Google Glass: A Launch Review from 2013

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Google Glass: A Launch Review from 2013Cyrus Radfar
February 21, 2024

Google Glass, a breakthrough in wearable tech, had a remarkable launch in 2013 and this review covers the early wins and shortcomings.

I wrote this review on a tech blog in June of 2013 and re-posted for posterity. The Google Glass launch has enjoyed a renewed relevance since the recent release of the Apple Vision Pro.

After spending some time with Glass, I wanted to address questions I’ve received, provide tips for new Glass owners, and share some of the shortcomings of the alpha device. If you’re looking for a feature-by-feature breakdown or a teardown of the device, you won’t find it here.

The amazing thing about Glass is how curious everyone is about it. True, I’m in San Francisco, which is a geek Mecca; however, it still baffles me that strangers will stop me on the street, ask to take an expensive device off my face, try it on, and after all that ask me to take a picture of them with their phone.

This experience happened nearly a dozen times a few nights ago and it inspired me to start putting my thoughts in writing.

Here are some of the first questions people asked.

Is the monitor hanging up there distracting?

As a person who has worn prescription glasses his entire life, it took about 30 minutes to get used to it and completely phase it out of my vision. Adaptation may take a bit longer for people who have never worn glasses, but I can’t imagine more than an afternoon.

Is it disruptive or annoying?

No. It has proven to make my life easier and less distracted. For example, I was recently walking six blocks from my office to a friends place after work. I had a to-go cup of tea in my hand and was strolling along. On the way I:

1. Accepted a call from my Mom (as one would with a Bluetooth Jawbone) [ two taps to accept the call ]

2. Sent a text message to tell my friend “I am on my way.” [ three taps, and dictated: “I am on my way” ]

3. Got directions to the place I had to go to next so I could understand how far away it was. [ one tap, voice command, tap twice to stop ]

4. When I got near texted him to “come down and let me in.” [ three taps, voice command ]

5. In the thirty seconds I waited, I saw a poster for Outside Lands, snapped a photo, shared it to Path and said, “Who’s in?” [ one tap, voice command, four taps, dictated “Who’s in question mark” ]

I never missed a step, ran in to anyone, or had to pull myself over with my phone. Fifteen taps and a few words as I walked six blocks. I can recall seeing people distracted on their phones as I walked by, I said hi to people, and enjoyed being present in my surroundings as I executed all these tasks which normally pull me in my phone.

It felt like Glass was a friend walking next to me helping me through my tasks.

Do you feel like you look stupid?

Sure, but I feel dumb without Glass’ help. Glass and the heads-up display category, in general, need a lot more “sexy” and “cool” people using Glass. Too often, we’re seeing geeks wearing them, ranting about them, and people need to realize it can be useful for normals too.

My parents were capable of thinking smoking transformed them in to Humphrey Bogart or Lauren Bacall. Similarly, media informed me that smoking makes me look like a chimp. Marketing can do wonders for how socially acceptable a product is. Although the aesthetics will improve, we’ll need some help from movies, popular culture, marketing, and just awesome people using wearables to assuage the perceived social risk.

How’s the battery life?

The battery life is okay if you make sure to turn it off when it’s not in use, e.g. when you’re not out and about with it. Otherwise, it’s tethered and basically doing double duty with your phone. My phone which would normally need a mid-day charge, now makes it home above 30% after a 12 hour day. Like a phone, the display is the biggest drain on batter life, so taking phone calls don’t drain the battery like video or navigation. It does seem to charge quickly, so I can get a lot of time out of a quick 30 minute plug-in.

What’s the worst part?

Yes, I do often get this question from the half-empty crowd and I have two gripes.

First, voice dictation of texts, email responses, and Google searches isn’t great, especially in noisy environments or needing to dictate names. For example, I wanted to ask a friend, “Do you mind if I invite Nick” and the closest Glass could get it “Do you mind if I invite Nicole.” Names are tricky, and it’s an incredibly hard problem which I don’t think Google, or anyone for that matter, will solve in the next year before the final product is released more broadly.

Only have ten people can be selected on the Glass that you’re able to start a text message from your device. The reason is probably because of the voice dictation problem. When you’re sending a text, you say “Ok Glass. Send a text message to … [ Name ]” You have to sub-select ten people from your address book that it will pick from. This allows it to be quite accurate, but also limits the range of people you can start a conversation with from Glass. It’s important to note that if anyone messages you, you can respond, but you can’t start a conversation from scratch without them being stored on Glass. You can update the list from a computer or from your phone.

