Google Glass, the Marmite of the tech world, has been in the hands of the public for over a year now. In 2013, the developer community were set loose upon the hallowed hardware and now anyone with £1,000 can become an Explorer. So, is it any good?
We at Wareable have had plenty of face-on time with Glass. We've tested out its features, its abilities and there’s no doubt that, for something still very much in beta, it works rather well. But what does Google still have to do before its head-mounted wearable is ready to go mass market? What improvements and changes does this biggest of companies need to make?
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To find out the answers, there was only one group of people worth asking: the group of people who know Glass best, who’ve lived with it day-in-day out, and uttered those immortal words, “Ok, Glass”, more than those who designed and built it: the Explorers. So, here’s what the real experts on the matter think and the lowdown on the alterations and additions they'd like to see made.
Bigger battery life
One thing that pretty much all the Explorers agree on is that Google Glass needs more juice. Of course the trouble is that, as ever with this subject, there’s a trade-off going on. You can have as much battery life as you like if you’re prepared to walk around with a nuclear power plant strapped to your head but that might not make the experience either very comfortable or aesthetically pleasing. All the same, if any gadgeteer is struggling to make it from dawn to dusk on a single charge, then there’s something not quite right with a product.
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“Battery life is really quite short, especially when you’re travelling,” says Explorer Cathie Reid, managing partner of APHS, one of Australia’s largest pharmacy service providers. “You’ve got to nurse it to get through a full day. And it’s not really possible to do so. They used to have video calling but they turned it off. It was a really unreliable service and it destroyed the battery.”
For Lucas Freeman, an Explorer from Kentucky, there might be an answer from the other end of the problem. If you don't want to make the battery any more cumbersome, then how about managing the power in a more efficient way?
“On a traditional device, you can see what’s running and what’s using battery but that’s not possible with Glass. Sometimes there are still apps running in the background eating up 30% of the life.”
Obviously, it’s the more power-hungry functions such as taking photos and recording videos that are the ones causing the greatest drain. Another solution might be to encourage users to cut down on imaging - but they were consistently the features that our Explorers and their friends seemed to most enjoy. Take that away, and you might start to wonder what's left to buy.
Just a little more camera
So, with photography the number one use for most of the Explorers, it was good - and actually a little surprising to us - to hear how pleased they all were with the camera in Glass. That said, there's always room for a bit more.
“Pictures and videos are so handy,” said Freeman. “I went to Puerto Rico on holiday, and the ability to navigate and take pictures without interfering with my vacation was amazing. With traditional devices, I might see something's a great shot and I have to grab my phone and tell my wife to hold on and wait; now I just wink and it’s all done in less than five seconds.”
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The wink-to-shoot function is a recent addition to the firmware along with viewfinder guidelines for a better idea of how your visual field matches up with the edges of the frame.
It's not all praise, however. “A megapixel boost would be nice," explained Freeman. "Low light is kind of sub-par and a flash would be a nice little improvement as well.”
Google has taken great pains to make sure that the Glass snapper is about more than just convenience. After all, if it's not as good as the one in your pocket, it wouldn't be long before you switch back to your phone and have one less reason to bother with the smart eye-wear at all.
According to Explorer Robert Warren, director of technology at the Genesis Career College in Tennessee, that isn't an issue though.
“Phenomenal," he exclaimed. "The quality of the pictures as a whole are awesome. The clarity, the colour definition, the vibrancy; for a 5-megapixel camera, it really does a phenomenal job.”
Nonetheless, Warren had an interesting idea on what Google might add, even if there's a possible downside. “I would like to see a voice-activated digital zoom. It might end up degrading quality though, and you’d probably have to keep your head very still to avoid a shaky picture.”
Indeed, according to our third Explorer, Virginia Poltrack, there's already an issue with keeping still enough with much of her Glass photography, which is vital to her as a professional illustrator and artist. Taking close-up shots of her drawings or sharing her process as a video uncovered certain limitations, as she explained.
“The lens is actually above eye-level, so it doesn’t always capture what I want close-up. And it’s difficult to keep my head still enough. It’s always a bit wobbly.”
So, while it's great for typical street photography, getting in tight isn't as easy as it might be. But, if Google can add to what's largely accepted as a quite unique and compelling shooting experience, then it's another strong facet with which to popularise Glass.
Refine the voice recognition system
You can use the multitouch trackpad on the side of Glass to navigate the user-interface but it's not particularly intuitive nor wonderfully satisfying; ordering it about with voice commands, however, is.
The software is largely accurate and it's impressive to watch the words you've just spoken pop up on the screen as you utter them. But while that's all well and good in your own home, almost all of our Explorers lamented the collapse of the voice system when trying to work it in a public place.
“I never use it as a phone,” explained Poltrack, outlining another flaw in Glass's potential appeal. “The call quality is not where it needs to be. It’s okay at home but any other situation is not good enough.”
“It's almost impossible to use the voice recognition in places where there’s lots of noise,” agreed Cathie Reid. “It’s generally good with common words but you can get some interesting interpretations to put it mildly.
“I tried to share a photo of the Australia Day celebrations with the words 'Happy Australia Day'. Instead Glass posted it to everyone on Facebook with 'I hope you all die'.”
Californian tech teething problems on an Antipodean accent seems the most likely explanation. That said, the system itself is smart. It takes into account you GPS location for a better idea of what you might be talking about based on what it knows is around you. If you're standing in Hyde Park it's unlikely to make the obvious typo, for example.
