Posts Tagged ‘virtual reality’

Understanding Google Glass

Sunday, August 19th, 2012

Excited by Google Glass, I have been looking for some good analysis on the internet on what it means. Lots of people are willing to say “The possibilities are endless!”, but I am looking for more subtlety than that.

I guess I have to write my own analysis. This is a start at that effort. It is from the perspective of an wannabe early developer trying to understand the technology.

So what good is Project Glass?  I suspect there is some interesting thinking going on inside Google, but so far all they will say in public is “It takes pictures!”. (And, the auto-diary possibilities are certainly intriguing, if also scary.)  And?

Luckily, it is a fascinating question.

It looks like the technical features of initial Project Glass “Explorer Edition” are planned to be a lot like my Galaxy Nexus phone, though in a different form-factor and without any cell connection, and maybe not sharing any system software with Android. Anyway, theoretically my phone can do anything the first Glass can do, more or less, so thinking about smart phones is not completely misleading. [Prediction: To help early developers in need of expensive and rare on-your-face hardware, Google will release a Glass simulator that runs on Android phones.]

Google has said nothing about what a wearer sees, so let me try to understand Project Glass by thinking about information display first. Information display is a nice organizing principle. Here is my list of some interesting items, not everything will fall neatly into one category or another but I hope to cover all the stuff anyone will ever use a Glass device for. Or some of it.

Displaying off-topic information that has nothing to do with the location of the wearer.

This is traditional, low-bandwidth material. These are things that will fit in a “page”. (Remember “pagers”?  Not that long ago people used to carry them around, some doctors still do.)  New e-mail has arrived, stock prices, the ball score, breaking news from far away — or breaking news from around here (which starts to shade into having a local location aspects, where was that bank robbery?).

This can be important information (worth carrying a pager), information worth reaching into a pocket and looking down, but if I am already wearing a Glass device, more trivial status information can be offered. Because battery life is a concern probably the display is not on all the time, something notable will have to happen before it is worth burning the battery and interrupting the wearer.

Assuming that one is already wearing a Glass device and don’t need to reach into a pocket, the effortless availability of really small amounts of status information might be very valuable. Sports fans, market watchers, Twitter addicts, and news junkies are obvious beneficiaries, but normal people might might appreciate it, too.

Reality augmentation, information specific to the wearer’s location.

Examples (these are fun to dream up by the hundreds): Honey and the kids are still in line at Magic Mountain, over there, and will be for another 5-minutes; this place sells good grass-fed burgers and has public bathrooms; the Washington Monument is 555-feet tall and was completed in 1884; the bus is expected in 7-minutes; there is available parking in the garage on 7th (turn right at the next corner); the water is 12-feet deep here; the new Bond film has showings at 6:50 and 7:30; your gate is 36B, down that-a-way, you have 15-minutes, but you are boarding group D so no big rush; those raindrops you feel shouldn’t amount to anything keep weeding.

Where the first category was pager-era, this is smartphone-era information. Some is practical on a phone but much of it is again cumbersome (your hands are full as you get off the plane) or rude (we are eating a nice meal here) or illegal (but officer, I was looking for a parking space–Google is certain to design a reduced distraction mode for use while driving).

Because these are occasional uses (how many times in a day does any one person get off a plane looking for the next gate?), other than tourists sightseeing, it isn’t obvious to me that these uses are compelling enough to make it worth buying and wearing Glass devices. These uses might only be supporting players in the Glass ecosystem.

A technical note: For all augmentation ideas, remember that the first model Glass devices will not have a full overlay display. The display is high and to the side of one eye. There are a ton of good reasons for Google to embrace this compromise, they did the right thing.

Displaying orthogonal, alternate reality augmentation.

There will be a lot of cool games using Glass devices. Expect to see people out in public who are seeing mythical and imaginary things as they walk down the same street as you do. These games will be more social and physical than most current games. Think Wii with less precise motion sensing but a much bigger playing space.

Displaying unrelated, different universe, rich information that has nothing to do with the wearer’s location.

This seems like a variation on the first category, off-topic information, except that earlier category is for old fashioned, low bandwidth information. This is for things that take advantage of the motion sensors and heads-up display. For example, Glass devices could be used as a way to interact with an avatar robot in the office for telecommuting. Gesture left somehow (look left, nod left, point left, paw left–something) and the robot looks or drives left.

Think what Street View could be like with a Glass device interface.

Communication, two-way, with other humans.

We use the cameras in our phones to send pictures to others, and that is pretty easy. If we already have Glass devices on our faces, we might be even more tempted to do so. Live video from phones is just now starting to happen, if the bandwidth holds out, the immediacy and hands-free aspect of video from a Glass device would be pretty cool. This will also be a big evangelizing avenue as others see video from Glass wearers and think “Wow, that Glass thing is cool! I’m getting one!!”

