Google Glass review
“Whenever I’m shown something, like Google Glass – I put it on, and somewhat got an idea of what it did. The first thing I did was imagining what it would look like in the display cabinet beside the cash register in a thrift shop – I try to imagine how they’ll look in ten years time. It’s a very good exercise for putting it in perspective. In a charity shop you’ll find all the once-new technology, gathering dust as all things do. And it’s not as though the stuff in the charity shop didn’t radically change the world, at some point.” William Gibson, 2014
Imagine a future where smartphones, tablets and physical devices are yesterday’s news, a world in which the internet isn’t at your fingertips, but instead is beamed directly onto your retina. We’re not quite there yet, but Google Glass is a first step towards a science-fiction concept made real; a device that attempts to blur the lines between our online and real-life experiences like nothing before. And now, finally, it’s available in the UK.
Google Glass review: design
It’s impossible to mistake Glass for a traditional set of spectacles. Prised straight from its minimalist, understated packaging, it isn’t actually fitted with any lenses at all – a strip of titanium stretches from ear to ear, interrupted by bold accents of coloured plastic that wave along Glass’ right edge. Up front, the distinctive cube of plastic that comprises the heads-up display – the window to Google’s vision of the future – juts out.
It’s impossible not to admire the ingenuity of the design. The stuff that makes Glass tick – the tiny projector, the processor, the camera, the battery and storage – is crammed into the plastic housings on the right edge. The telltale glint of a camera lens hides in the rounded plastic surround, and the intriguing transparent prism, on which Glass projects its heads-up display, curves around in front of the right eye. It bears all the hallmarks of a Star Trek prop made real.
Despite the asymmetric design, Glass doesn’t feel uncomfortable to wear. At 43g, it’s is a little heavier than a standard pair of spectacles, but it’s surprisingly easy to forget you’re even wearing it – it often wasn’t until we received lingering stares or remarks from colleagues that we remembered we had it on. The domino-sized counterweight nestles comfortably behind the ear, serving to balance the weight of the hardware within, and the titanium frame makes it possible to bend the nosepiece so that it sits comfortably on the bridge of the nose. Google also provides a couple of different-sized spare rubber nose pads to help you get the fit just right, and offers a variety of pricey clip-on frames and shades to help Glass look more ordinary; thankfully, you get your choice of one of these for free.
Google Glass review: behind the Glass
In terms of its raw capabilities, Glass is truly multitalented. A tiny projector hidden within beams a 640 x 360 resolution image into the prism; this then appears as a semi-transparent display floating in the upper corner of your right eye’s vision. Rather opaquely, Google describes Glass’ display as being the equivalent of a 25in, high-definition screen viewed from eight feet away. In other words, Glass’ display appears big enough to remain legible without significantly obscuring your vision and is sufficiently clear to display a limited amount of at-a-glance information.
Glass can do more than display the occasional Facebook or Twitter update, however – much more. Bone-conduction technology sends audio directly through your skull (although a mono earbud comes bundled, too); there’s an integrated microphone; the built-in gyroscope, compass and GPS give Glass the ability to track movements in three dimensions; and the camera can capture 5-megapixel images and record 720p video. Glass can even detect when you blink. It sounds a little sinister, but it’s capable of tracking your every move.
Google Glass review: setup and operating system
Perhaps surprisingly, Glass isn’t just a companion to an Android smartphone (although it works best as such). For example, it’s possible to tweak settings and install apps by accessing the MyGlass portal through a browser on a PC or a Chromebook. The MyGlass app is available for iOS, too, but Windows Phone users aren’t accommodated.
For each platform, the setup process is slick and straightforward. Short videos show you how to wear Glass, adjust the prism display and connect via Bluetooth or Wi-Fi.
Initially, you’re greeted with an ultra-minimalist homescreen that floats the time and the keyphrase “ok glass” in front of your vision. Say “ok glass” and a list of available voice commands hoves into view. Moving your head up and down scrolls through the list; speaking a command activates it. As you install apps, this list gets longer and extra phrases become available.
Google has also squeezed a functional touchpad into Glass’ right-hand edge. One-fingered forward and backward flicks of the touchpad move through menus; two-fingered swipes zoom in and out of web pages; downward swipes act as the back button; and tapping selects an option. It sounds fiddly, but it soon becomes second nature.
The homescreen fades away after a few seconds, but you can wake Glass with a tap on the touchpad. It’s also possible to toggle On-Head Detection, which activates Glass when you put it on, or Head Wake Up, which detects when you tilt your head backwards. By default, Head Wake Up wakes Glass when you tilt your head back 30 degrees, but we quickly notched this down to around 12 degrees: this makes it easier to activate Glass without emulating a severe facial tic, and also makes it possible to use it without crashing on the cycle to work.
Google Glass review: apps
At the time of writing, Google’s Glassware roster consisted of 72 apps. All the core Google apps you’d expect are there – Search, Maps, Gmail, Google Now, Google Play Music, Hangouts and YouTube appear in some shape or form – and big hitters such as Facebook and Twitter are accompanied by popular apps such as Strava, Foursquare and Shazam.
Installing apps really couldn’t be much simpler: it’s as easy as flicking a switch in MyGlass to turn them on. Some provide new voice command options – for instance, Field Trip adds “Explore nearby”, Word Lens adds “translate this” and Strava offers “Start a bike ride” and “Start a run” – for launching them without needing to use the touchpad.
