Is Project Glass the future of wearable computing?

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We already gave you a glimpse into the wearables market, which seems poised to explode in 2013. Watches, bracelets and clippable gizmos of various shapes and sizes will serve as the building blocks for the wearables market over the next year or two, with some analysts predicting the market for these devices to top $1.5 billion in 2014.

When people have asked what I thought was interesting at CES, I’ve invariably told them about Pebble and every single one of them has initially responded with “But who wears a watch?” It’s a valid point; I haven’t worn a watch on a daily basis since I first got a cellphone over a decade ago. That didn’t stop me from backing Pebble and after seeing it in person at CES I’m more excited than ever to get my watch in a couple of weeks, but I’m on the extreme edge of Gen Y (or Millennials if you prefer) and thus may be an aberration. So while I think these watch-like wearables have a long and happy future ahead of them, it’s important to skate where the puck is going, and for wearables the prime candidate is coming from Google.

The concept

Google’s Project Glass made its debut back in April of 2012 with a video entitled “Project Glass: One day,” which showed a vision of an always on connected lifestyle that was at once enticing to some and a bit terrifying to others. It’s been viewed about 19 million times to date, so while it’s no South Korean pop sensation, there is definitely some interest. The video displayed a person going through their daily life with information constantly popping up in front of them such as the weather, messages, maps and even the ability to video chat through the unseen device. This torrent of information and interactivity was all seemingly handled by voice commands and everything ran smooth as silk without the user ever having to check out of the world around them.

Evolution of a prototype

But that of course was a concept video; the prototypes which started making appearances in the following weeks (most notably on Google Co-Founder Sergey Brin) brought things back to reality. In this early hardware it was clear that the camera, which made only a brief appearance in the concept video, was perhaps the primary focus and that at least some control of the device relied on touch. While the video depicted images popping up across your entire field of vision, one of the primary concerns with the concept and the basis for some parody videos, the actual device has a single screen affixed to what looks like a pair of glasses without the lenses and the images appear in the upper outside corner of the users vision.

Google I/O in June of 2012 was the real coming out party for Project Glass, with Google Co-Founder Sergey Brin interrupting a keynote to bring Project Glass on stage via a live stunt streaming video over a Google Plus Hangout. The stunt involved a dirigible, wing suits, mountain bikes, repelling and then more mountain bikes. (Seriously go watch it when you’re done here). Ridiculousness aside, this checked off another feature for the prototype that we saw in the concept video and that was the ability to video chat (via Google+ Hangout) from Project Glass. Google staffers also confirmed at that time that the prototypes had a menu system that wasn’t being shown off as well as that ability to receive text messages and notifications. The final piece of big news for Glass at I/O 2012 was the announcement that developers at the event would have the opportunity to buy an early “Explorer” version for $1,500 which would ship in 2013.

Fast forward to early September and Google Glass as Sergey Brin had taken to calling it appears on runways during New York fashion week and the Wall Street Journal’s Spencer Ante is one of the first non-Googlers to get a more complete walkthrough with the prototype from Sergey Brin himself. The fashion week turn produced this video, but Ante’s experiences were a bit more illuminating.

By saying “Ok, Glass” Ante was able to pull up the aforementioned menu system with icons allowing you to snap a photo, record video, use Google Maps or make a phone call. Those first two options were easy to operate and ran smoothly according to Ante, but unfortunately that was about it for this version of the prototype as mapping, phone and messaging were all absent. Brin indicated that these apps were all in development and simply not available on this specific unit. Ante said that while he found Glass cool, it was slightly disorienting and it caused him some discomfort as he found himself regularly closing the eye not viewing the screen.

I’ll get back to some of Brin’s comments from that interview, but that almost brings us up to the present for the prototypes. Things have been fairly quiet with Glass over the last few months and it only really emerged back onto the scene this week with the news that Google sent Project Glass hackathon invites to the developers that reserved their spot in line for Glass back at Google I/O. The hackathons are taking place January 28-29 in San Francisco and February 1-2 in New York. The developers will get their first crack at the Glass API (which they are calling Mirror) and will have the Glass hardware to play with on site. At the end of the second day the developers will be showing off their creations for some special guest judges. Assuming the groups aren’t put under an NDA we could be in for a flood of new information and impressions and we’ll certainly keep you updated on anything that comes out of those sessions.

The great Glass elevator pitch

Sergey Brin pulled out of the day to day operations of Google in 2011 as he went from being “President of Technology” to simply “Co-Founder” and according to his company bio he is “in charge of special projects”. You’ve probably noticed that he’s been front and center with Glass since the beginning and there’s little doubt that he is a driving force behind the project so when he speaks of his vision for Glass it’s worth taking notice.

I have always disliked the feeling that with technology I am spending a lot of my time and attention managing it… The notion of seamlessly having access to your digital world without disrupting the real world is very important.

– Sergey Brin to Spencer Ante of the WSJ

This quote harkens back to the concept video and while the prototypes don’t seem to be in a place to deliver that idealized experience it is clear that the notion of technology getting out of the way is front and center in Brin’s mind. His favorite feature of Glass according to the Ante interview is the time lapse camera which he could set to snap a pic every 10 seconds while he was playing with his kids which meant never having to worry about taking out his phone or camera to capture some moment with them.

Wearables are largely about this promise of separating us from the need to constantly have our faces buried in our phones or other devices without of course taking us away from our all important connected life and data. With the Pebble and other current gen wearables we are part of the way there, offloading the notifications so we can simply glance at our wrist and get back to whatever we are doing. This is an important step and as I said previously I’m excited to finally get my hands on Pebble to see just how effective this is in practice.

Glass seems to be the next logical step in that it removes that need to ever look away. The irony is of course that in order to get the technology out of the way you are putting a piece of hardware directly between you and the world.

Clouded Glass

Getting a functioning product to market is a challenge that I think Google can bring it’s resources to bear and solve, but whether or not the average consumer will come to it is a real question mark. The prototype will no doubt see further refinement before a commercial launch, but we are years away from it being truly unobtrusive for either the wearer or perhaps more importantly the people the wearer is interacting with in real life. Google has pointed to the beautiful photos that a user can obtain of a baby or child using Glass as it is far less likely to bother them than a camera, but anyone over the age of 3 is going to take notice. They’ll either wonder what it is that you’re wearing or if they know about Glass they will perhaps wonder if you are taking their picture, a video or whether you are really paying attention to them at all.

It’s wonderful that you can keep looking at the world while using Glass, but countless studies have demonstrated our inability to actually multitask. Considering our willingness to try multitasking when it requires that we do look away from the world I’m fearful of what some will do once freed from the concern that they are looking away. From a general safety standpoint it is probably an improvement, but it is still borrowing your attention. While the Glass prototypes aren’t the flood of information that is shown in the concept video it seems inevitable that users will push for that kind of functionality and at some point it seems like that dual data stream of real life and connected life may overwhelm rather than offer the relief that Brin envisions.

*Post image courtesy of Thomas Hawk

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This article was written by Sean Riley

Sean is the Editor at Large of Techgress and is obsessed with mobile computing in it's many forms. You can also find him over at Android and Me covering wait for it...Android. His arsenal at the moment includes a Samsung Galaxy Note II, an iPad mini, a Kindle Fire HD and a Samsung Galaxy Camera.

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