Most revealing of all, Robert Warren, an Explorer with both Google Glass and an Android Wear smartwatch pointed out that his timepiece doesn't have the same voice recognition troubles despite using the same system; which rather points the finger of blame at the mono-microphone built into the frames.
A rethink and refit to something more sophisticated, akin to the microphones in the very best Bluetooth headsets, might be in order.
Dispel the myths
“Google Glass: a major privacy threat” is an all too easy and too often used subtext for a tabloid news story. It didn't take long before the term ‘Glasshole’ was coined and, if you believe everything you read in the newspapers, there's a public out there ready to punch your lights out the moment you step onto the street wearing a pair.
Fortunately, the truth of the matter is very different landscape in the experience of our Explorers. They get stopped all the time but for quite the opposite reason.
“In a year, I’ve lost count how many times I’ve done demos,” said Virginia Poltrack. “Peoples' faces light up. No one is ever angry about it. No ones says, 'take those off.' People have a concern with privacy but it’s apparent when it’s recording.”
And therein lies the issue, according to British software engineer Nic Jackson. With no real advertising campaign around Glass - it is a beta product, after all – there's more misinformation out there than anything solid.
The horror stories about secret snaps set to steal your soul and pirating films at the movies become the reputation that proceeds the device and its users. Almost all of our Explorers confessed to removing Glass before going into a public toilet just in case any one thought that they might be up to something weird.
“Google absolutely should dispel the myths,” said Jackson. “So, you're not allowed to wear it in the cinema in the UK but, yeah, who cares?
“That's the most misinformed piece of media garbage I've seen for a long time. It's only 720p recording, it has a monophonic microphone, suitable for close range and speech only. And, because of battery and limitations with storage, you could only record 45 minutes of movie anyway.
“Google should have flamed this instantly, but I maybe understand why they wouldn't want to get involved in that.”
Of course, there's bound to be some genuine haters out there too. There must be some real incidents upon which the terrible tales are based. Poltrack has a theory as to what might be going on and it's got nothing to do with privacy.
“I suspect that the issues are more specific to San Francisco," she explained. "The rents are rising there and some people blame that on tech companies and on Google. So, they might be reactions of people feeling sensitive about others wearing an expensive piece of technology.”
You don't have to live in Silicon Valley to understand the possible provocation of walking around with a £1,000 gadget on show for all to see. Having enough spare change to fritter on such a non-essential piece of kit, and one that's so obvious to recognise, might not sit too well with passers by struggling to make ends meet.
For some, that's grudge-building material. It's hard to resent someone for the iPad in their bag that you don't know exists but it's easy to ridicule what you don't really understand.
Make it more relevant
This is probably the biggest challenge of all for Google. What is Glass actually for? The answer seems to be that Google doesn't really know. There are things that a small, head-mounted display are good for, and functions for which the phones in our pockets - with their superior touch interface and far more impressive colour screens – are better.
All the Explorers agreed that the hands-free navigation on Glass is superb. The compass is more precise and sensitive than the one in your mobile and orientating yourself in any environment is always going to be far more effective if you can do so without spending that time with your head buried in a map. So, it's on these truly useful features that Google needs to focus.
The trouble is that there currently aren't really enough of them. Glass is lots of fun to play with but even one of the Explorers admitted that it's essentially a very expensive toy at the moment.
“Apps can make or break a platform" said Nic Jackson. "It's the one thing that Google really needs to keep driving is the developer push. Put apps out there and people won't have to ask what they're going to use it for.”
Drop the price
It's interesting that all of our Explorers commented that Glass is too expensive but they were all happy to spend that money in the first place. Rather than a sense of regret that they'd done so, it seemed more of an admission that they're all incorrigible early adopters and, while £1,000 or $1,500 might be a price worth paying for them, they recognise that the rest of the world isn't going to feel the same.
“$500 should be what they shoot for,” stated Warren Freeman. “They’ve been mute about the situation but, hopefully, they'll pull it down. At $1,500, it will not be the price it needs to be.”
Certainly, recent teardowns of Glass value the physical components at more like 10% of what it’s currently sold at. Naturally, much of that extra outlay goes on non-material areas such as the software engineering and the initial manufacture tooling. One would hope that it's also paying for that developer push that might see the device finally find those killer applications.
There is a balance that needs to be struck, though. That high price might help invest in a Google Glass future but drop the cost far enough and consumers won't be so worried about what it's for.
Make Glass look good, or make it invisible
Possibly the biggest hurdle of all, though, is to get the public to wear them. Having that prism mounted on your face does make it look a little like you're about to assimilate someone but, even if it wasn't there, most people prefer not to wear glasses when they want to look their best. If that wasn't true, there wouldn't a multi-billion pound contact lens business.
On the other hand, sunglasses are definitely a fashionable item, so perhaps the upcoming Google Glass partnerships with Oakley and Ray-Ban is a move in the right direction.
What we did hear in perfect unison from all of the Glass users we spoke to was the strength of their community and how much Google has listened to them. Glass might not be for everyone right now, but the more the search giant takes notes from its passionate beta testers, the more it can shape its latest high profile product into one that a greater number of people might want to use.
Better hardware is always welcome but that's the part that Google can do by itself. Make it useful, affordable and sufficiently subtle, and it will become socially acceptable all on its own.