What’s the best feature?

I now prefer taking calls on it if I’m indoors and in a relatively quiet setting, but it’s a similar experience to using any Bluetooth headset. It works outdoors but I generally need to plug my right ear as it makes it easier to hear.

That said, the slickest part of the product for me is how quickly I can take a photo. A quick tap on the top button and the photo is taken nearly instantly. I find myself taking photos of a restaurant menu I may want to check out later, a sign for a place that opened, a poster or ad I want to remember, or just a street I enjoy. Taking out my phone to take a picture has always seemed like a task, but it still makes sense if I’m willing to take the minute to frame that epic Instagram photo. I’ve never been a QR-code fan, but the heads-up display form factor makes it practical and simple to take information in via QR.

Is It Worth $1600+?

If you’re a consumer who has no interest or hopes of building wearable technology, mobile products, or lack a vested interest in the future of mobile computing, then, probably not yet.

As a technologist, I considered it a requirement to get one as fast as possible so I could start understanding how it will impact the mobile landscape in 2-3 years.

How Glass Has Changed My Behavior

First, I no longer check my phone to look for updates. I went from checking my phone several times an hour to a few times a day. Glass notifies me as incoming messages come in and I can respond quickly with my voice or defer the message. I’m handling a lot more of my texts and personal communications in batches than I was before. For better or worse, I’m much less responsive as I’m not on my phone as much. This is a major shift and, if this is common at scale, could dramatically change what apps need to do to get our attention. All app notifications that don’t go to Glass have quickly become secondary as I often swipe them away on my notification queue to focus on the messages and Snapchats I need to respond to.

Second, I now respond via Glass which means I’m responding in short voice dictated responses. Any message I send has “| Sent from Glass” appended to it so the recipient can realize its origin and rationalize the brevity. I’m dequeueing a lot of messages this way which is saving me a lot of time. On my phone, I think more about crafting some witty response, but dictation is concise. We’ll see if I offend people, but at this point, it’s a great way to keep people from asking open-ended questions and trying to have a mid-day text message conversation.

Finally, I’m finding that I’m more present. I never have that feeling that I’m missing something or that I need to check my phone. There’s no more vibrating in my pocket, on my desk, or dings that distract me all day. It’s hard to describe this beyond saying I’m enjoying walking around with my phone consistently in silent mode.

Guidelines for Glass Owners

Social norms have emerged around mobile phone usage which dictate what’s socially acceptable. Glass, however, lacks rules so Dr. Thad Starner, the first cyborg (since ‘96), an advisor to the Glass project, and my former boss when I was an undergraduate researcher at Georgia Tech, began to share these tips on Google+:

  1. When going to a public bathroom or through a secure area where photos are not allowed, like an airport security line, tuck the display headpiece in your shirt collar. That avoids any issue with bystanders thinking that you might be recording. [link] Note that it’s not possible tuck away your headpiece with Glass as the display doesn’t detach.
  2. When [reading] the [display] during face-to-face conversation, make it part of the conversation. For example, “Hey Thad, are you available at 5pm?” “I don’t know, let me look at my Glass” (followed by looking up at the screen). Or “excuse me for a second, I see my wife is calling.” [link]
  3. When first beginning to wear a head-up display, conversational partners will ascribe many different aspects of your normal behavior to using the system. Do you look up and to the left when you think? Your friends will believe that you are looking at the display even when it is mounted to the right! Do you stare off into space pondering what you’ll have for lunch? Colleagues will think you are playing a video game. In about two weeks, co-workers will get a “mental model” of how you use your wearable computer. In the meantime, be patient, courteous, and give demonstrations of how the system looks while you are using it. [link]
  4. If ever asked by a policeman, a security officer, or TSA about your wearable, go into “demonstration mode.” Show them how to use it. Be enthusiastic and open. I have traveled to more than 40 countries and never had a problem following this approach. [link]

I like to keep it simple with all my devices. Like mobile phones, Glass presents a new set of distractions and the simplest way to handle every situation is just to take it off, or flip it up, and be present in the conversation.

