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Quick Start to Understanding Google Glass

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The Google Glass is a wearable technology that puts augmented reality literally on your head and beamed directly into your retina? Does that sound scary? Because the devices are relatively rare and quite expensive, few people have actually field-tested the units. I own a pair, and I'd like to teach you how Glass works and explain some of the neat capabilities of the device.
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Well, more than a year ago, I filled out a form on the Google website expressing interest in evaluating Google Glass, the company's "Google X" wearable tech device. To be honest, I never expected to hear back from Google about this. Imagine my surprise when, in December 2013, I received an invitation in the mail to purchase Google Glass. (If you're interested, Figure 1 shows the invitation e-mail message.)

Figure 1 My invitation to join the Google Glass Explorer program

Unfortunately, simply being invited to participate in the Google Glass Explorer program wasn't enough to receive a pair. No, the invitation allowed me to cash in a validation code and fork over $1,500 (!) to have a pair shipped to me. Mind you, the Glass is far from being in a production-ready state, as you'll learn later in this article.

If I had to do it all over again, would I spend the money? In short, no. The preview version of Google Glass is not worth almost $2,000. The silver lining is that I can get my money back by selling the device on eBay; actually, that is precisely what I'm going to do after I submit this article for publication.

My goal in writing this piece is not to bash on Google Glass. To be sure, Glass has some great features that will be even better when Google smooths out all the rough edges. I just happen to know a lot of people who have either no idea or a vague notion of how the Glass actually works, so this article is aimed at those individuals.

What Exactly Does the Google Glass Do?

Google Glass is a nifty example of wearable tech, or "augmented reality" as it is also called. Basically, with the Glass you have a computer monitor running above your right eye. The display resolution is (on average) fairly bright, runs at 640x480, and according to Google is equivalent of standing 8 feet in front of a 25-inch high-definition screen.

We'll talk about how Glass works physically in the next section. For now, simply know that to make Glass "go" and do its stuff, you need to pair the device with your Android or iOS smartphone using Bluetooth. Remember that Google owns Android, so you can get much better performance and flexibility if you use an Android device. The iOS support for Glass is simply "okay."

The Google Glass user interface (UI) can be thought of metaphorically as a kanban board. If you've used one of those, we're talking about several stacks of cards that can be navigated either horizontally or vertically. Figure 2 shows a representative Glass UI screen.

Figure 2 The Glass user interface works like you're navigating through multiple stacks of cards

So now you know two things about Glass: (1) It's computer technology that you wear on your head; and (2) you pair the Glass to your smartphone to get Glass Internet and phone access. Let me teach you some more. The bridge between the Glass hardware and your smartphone is an Android or iOS app called MyGlass. MyGlass serves as a conduit for Glassware, the cheekily named moniker for Google Glass first- and third-party software.

In my experience, I used the Glass' native capability to perform Google searches most of all. However, some of the Glassware apps (all free, at least at this point), allow you to do some cool things. For example, here are some representative Glassware apps that you can load into MyGlass and push to your Glass device:

  • CNN: Gives you excellent control over your news updates.
  • Evernote: Productivity fans will appreciate having access to their Evernote accounts from Glass.
  • Twitter/Facebook: I know I shouldn't lump these two social media powerhouse apps into a single entry, but they both accomplish the same basic goal--keeping you connected to people whom you know and/or respect.

Are you intrigued yet? Unfortunately, public acceptance of the Glass is far from universal. Google even published a list of Glass etiquette guidelines to help you avoid being branded a "Glasshole." In my view, it is indeed a bit creepy that I can take pictures and record video without anybody else knowing I'm doing it.

And we've read the news reports of police pulling drivers over who use their Glass to provide stuff like turn-by-turn navigation, traffic reports, and the like. Wearing the Glass in public gives you a full-fidelity experience of living in the world of cutting (some say "bleeding") edge technology.

Now that you have an initial idea as to what the Glass is all about, let's turn our attention to the device as a physical entity.

How Exactly Does the Google Glass Work?

Take a look at Figure 3, which shows you the Glass from the front.

Figure 3 Front view of the Google Glass

Do you see the lens in annotation A? That camera can shoot 5-megapixel still pictures and 720p-quality high-definition video. Because you have to have a Google account to use the Glass (you shouldn't be surprised at this), all your pictures and movies automagically appear in your Google+ profile.

The most eye-popping (pun intended) feature of Glass is, er, the glass prism (annotation B). This little "ice cube" is actually a tiny video projector that reflects its image 90 degrees and focuses it directly onto your retina. Thus the resulting video overlay is aided in its brightness and definition by the ambient light that hits the prism from your environment.

The nose pads that you see in annotation C lead to what is an Achilles heel for me as a prescription eyewear wearer--the Glass works fully only for those who either have 20/20 vision or who wear contact lenses. I had a tough time cramming the Glass over my glasses. The good news is that Google is working with several high-profile frame makers and is planning to sell both prescription and nonprescription varieties of the Glass.

The challenge of making Glass prescription eyewear is the electronics that is built into the right bow of the device (annotation D). That's why you can't simply remove the prism from a standard Glass unit and glue it onto your prescription eyeglass frames.

Look at Figure 4, which shows you what I see when I look out from my backyard deck and ask the Google for the current temperature:

Okay, Glass. What is the current temperature?

