No gadget has captured the public imagination quite like Google Glass. When it arrived at Mobile Choice Towers, complete with the new Google-designed frame and lenses, there wasn’t a single employee who didn’t want to have a go. Without exception, Glass gets this reaction everywhere it goes - and for good reason. A device which is worn on your face, is controlled by voice and projects its interface into the user’s right eye through a prism deserves attention.
Turn it on, adjust the hinged prism so the projected interface appears comfortably in your field of vision, tap the touch panel by your right temple and you’re ready to go. Glass runs a heavily modified and simplified version of Android KitKat - but you’d never know, because the interface is little more than a carousel of Google Now-style cards.
Each card represents something you have done recently with Glass, such as photos taken with the 5-megapixel camera, walking or public transit directions, emails, text messages to your Bluetooth-connected smartphone and more.
But Glass is all about the voice commands, so stay on the home screen (which shows nothing but the time) and say “ok Glass”. This is the phrase used to get Glass’ attention, which then serves up a list of suggestions for what to say next, such as “take a picture,” “record a video,” “get directions to…,” “call,” “send a message to…,” and many others.
Glass can understand a wide range of accents and isn’t distracted by background noise - although talking to Glass on a busy bus might raise a few eyebrows. A problem - and I use that word reluctantly, given this is a prototype and not on sale to the general public - is that Glass can get confused over who is talking to it. Stand near the wearer, say “ok Glass” and you have control. Similarly, when dictating a text message or email, Glass occasionally confused my voice for that of someone else in the office.
Getting Glass to take a photo or find directions to the nearest pub feels like pure science-fiction. It’s almost the same as asking your phone to do it, but seeing a map floating in your field of vision, rotating as you turn, is on an entirely different level compared to looking at your phone.
Firstly, Glass’ interface does not fill your entire field of vision. This isn’t really a head-up display - instead, the projected image is something close to holding a smartphone about a foot away from your right eye. What you see is transparent - making it difficult to see clearly when you look at a bright light - but beautifully sharp and easy to read in the right light. Looking up and to the right feels (and certainly looks) unnatural, but you get used to it after a few hours. No one would read a book with Glass, and although there is a web browser, it is fiddly to use and, again, this isn’t the place to read anything longer than a short email.
What Glass aims to do is get out of your way, acting as a tool to discreetly notify you of incoming messages and the like without you needing to reach for your phone. To that extent, Glass works perfectly. Wearing Glass in the office I would be alerted to incoming texts and emails with a sound through the bone-conduction speaker, followed by the message appearing. It’s super simple, and while it isn’t necessarily better than looking at your phone to check the same thing, it works well as a hands-free alternative.
For now, what Glass can do is very limited. Google has created the product and offloaded the work to developers, who have each paid $1,500 (£890) for Glass and spent the last few months creating applications for it. Some of these have the potential to become successful businesses - but only if the production version of Glass is a success.
When Glass went on sale to developers a year ago its name wasn’t entirely accurate. There may be some glass in the prism, but the device beared very little resemblance to a pair of glasses. To address this, and help make Glass more socially acceptable - as well as an appealing gadget to glasses wearers - Google has designed a number of frames.
The Glass I borrowed came with the ‘Thin’ frames - one of four different styles available to all Glass owners, or ‘Explorers’ as Google calls them. My Glass came with plain lenses, but it is possible to fit prescription and/or tinted lenses for those who need them.
Swapping the titanium band and nose rest for a proper frame transforms Glass from a device that would look most at home on the set of the new Star Wars film, to a gadget that is not only recognisable as a pair of glasses, but a stylish pair of glasses at that.
Google still has a long way to go before Glass looks ‘normal’, but by striking a deal with Luxottica Group - the company behind Oakley and Ray-Ban - it is at least heading in the right direction, and the intention is clear. Google wants Glass to be a mainstream success, not merely a niche product owned by a geeky few.
I can’t emphasis enough how much of a difference adding a conventional frame and lenses makes to Glass. During my three days with Glass I couldn’t help but pick it up, examine every detail and, most importantly, wear it. I used Glass for hours at a time and, although I’ve never worn glasses, I got used to it resting on my face. The main unit does obscure your right eye slightly, but just as you get used to smartphones with smaller or larger screens, you get used to Glass.
No. Glass is undeniably a beautiful and revolutionary piece of technology. To anyone who is vaguely interested in gadgets, Glass is simply irresistible. Everyone wants to try it and everyone wants a photo of them wearing it. But, for now, Glass does little to actually improve your life. It isn’t a gimmick - that would be unfair, considering the obvious work Google has put in here - but there isn’t yet an obvious reason to buy one. Yes, it looks cool, but no, I’m not sure I would ever feel comfortable wearing it in public. Google has a chicken-and-egg problem – everyone likes Glass, but no one will buy it and wear it until everyone else is wearing one.
Glass is fun to show off to friends and colleagues, and receiving notifications on it feels more natural than checking your phone, but it needs to do an awful lot more. A smartphone has a primary use - it’s a phone and a means of contacting someone - but Glass doesn’t. It’s a device which compliments something we already have. It needs a Bluetooth or Wi-Fi connection to function, its battery life will struggle to get through a single day, and at $1,500 the current model (still a prototype, remember) is very expensive.
Developers have already shown how Glass can be used by surgeons, pilots and athletes alike, but Joe Public still needs convincing if Glass is going to be anything more than a niche product aimed at specific roles in a select few industries.
Google says a new version of Glass will be sold to the public later this year. It is expected to cost much less than the current model, while featuring improved specifications and a wider range of features. Only then will we know if Google’s massive wearable gamble has paid off - for now Glass remains a product admired by the many, but genuinely useful to the very few.