  1. As you sit down to a meeting, take it off. Tell the person “I’m turning it off”, power it down, and then put it in your bag, or on the table. This is the same gesture that one would hope for with a mobile phone when you say, “hold on, I’m going to silence my phone” and turn in face down. It may be fine to keep it on (see Dr. Starner’s #3 above) for someone you know well, but it’s honestly too much to handle for a first impression which is already a very precarious situation to manage. Eye contact is so important to building a relationship and trust and, although it doesn’t distract the wearer, it definitely will take away their attention from the conversation.
  2. If you’re going to an event or bar and you’re going to be meeting new people, flip the glass over the top of your head like you would a pair of sunglasses when you’d go in-doors. This is the time where you can put your phone on vibrate and get the important, “where are you,” etc, messages from your phone. There’s no reason to keep it on other then to show-off your geek cred or take pictures without people’s permission.
  3. Share it! Strangers will stop you to ask questions and want to try it on. Be open and allow others to experience it. Glass has a feature called “demo mode” where it will add a bunch of fake data and pictures to your timeline to replace your private timeline. You can put it in this mode before taking it off so the other person can experience some nice photos and timeline cards. In most cases, they’ll want you to take a photo of them and share it, so let them have their moment. The more people who see others in it, the more accepted every Glass-wearer will be. Sadly, at this point, I don’t think accidental breakage is covered by the warranty, so have a good excuse like, “The battery is dead, or I’d be happy to show you,” when you don’t think they’re trustworthy (or sober).

Glass is Anti-Social

In most cases Glass can be as social (or anti-social) a device as a phone. We have all experienced the awkward situation when your friend or collegue looks at their phone, notices a text, unlocks their phone, laughs, starts texting back, at some point realizes you’re still there and says, “hold on, this is important.”

Let’s imagine I receive a text notification to my Glass from a friend who wants to see a movie. If I need to respond I can, (a) kill the conversation, pull my phone out and respond privately or (b) tell the people I’m with, “Hey, my friend, John, asked if I can go to a movie and I am going to tell him I’m busy.” Then you can tap on the text on Glass and respond with voice: “I can’t make it tonight.” My friend recieves the text “I can’t make it tonight|Sent from Glass” which will tell him that I’m on the go (hence the short response).

Similarly, if you want to take a picture, you can ask the people at the table. “Hey, do you mind if I take your picture.” If they say yes, you activate Glass with a tap and say “Ok Glass. Take a picture.” The same goes for recording a video. The voice activation allows those around you to understand what you’re doing as you speak in commands that are understandable. “Get directions to…,” “Google…”, “Send a text message to…[name]…[message]”, etc.

Oh No, Glass is a Privacy Nightmare

Yep, and so are mobile phones. The biggest privacy risk to non-users of Glass is that it’s hard to tell if the video camera is on and that it can take a photo with a quick tap. Neither of these gestures are known (yet) as they are with a mobile phone camera.

Taking photos in a public setting shouldn’t be an issue as people can and already do that with their phone. A miscreant could snap a quick shot of a lady he admires walking in front of him. In a more severe case where a person is a peeping-Tom or (whatever the feminine version is), I’d think Glass is overkill for them and honestly isn’t well suited as it’s on their face. So if they want to record people in the bathroom — they’d need to stare at someone which is not exactly going to be accepted by their friendly peeing partner. If they want to take a video of a changing room, they’d need to walk in the room and stare. It’s not like the creepy Go-Pro in the duffel bag or button spy cameras they could buy in an airline magazine.

With respect to data privacy, the data is stored and transmitted with the same policies which hold for mobile phones. So there are no new major problems created.

Cue the NSA PRISM joke.

Some Design Shortcomings

Although I’m bullish on wearables, the current form factor isn’t ready for the mass market just yet. There are some use cases that it doesn’t handle.

  1. I can’t fold it. There are no hinges so I can’t take it off, hang it from my shirt, place it in my breast pocket, or stash it away in my pocket when, for example, I’m walking through a shady part of town.
  2. I can’t easily break down and clean the parts separately.
  3. I can’t re-skin the device based on what colors I’m wearing or my mood. Choosing a single color is a huge commitment!
  4. It’s not designed to attach to an existing set of prescription frames.
  5. There is no public indicator that video is recording. I’d love to see a red LED light that was present when a photo is taken or while a video is being recorded.
  6. It’s difficult to tell if the device is powered down. I generally look at my phone to see if there is no longer the Bluetooth tethering to confirm.
  7. If there is a volume control, I haven’t found it yet! Would love to be able to control it so I can hear calls better outside without plugging my ear.

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