an idea of how relatively far back that was, the laptops our school owned didn't have wifi built in, and we had to use a wifi capable version of the forgotten PC card to access the school's wireless Internet connection; the Motorola Razr was the popular phone at the time; Facebook wasn't even released for public use, and we were all on MySpace.

I got invited to a Google service for a second time a couple weeks ago. I was able to get an invite to the Google Glass Explorer program, which is an invitation to pay Google to become a beta tester. The price for Glass? $1,500. Plus tax. My device came to Hawaiʻi, and I didn't need to pay tax since Google doesn't have a physical presence in our state, but tax can range anywhere from $100 to $200 more on top of the already high price tag. When the Explorer program initially began, Google wouldn't even ship the devices, requiring explorers to come to a Google building in Mountain View, Los Angeles, or New York for an in-person introduction to Glass. While those options are still available, I wasn't able to go to the mainland to get my Glass. Google ships with next-day air, and even though delivery to Hawaiʻi isn't guaranteed, I got my package within 12 hours. It sounds a little outrageous to pay to become a tester; usually companies pay the testers. But I can see justifications for why the program works this way:

1) The high price keeps all except those who really want to try the new technology out of the program. Since Glass is a beta device, if the price was $300-$500 (the estimated retail price) everyone would rush out to buy one. There would be many more complaints than praise, leading most to believe that the product is flawed and discourage others from buying a device. Product support would be overwhelmed, providing more for people to complain about. As explorers, we are using the devices knowing that they are in the initial stages and will tolerate improvable problems, providing necessary feedback to Google for the consumer release. There is a forum open only to Glass Explorers that enables discussions, troubleshooting, and development regarding the device. For those interested in Glass, there is also a public Google Plus page.
2) Explorers are helping to fund the continuing R&D for Glass. Glass is in beta, so it's not ready for public release. The recent invitation program gave invitees the chance to buy a newer version of Glass. There was a small processor improvement and an almost unnoticeable change to the frame that would make Glass compatible with prescription eyeglasses (which are projected to be released by January 2014 at the latest). Take a look at the Ubuntu Edge, a smartphone running the Ubuntu OS. Its creators set a funding goal of $32,000,000, which gives you an idea of the costs involved in undertaking a breakout technology project. The Ubuntu phone was the first of its kind, and so is Google Glass. When the Explorer program first started, 8,000 explorers were admitted. Later, 2,000 more were admitted, and the program stayed at that size for a while until the recent invite program. $1,500 x 10,000 = $15,000,000, a little less than half the funding Ubuntu phone tried to raise. While Google is nowhere near short on funds, income from Glass could help pay for the prototyping, parts sourcing, and development. There are many other Google apps and services that need funding as well.
3) The low amount of participants allows Google to offer excellent customer service, which is essential in these beta stages. I cracked one of the sunglasses attachments for my Glass and contacted Google's Glass Support for some help, expecting to pay for a new attachment or be out of luck for getting a replacement. Instead, I received an email a couple days later with a tracking number for an already-mailed sunglasses attachment. My problem is on the simple end of the customer service spectrum; I've read about people cracking the prism in their device, snapping the battery enclosure off, and having the display begin to deteriorate. These people emailed Glass Support and had a replacement device on their doorstep within a few days. Almost any unintentional damage to or problem with the device will result in a free replacement, provided you send the broken device back. One of the few exceptions is when a device is stolen.

Glass: What's it like?

When you get Glass shipped to you, it comes in an unassuming brown cardboard box with an ambiguous return address. The side of the box has a tear-away strip that makes for easy opening. Inside the cardboard box I received was Glass, a sunglasses attachment, some filler packaging, and a packing slip. The actual Glass box is clean and minimalistic but is a little on the large side, mainly due to the fact that Glass does not fold up into a more portable form factor and due to having many accessories inside the box. Along with the Glass device are a carrying pouch, quick start docs, extra nose pads, charging cable specifically made for Glass, 5V/1A output charging plug, and a Glass earbud (Glass devices purchased or swapped after 10/28/13). The charging plug has a high amp rating, and Google recommends not charging a phone with it because it may overload the battery. An iPad charger also has a 5V/1A output rating, just to give you an idea of the power. The charging cable is a flat cable USB-A to Micro USB, but the micro USB plug is at a 90 degree angle up from the cable. When you set Glass down on a table to charge, the position of the cable allows Glass to rest flat on the table compared to if you used a standard USB cable that would cause Glass to rest at an angle. Glass does not fold up and is therefore quite bulky when you're not wearing it. The carrying pouch is also bulky as a result. The pouch has about a couple inches of a hard cardboard or plastic shell at the front to protect the prism and camera assembly from damage. The rest of the pouch is soft microfiber, and the top has a drawstring that can be pulled to close the pouch. Opened up, the pouch is a little larger than a 7 inch tablet.

