Most companies conduct their experiments behind closed doors. If, say, a new iPhone hits store shelves, then chances are the dirty work has been done and it's already pretty polished. But Google is very different, sometimes letting the public join in on the beta testing fun. Gizmag recently joined Google's US$1,500 smartglasses beta program, and though we're still a ways off from a full Google Glass review, these are our early impressions.
Google describes its Google Glass early adopters as "Explorers," and I think that's a pretty fitting label. Based on my first days with Glass, I can say that using it is definitely unlike anything I've done before. This isn't a subtle nudge towards progress. Glass is Google's forceful bulldoze into the future, and when you join that crusade, you do feel a bit like Ponce de León, Neil Armstrong, or James T. Kirk. Only much funnier-looking.
Yep, Glass very noticeably changes your appearance. Unlike a smartphone, which you can slip into your pocket, or even a smartwatch, which can be easily hidden behind a sleeve, Google Glass makes its presence known to anyone within sight of you. And there's really no way around this. If you have longer hair or wear hats, the effect is a little more subtle. But on a bald head like mine with nothing to distract from it? There will be stares.
In these early stages of "Exploring," I think that self-consciousness is the biggest obstacle to embracing the Google Glass experience. I find myself thinking twice before wearing it out, wondering if this dinner or this trek to the supermarket is worth drawing the stares and questions, or whether I'd rather save that for another trip.
I don't think Glass looks bad. It's comfortable to wear, and is probably about as fashionable as a face-computer can be in 2013. I definitely feel like I just enlisted in the first stages of the Robocop program, or perhaps as a chief engineer on the starship Enterprise, but I think it looks alright. Most people's first reaction involves some kind of wrinkling of the brow (whether out of curiosity or abhorrence). But then again, maybe people reacted that way to the first prescription glasses, piercings, or shaved heads. Now those are all accepted styles in most cultures, and, who knows, maybe devices like Glass will be one day too.
For society to embrace smartglasses, though, the devices are going to have to do some pretty damn cool stuff to make it worth our while. Right now Glass is a mixed bag in that respect, as you'd expect a beta product to be. But it's also undeniably oozing with potential.
As I'm writing this, I heard a chirp in my right ear (though technically I heard vibrations that traveled through the right side of my skull). I lifted my head to about a 30° angle to turn the screen on, and saw that I had a new text message. I read the text, tapped on a link, decided I'd handle it later, and went back to writing. Hardly world-changing stuff, especially when you're already sitting at a computer. But when you consider that I could have done that whether I was driving (while still paying attention to the road, of course), running a marathon, or skydiving out of a plane, you start to see the potential here.
But I don't think notifications alone make smartglasses worth all the gawking you'll endure. Most of the early smartwatches handle notifications well too, only they don't wrap a long plastic bar around the side of your head. For me the biggest reason to get excited about Glass is, well, Google.
You might already know that you activate the voice control portion of Glass by saying "OK Glass" from the device's main screen. The list of things it directly responds to is pretty limited right now (stuff like sending messages, taking pictures, or getting directions). But if you add a "Google" onto that ("OK Glass, Google how tall is Kevin Durant?"), you plug your query into the world's biggest search engine. And with Google search now answering more and more questions with direct answers (in addition to the tried-and-true web results), well, you can see where this could really shake things up.
If a smartphone is like having the web in your pocket, then Google Glass is like having the entirety of Google in your field of vision. No matter where you are, no matter what you're doing, as long as you're wearing Glass, the world's vast reservoirs of knowledge are available to you. This really feels like a first baby-step in the direction of things like connected contact lenses or computer brain implants. I joke about the cyborg thing, but that's really what we're doing here. Any knowledge you seek is just waiting to be displayed in the upper-right part of your field of vision.
Whether humanity as a whole actually goes in that direction is anyone's guess. The potential benefits are obvious, but so are the pitfalls. Can computers become intertwined with our eyesight without disconnecting us from, well, life? Will others always wonder whether you're really experiencing the moment with them or just checking the score of the Lakers game? Even worse, will people constantly worry that you're taking pictures of or recording them?
These kinds of questions will probably follow Glass for a while, and we'll keep revisiting them too. But my first impressions of Glass are that it's the boldest product I've ever used ... and maybe also the most terrifying. Its potential reaches far beyond typical consumer lust, but gaining that mainstream acceptance might also be its biggest challenge.
We're going to have much more to share about Google Glass in the coming weeks, so be sure to stay tuned.