Figure 4 A vignette that gives you an idea how the Glass prism overlay works in practice

Oh yeah--another thing. You wind up talking to your Glass a lot to give it instructions. More on that in a bit. In case you're confused, Figure 4 shows you what I see overall (annotation A) as well as the augmented reality overlay produced by Glass (annotation B). Yes, it takes some getting used to having audiovisual input available to you as you walk, drive, converse with others, or simply lounge around.

Figure 5 shows you an annotated interior view of Glass.

Figure 5 Inside view of the Google Glass

The silver button in annotation A is used to take pictures or record video. Short-press the button to take a still picture of whatever you are looking at; long-press to record a 10-second video clip. Long-press the button while recording to extend your video indefinitely. The Glass includes 12 GB of built-in flash disk storage, and as I said before, most of the content automatically syncs to your Google+ profile anyway.

The section of the bow in annotation B contains the "guts" of the device, including the central processing unit (CPU), flash storage, and global positioning system (GPS) transceiver. The outside of this piece is actually a touch panel that allows you to navigate the Glass UI with your fingers; we'll cover that feature more in a moment.

The button in annotation C is our power switch. Long-press to turn Glass on; you'll see a small LED illuminate at the end of the bow to let you know that something is happening. While Glass is running, short-press the button to put Glass in standby, and long-press to turn off the unit completely.

The Glass "button" in annotation D is not actually a button. Instead, this is what Google calls a bone-conduction transducer. The Glass can play low-fidelity audio (for your voice calls, YouTube videos, you name it) by projecting the vibrations directly into your skull. Cool, eh?

Finally, that big bump shown in annotation E is the battery. In my experience, the Glass produces a LOT of heat, so you'll feel a bit toasty around the ear region with this bad boy so close to your head. I'm sure that Google will optimize the heat transfer of the device as it moves closer to production. We must always keep in mind that the Glass Explorer is little more than a prototype unit at this point.

Using the Glass Day to Day

Speaking of that big battery, I find that the battery life in my Explorer unit is terrible. Within 30 minutes of use, the status card shows a 40 percent drop in battery life. Frankly, I'm not sure if that is a programming bug, or if the Glass truly sucks battery power that greedily. In any event, I find that I have the Glass on its charger whenever I'm not actively using it to make sure I've got power. Figure 6 shows you the power plug.

Figure 6 The Google Glass uses a proprietary charging cable with a standard USB interface

Although the transformer of the Glass power cable looks to be proprietary, the cable itself uses a traditional micro USB connector on one end and the standard A-type connector on the other end.

As I mentioned at the outset of this article, setting up your Glass involves pairing the device with your Android or iOS smartphone by using Bluetooth and the free MyGlass app. After you accomplish the pairing (which also involves connecting to your Wi-Fi network or using your smartphone's carrier data connection for Internet access), you are ready to load some Glassware on your device and get rockin'.

Figure 7 shows the iOS Glassware Gallery; the user experience in Android is the same.

Figure 7 The MyGlass app includes the Glassware Gallery, where you can install first- and third-party software on your device

As I mentioned earlier, you can navigate through the cards of the Glass UI by using touch gestures. Specifically, you swipe your finger forward, backward, up, and down on the outer band of the Glass. Alternatively, you can use the "Okay, Glass" syntax to give the Glass voice commands. I'll tell you, it can be embarrassing walking through a store, saying "Okay Glass, when does Target close today?" in front of curious and occasionally suspicious onlookers.

Standing in my garage, I looked at my motorcycle and said, "Okay, Glass. Google '2012 Suzuki V-Strom.'" As you can see in Figure 8, I instantly had information at my fingertips...er...in my eyeball.

Figure 8 The Google Glass puts useful data literally right in front of you, at your voice command

Or perhaps watching funny cat videos as I walk through my home, as shown in Figure 9?

Figure 9 The Google Glass makes you a master of multitasking

Here is an uncomprehensive list of some things you can say to Glass to get it to do stuff you need done:

  • Okay, Glass. Send a message to Susan Warner. This command sends an SMS text message to a recipient in your address book. Unfortunately, the SMS messaging functionality is available only to Android users.
  • Okay, Glass. Take a picture. Record a video. This command provides a hands-free alternative to tapping the silver button on the top of the Glass right bow.
  • Okay, Glass. Get directions to the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tennessee. Again, the turn-by-turn direction feature works only for Android smartphone users as of this writing in early 2014.
  • Okay, Glass. Google 'What is the distance from the Earth to the sun?' The Google integration in Glass is, as you might expect, stellar.
  • Okay, Glass. Make a call to Susan Warner. As long as you have your phone paired with Glass and your conversational partner is in your Google+ contacts list, you can have audio and/or video chats all day long.

Conclusion

In summary, I know I would enjoy the Glass more if Google had a version that worked with my prescription eyeglasses. As the device stands today, I certainly do not believe that it is worth $1,500. At any rate, the active rumor is that the final release version will cost between $300 and $600, which pleases me.

If you're an information junkie like me, then you'll enjoy having stuff like news headlines, weather and traffic reports, Twitter updates, and so forth piped directly to your retina. Other people may find the distraction unacceptable. No doubt about it--the Glass has some controversial implications. If you want to try out the Explorer model, then hit up eBay.com and perform a search--you'll find what you are looking for.

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