The device itself is compact and only a little heavier than a typical pair of Ray Bans or Aviators. The metal frame is constructed of durable titanium, and the electronic components are housed in plastic casings. To adjust the fit of the device, you bend the titanium nose pad arms as well as the frame itself. There is a limit to each of these, though, so Glass may not fit well with some people's heads. The prism seems to be a type of plastic rather than glass and uses a technique known as Pepper's Ghost to display a seemingly transparent screen in front of you. The display seems to work like this: When you wear Glass, the display is actually facing perpendicular to your direction of sight. There is a reflective coating on the end of the prism opposite of the display projector. This coating reflects the display onto an angled, laser-etched pattern in the prism, which in turn refracts the reflected light into your eye. Since not all the reflected light is sent to your eye, the display appears transparent, which also lets you see what's in front of you. The display resolution has been determined to be 640x360 but will appear as an HD screen when you look at it. Part of the reason it appears HD is because of the way things are displayed--text is displayed larger and kept to a minimum. When there is a longer excerpt, an ellipsis is shown, and you can choose to view the full website, which would probably require zooming in. Google says viewing the Glass display is the equivalent of looking at a 25 inch screen from 8 feet away. The focal distance of the display is actually at about 8 feet away, so those who are nearsighted will need corrective lenses to see the screen clearly. The screen has an overlay type of effect and will be easily visible in any lighting except bright sunlight. There is an auto brightness function in the software that is not user programmable, and there are times when the auto brightness doesn't work so well, causing the screen to be too dim.

The electronics are held on the right side of the device, with the front part being the touchpad/processor/ram/flash and the back part housing the battery and bone conduction speaker (BCS). The front part of the device also has the pivoting camera/prism assembly and the only two buttons on the device: one for the camera/video functions and one for power/sleep. The current touchpad gestures are: swipe forward, swipe backward, swipe down, and tap. You can also use some two-finger gestures for additional functions. Swiping down is the universal back command, and swiping down with two fingers from anywhere will quit out and put the device to sleep. The bone conduction speaker (BCS) is a good concept and could be a very effective way of transmitting audio if improved. Bone conduction speakers need to first contact with a bone in your skull. A BCS will transmit sound through this bone instead of through the air and to your eardrums, which means you don't need to place anything in your ear canal. It's like a voiceover for real life when it works correctly. This means that some people who are deaf can hear using bone conduction since BCS bypasses the eardrum, and sound goes directly to the sensitive hairs in their ear. Here's a simple diagram that shows how bone conduction works.

I had only used Glass for one week but could tell that it's a beta product. Most of my issues were with fit; Glass was really created for a medium sized head because it was a little big for my head. I've seen many comments about Glass' problem with being quite large for Asian heads and women's heads. When I first put on the device, I could see the screen clearly, but the sound from the BCS was soft and tinny. Moving the device forward on my face helped with the BCS loudness and clarity, but the display moved too far away, and the side edges were blurry. I eventually adjusted the frame so that the BCS is slightly contacting my head and the display is mostly clear. It's a compromise, and I'm hoping that Google does something about the fit for the consumer release. Engineers could allow for more fitting customization or make different sized frames for various head sizes. They could also move the BCS so that it has a different point of contact. I can push the BCS against my head with my finger to contact better but would like a BCS that doesn't require that. In my experience, the BCS has good bass and sound transmission when it contacts my head correctly, and I would definitely use it for music in that case, which relates to the recent announcement of music playback capability--more on this later.

When I entered the Explorer Program, the Glass software had just been updated to version 11, or XE11. Seeing how software updates are released each month, the earliest adopters had been using their devices since January. Their feedback since XE1 helped shape the software over the months. Google calls each individual object in Glass a "card," and all cards are displayed on what they call a "timeline." Swiping forward or backward on the touchpad will move between cards, tapping will select or bring up options, and swiping down will cancel or exit out. Up until XE11, a long tap was recognized and would instantly take a user to the Google Voice Search function. It was taken out for XE11, but I would have liked to use it. There is an auto sleep delay that cannot be set by users, so we may see that change in the future. To wake the device, a user can tap on the touchpad or tilt their head to a certain angle that's definable in the settings. This angle can be set to anywhere between 10 and 40 degrees. There is also a head detection function which will disable all functions except the camera/video button if it senses that you aren't wearing the device. It uses a proximity sensor facing your face that others have modified to enable blink detection.