This category of use is not necessarily a clear contrast to my other categories here, but communications is important to humans so it is important to call-out. Every technology gets perverted for communications (radio was for industrial purposes, right?). Communication will creep into everything Glass devices are used for, but also expect to see people wearing Glass devices standing in front of plate-glass windows talking and gesturing to their reflection as they use their reflection in a picture-phone mode.

Crafted vertical applications.

A lot of people have work to do, and could that work might be helped with an app customized for the purpose. For example, the other day I saw two men working with a bucket truck and a power pole. The man up high was reading a long number off a transformer (or something) and yelling down what he read, and the man below was yelling back the number for the man above to verify. I don’t know what they were doing, but I am guessing they could have done it better with Glass devices on their hardhats.

This isn’t the sexy side of Project Glass, but it might be the hidden engine that makes it all work. You might not find tracking the temperature in Paris and Facebooks’s falling price to enough reason to wear a Glass device all day, but if is part of you doing your job and is supplied by your boss and approved for use at work…that is a win.

Writing these apps will include learning about specific vertical needs, but it might be a great way to make money while saving others tons of money and getting the electricity back quicker after that big storm.

Do enough of these and maybe you will anticipate the Big One…

The Big One: a general purpose “Killer App”.

A lot of businesses use desktop computers without any custom applications: spreadsheets, word-processors, databases, web browsers, etc., address what they need without any custom software. I am guessing there will similarly be some general purpose apps for Glass devices that many will find compelling. Who knows what they are, but expect them.

Cloudy Coordination.

I doubt there will be many Glass-only apps. There will almost always be phone, tablet, desktop, or TV set aspects, because there will be data that is easier to input or organize or consume on a Glass device or a non-Glass device, or the other way around. Some cloud-like communication probably glues it all together. Maybe your server, maybe Google’s, maybe Apple’s.

Cross Platform.

Apple’s cloud??  If these eye-wear computers really happen, expect competition. Expect Apple to try more lock-in than Google will, have fun making it all work together. (Will Apple prohibit use of any cloud-backend but theirs?)


We still don’t know that there is a market for this. There are big problems (technical and social). People need to have sufficient reason to pay for and put up with these things. Wearing something on my face is pretty intimate. Will it be worth it?

Those of us in line to buy an Explorer Edition from Google might feel fortunate for the opportunity, but it is Google that is really breathing a sigh of relief that we are interested.  They need some really cool apps available on day-one of retail sale for there to be any hope of these things be worth wearing by regular people.

Objections and Prohibitions.

There are a lot of places where taking pictures is not welcomed. Just wearing a Glass device might make people assume you are recording them. Want to use a Glass device to help you with your grocery shopping?  Many grocery stores do not allow the use of cameras. (I’ve been questioned at Whole Foods for carrying a clipboard; I was using it for my shopping list that day, I think they were afraid I was doing retail espionage.)

In a world where we are on camera in public nearly constantly, using our own cameras, ironically, is not always approved. There are many quasi-public spaces where those in control of those spaces will object.

Consider an airport, let’s pick Las Vegas. People will not want to be photographed on the slot machines, the security check point will object, fly in from a foreign land and customs will object to our recording their work, the restaurants and retail establishments might have the Whole Foods-objection, the newsstand that also sells travel books objects to someone photographing excerpts from travel books instead of buying them, the bar doesn’t want you recording who is drinking, and walking into the bathroom while taking pictures presents more problems.

Even when one is in public and photography is completely legal, people have gotten in trouble with police or security guards from adjacent buildings who object because they think they should.

Google might want to implement some kind of ostentatious lens-cap feature that makes it obvious the wearer is not photographing.

And taking pictures is not the only problem. In the US making an audio recording without the knowledge of others violates federal wiretapping laws. Certainly phones can take both pictures and record audio, but phones spend much of their time in pockets where such recordings won’t accomplish much. If Glass devices are to be used for more than focused activities and worn like eye wear, audio concerns, too, will have to be overcome.

This is not impossible. It depends on the order in which Google does things.

Consider lithium-ion batteries on airplanes. These things are dangerous!  They pack a lot of energy in a small place, and occasionally catch fire. If an inventor had made one and asked the FAA for clearance to carry them on passenger flights, the answer would have been NO. Instead, laptop computers slowly insinuated themselves into air travel, often carried by important and powerful people. Only years later were the original nickle-cadmium batteries finally upgraded to lithium-ion. Try to ban them now and the outcry would be too great.

If Google can get powerful and affluent people addicted to Glass devices, those who object will have to decide between permitting Glass device wearing customers or doing without that business. I don’t know whether Google has this figured out, I suspect they have some strategies but are mostly playing it by ear because predicting these things is really difficult.


“The possibilities are endless!”

This sure is going to be interesting to watch.

-kb, the Kent who is glad he went to Google IO this year.

© 2012 by Kent Borg