I put on my Glass for the first time on May 10th, 2013. A lot has changed since then. 20 software releases and 15 months later, Glass, and wearables in general, are still in their infancy. Today is still day one in the next wave of personal computing – and the alarm clock hasn’t even gone off yet.
I’m used to being an early adopter, but being a Glass Explorer is different than being the first to buy any other consumer device. The Explorer program – essentially a paid public beta for Google’s first head wearable platform – is unlike any other program that comes to mind. Along with 50,000 or so other Explorers, I’ve essentially become a walking spokesperson for Google over the past year – something I’m generally happy to do. I think the public reactions I get from wearing Glass nicely sum up the general public sentiments about the device: excitement, curiosity, and often, confusion. I’ve given over a hundred demos of Glass and answered an order of magnitude more questions about it. The questions I can’t answer are perhaps the most significant – when is a consumer version coming out, and how much will it cost? The road to consumer release for Glass has been rather long, and people are noticing.
In the Internet echo chamber, the fact that Glass includes a front-mounted camera apparently causes people to raise concerns about their privacy that purportedly do not exist with the 1 billion camera-equipped phones on this planet. I personally have not interacted with anyone who shared these concerns. That’s not to say these people don’t exist, just that I haven’t encountered them personally. That said, I think this general sentiment from the news media will have a role to play in determining the success or failure of Glass as a widespread consumer product. Its success in industry verticals like medicine, manufacturing, and field work is unlikely to be impacted.
From a product perspective, the trajectory of Glass has been very inconsistent. From May till about November of last year, Glass received updates approximately every month with generous feature additions, and importantly, API improvements, with the addition of the GDK (allowing native Android apps) coming at the end of the year. Then, there were no updates for several months as the Glass software team migrated the device from Android 4.0 Ice Cream Sandwich to the newest version, 4.4 KitKat. The first KitKat release was a huge regression in performance and stability. I became frustrated with the device during this time, and my usage of the device decreased from using it for the majority of every day to perhaps once a week. The good news, though, is that recent Glass updates have brought Glass back to the speedy performance it originally had. And from a development perspective, the benefits of being on a recent Android release are substantial.
On a daily basis, my most frequent uses of Glass are reading and responding to Emails and Hangouts messages, checking Calendar events, reading tweets from Twitter users that I’ve enabled notifications for, taking pictures, checking stocks, and checking weather. When I’m heading to class, I often plug in earbuds and listen to Google Play Music or Pandora (I love having earbuds connected to Glass – I never have to worry about a long tangled cord running to my backpack or pocket). I am a heavy Evernote user and sometimes use Evernote on Glass for brief text notes (I wish their app offered more functionality, like reading or browsing notes).
When I’m traveling somewhere new, I make frequent use of Glass’s excellent heads-up navigation for walking and driving, the Google Now cards for nearby restaurants, the Field Trip app for information about nearby points of interest, and the Parking card functionality to figure out where I parked and how to get back there. I’m not a frequent poster on social media but I occasionally post photos directly from Glass to Twitter, Facebook, or Google+ (I sometimes edit them on my phone and post them to Instagram, something that can be accomplished in a few clicks).
Many of the current apps on Glass provide a subset of experiences that are available on other platforms. But the most compelling feature of Glass is its form factor. I took great pictures hiking Mission Peak earlier this summer that I just wouldn’t have been able to take, or wouldn’t have bothered to take, if I had to fumble with my phone.
There are as many items in the ‘cons’ column as there are pros. Glass battery life has been a roller coaster over the past year; with the current software revision, it lasts a serviceable eight hours in my normal usage patterns. But that’s short enough to be inconvenient. My solution is to plug Glass into my laptop while I’m working somewhere on campus, or next to my desktop at home, so by the time I’m ready to leave for somewhere, Glass has enough battery to last through whatever I have to do. Like any smartphone, screen-on time and camera usage are the two biggest battery culprits. Because Glass doesn’t fold, there isn’t an easy way to store it aside from the large carrying case. So if I don’t have a bag with me, I typically must leave Glass on all the time (this typically makes sense, however – I have frames and prescription transition lenses that turn Glass into perfect eyewear for both inside and out). From a performance standpoint, Glass has fallen behind the cutting edge – the two year old TI OMAP SoC can’t match the speed and smoothness of modern smartphone chips (and it’s more power hungry too). The Glass display would be more useful if it offered more screen real estate like the Epson Moverio, or even changed the visible screen size based on the application. While I personally don’t mind the appearance of Glass, a consumer release is far more likely to succeed of the device is smaller and more closely resembles a pair of normal glasses.
Google is no stranger to public betas (Gmail was in beta for five years!). But there is inherently greater level of risk in thrusting an unproven device into the public eye. It’s been rewarding to play a part in this experiment in figuring out what the next billion personal devices will look like. In several hackathon projects, I’ve experimented with auto generating timelapses, providing contextual information about a place on Glass with Bluetooth LE beacons, and creating a real-time feed of information for students during a lecture. I’m looking forward to the next four months of focused Glass development in my Glass class at USC Annenberg to figure out what information capture and consumption looks like on the most personal computer yet.