Google recently announced that music playback capability would be added to Glass in a future update. They also announced a stereo earbud attachment for Glass. For those of us who want to use the BCS, Glass engineers could add a second BCS for stereo BC playback, which could also result in another battery enclosure on the opposite side. As it is, Glass' battery life depends on how you use it. If you watch videos, take pictures & video, and use the functions on Glass often, you can count on having a battery life of around 1-3 hours. Glass will last through the day (which is Google's advertised battery life) with minimal use, and I've managed to get about 8 hours on one charge. During that time, I would only check in on news headlines and occasionally have the device read the excerpt aloud. A couple pictures here and there, and maybe one video, but that was it. In most situations, I've been able to get to an outlet and add a little charge here and there before going back out. I'm planning on hiking with Glass, and I'm estimating about 2-3 hours of pictures and videos before it dies, so I'm going to pack a backup external battery charger.

Picture quality is average - nothing really impressive, but it's good for those moments you might miss if you need to pull your phone out. The camera is a 5 megapixel shooter that can record 720p video. Video quality is average as well and would be great as an outdoor/action sports camera if it could record in higher frame rates. By default, the video function takes 10 second clips but can be extended. Picture and video capture is very quick after receiving the command, and there are separate tones played so that you know which mode you're in. One thing that would help for pictures is a preview function. In the current software, when you tell Glass to take a picture, it snaps a picture and shows you the result for a couple seconds. There is no way for users to compose the shot, which may result in multiple shots to get the best looking picture. I would often take a picture only to find it a little crooked and take a couple more with the appropriate changes. Here's a picture I took when I went for a run up Wilhelmina Rise down in Kaimuki:

Voice commands are very responsive in Glass, and you won't need to yell to get Glass to listen. You can talk in a normal volume, provided there isn't much background noise, and Glass will understand almost every time. The main screen shows a clock along with the words "ok glass" underneath. Saying "ok glass" from this screen will allow a user to speak a command they want. The default commands are: google, take a picture, record a video, get directions to, send a message to, make a call to, make a video call to. Adding Glassware, or apps for Google Glass, will possibly add more voice commands to the command screen, such as start a stopwatch, show a compass, and start a run. Running a Google search is pretty handy on Glass, and it's better suited for finding answers. You might ask it to convert miles to kilometers or who the President was in 1960, and it will speak the answer to you through the BCS. If you have a more detailed question, it's probably better to use a phone, tablet, or computer where you can scroll through options. Glass can show you images, but in a restricted manner. Say you ask it for pictures of dogs. Glass will show the first 6 picture results and allow you to view each picture individually if you scroll, as well as visit the source website if you tap. It will also show you the first 6 web results after the pictures, but you cannot see anymore results of each.

Browsing the web using Glass - I wouldn't recommend it, but it's possible. I've even watched YouTube on Glass, but your phone, tablet, or computer is better in most cases. Glass may be useful to people viewing assembly tutorials or recipes on YouTube for a handsfree experience. Glass does not automatically sleep when playing videos, which is a nice detail that Google considered. When you visit a normal webpage, you can slide your finger along the side of the touchpad to scroll. You can also tap and hold two fingers on the side, and a reticule will appear. The browser uses the gyroscope built into Glass to track your head movement and move the reticule around the page depending on how you move your head while holding two fingers on the touchpad. Sliding both fingers forward or backward will zoom. You can also use this reticule to click links. You can pretty much do any kind of web browsing that doesn't require a keyboard, but I've seen people connect bluetooth keyboards to their devices.

The Controversy
One of the biggest and unnecessary criticisms of Glass is that a user can record others without their knowledge and invade their privacy. Glass (without modifications) does not take pictures or record video without a user saying a voice command, pressing the camera button on top of the device, or using the touchpad on the side of the device to access the commands manually. These methods are all obvious to others around, and Glass was not intended for covert pictures and video anyway. Glass intends to integrate into your life without getting in the way so that you can capture moments instantly and with ease. Also, the battery will only last about 40-50 minutes when constantly recording video, which is not very long. It's like having a compact GoPro that connects to social media and can run apps. There are some legitimate privacy concerns, such as facial recognition and theft concerns, which will need to be addressed before the Glass user base expands. To see how Glass can be applied for education, check out how an Ohio State University doctor used his Glass in a live streamed surgical operation to students and other doctors. Just know that Explorers won't try to invade your privacy or intentionally record you without your knowledge. With the way battery life is on Glass, especially when recording, we're trying to conserve it as much as we can. If someone wanted to record you, there are cheaper and more discreet ways to do it anyway.

For a beta product, Glass is a good start but can use some refinements and changes. There have already been numerous prototypes, which can be seen detailed here. Glass is among the first of its kind in a newly emerging wearable gadget era, and Glass Explorers are helping to shape the future of the technology. Only those who need to have it will buy it now, and it's very hard to get anyway, so most will end up waiting for the consumer release.