Glass displays information in the form of cards to make the most of its limited screen resolution and size. You can see key information at a glance, but you’ll need to use the touchpad to explore further or cycle through each app’s options.
Swipe backwards from Glass’ homescreen, meanwhile, and Google Now, Calendar and Weather cards give rapid access to key information, as well as Glass’ settings menu. Swipe forward and you’re presented with an ever-growing feed of recent apps, news items, messages and photos from the past seven days. Individual items can be dismissed with a couple of swipes and taps, but there’s no easy way to clear items en masse.
One apparent absentee is a browser – which makes sense, as Glass’ screen is far too small to make browsing the web a pleasant experience. You can find web pages via Google Search, however, and use two-fingered strokes on the touchpad to zoom in and out.
Google Glass review: looking through Glass
For all its potential, Glass is resolutely a beta product. Google couches it in fluffy terms – describing users of its beta program as Glass Explorers is a canny piece of marketing, for instance – but one obvious sign of its immaturity is how frustratingly inconsistent it is in day-to-day use.
At its best, Glass comes close to eliciting the kind of open-mouthed amazement normally reserved for only the most futuristic, cutting-edge technology. It’s rare for us to be excited by Google Maps, but our first experience with Glass perfectly demonstrated its strengths: a map of local streets floated into view, locked in perfect synchronisation with every twist and turn of the head. It’s a similar story with apps such as Star Chart, which use Glass’ GPS, compass and head-tracking abilities to pinpoint every star in the sky with a jaw-dropping augmented reality overlay.
Then come the grating bits. We encountered a whole gamut of issues, from laggy behaviour and ignoring voice commands through to the occasional complete lock-up – we reset Glass on a couple of occasions.
The occasional bouts of deafness were by far Glass’ most annoying trait. Even in a quiet office or a home environment, we regularly found Glass unresponsive. This elicited repeated taps of the touchpad or head movements to wake it, followed by saying “ok glass” with increasing levels of frustration.
There’s a solution, though: pronounce “glass” with a short “a” (“glas”), rather than a long “ah” (“ɡlæs”). In fact, the same goes for any voice command that has a similar American pronunciation – the Livestream app’s “Start Broadcasting” command gave us similar problems at first, for example. We still didn’t find Glass’ voice recognition 100% reliable, but it’s much improved if, where necessary, you attempt to pronounce words with an American lilt.
Glass often struggles to keep its cool. Record a few minutes of video or use it for any length of time, particularly while relying on a Bluetooth data connection, and the housing heats up to the touch. On hotter days, we also encountered warning messages indicating that Glass was overheating; it continued working, but performance degraded noticeably, with responsiveness the primary casualty.
Even when it isn’t suffering from heat issues, lag regularly rears its head. When adding captions to pictures, or dictating messages or status updates, the tendency for Glass to insert a pregnant pause often made us repeat ourselves or stop mid-flow. Of course, this results in incomplete or duplicated messages, and, unless you swipe down on the touchpad in the two seconds before Glass sends the message, those garbled messages are sent immediately. It’s incredibly annoying.
Glass is also fussy about haircuts. To its credit, the touchpad remains semi-responsive while hidden by a mop of hair, but it leads to taps being mistaken as swipes and vice versa. Hair flopping over the camera is another issue, and here the only solution is to conspicuously hold your hair out of the way while filming or taking pictures. We wonder whether Google should include a matching hairband for more hirsute Glass users.
The hardware suffers from other issues in day-to-day use, too. The display, for instance, quickly washes out in bright light, and its proximity to the eye meant we often struggled to focus on it after a few minutes of use. We suspect that, given the huge variations in people’s eyesight, not everyone will find Glass a comfortable experience.
Even battery life is poor. In light use, merely using Glass to check our incoming messages or taking the odd photo, we rarely got more than five hours of use before needing to reach for the charging cable; start recording video and the battery won’t even last an hour. Google claims the battery lasts for “one day of typical use”, but clearly it has some way to go until all-day battery life is a reality.
It’s possible to pin some of Glass’ failures on the hardware itself, but the apps are also to blame. Indeed, while the navigation features, Google Now and the feed of soundbites from email and social networks all work to Glass’ strength – its ability to present key information quickly and unobtrusively without requiring you to reach for your smartphone or look at a smartwatch – other apps are ill-suited to Glass’ low-resolution display. It feels like developers are a long way from developing what Glass needs most: a handful of confident, killer apps.
Google Glass review: verdict
Despite its many faults, Glass remains a breath of fresh air. Born into a world of me-too gadgets and identikit smartphones, it’s daring and different – at its very best, inspiringly so. We’ll happily admit there were more than a few moments where our negative preconceptions and healthy reserves of cynicism were transformed into downright admiration. Google has struck out in a bold, new direction, and we can understand why the concept has caught people’s imagination.
By far the most off-putting thing about Glass, though, is the cost. It’s eye-wateringly expensive. At £1,000, Google has set a stinging admission price for anyone who aspires to be a Glass Explorer. And, no matter which way you cut it, that money is buying you a beta product, a thrilling mess of untapped potential and immature hardware, more hi-tech toy than functional tool.
So, is Google Glass the future? Right now, it’s impossible to tell – but as PC Pro is now a fully signed-up Glass Explorer, we’re genuinely thrilled to see what the coming months and years have in store. As with smartphones, and the nascent trend for smartwatches, it’s the apps that will make all the difference. In a few years, we may look back and wonder what could have been – or Google Glass will be staring back at you everywhere you look. Place your bets now.