New gadgets — I mean whole new gadget categories — don’t come along very often. The iPhone was one recent example. You could argue that the iPad was another. But if there’s anything at all as different and bold on the horizon, surely it’s Google Glass.
That, of course, is Google’s prototype of a device you wear on your face. Google doesn’t like the term “glasses,” because there aren’t any lenses. (The Glass team, part of Google’s experimental labs, also doesn’t like terms like “augmented reality” or “wearable computer,” which both have certain baggage.)
This idea got a lot of people excited when Nick Bilton wrote about the glasses in February in The New York Times. Google first demonstrated it April in a video. In May, at Google’s I/O conference, Glass got some more play as attendees watched a live video feed from the Glass as a sky diver leapt from a plane and parachuted onto the roof of the conference building. But so far, very few non-Googlers have been allowed to try them on.
Last week, I got a chance to try on a pair. I’m hosting a PBS series called “Nova ScienceNow” (it premieres Oct. 10), and one of the episodes is about the future of tech. Of course, projecting what’s yet to come in consumer tech is nearly impossible, but Google Glass seemed like a perfect example of a breakthrough on the verge. So last week the Nova crew and I met with Babak Parviz, head of the Glass project, to discuss and try out the prototypes.
Now, Google emphasized — and so do I — that Google Glass is still at a very, very early stage. Lots of factors still haven’t been finalized, including what Glass will do, what the interface will look like, how it will work, and so on. Google doesn’t want to get the public excited about some feature that may not materialize in the final version. (At the moment, Google is planning to offer the prototypes to developers next year — for $1,500 — in anticipation of selling Glass to the public in, perhaps, 2014.)
When you actually handle these things, you can’t believe how little they weigh. Less than a pair of sunglasses, in my estimation. Glass is an absolutely astonishing feat of miniaturization and integration.
Inside the right earpiece — that is, the horizontal support that goes over your ear — Google has packed memory, a processor, a camera, speaker and microphone, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi antennas, accelerometer, gyroscope, compass and a battery. All inside the earpiece.
Google has said that eventually, Glass will have a cellular radio, so it can get online; at this point, it hooks up wirelessly with your phone for an online connection.
And the mind-blowing thing is, this slim thing is the prototype. It’s only going to get smaller in future generations. “This is the bulkiest version of Glass we’ll ever make,” Babak told me.
The biggest triumph — and to me, the biggest surprise — is that the tiny screen is completely invisible when you’re talking or driving or reading. You just forget about it completely. There’s nothing at all between your eyes and whatever, or whomever, you’re looking at.
And yet when you do focus on the screen, shifting your gaze up and to the right, that tiny half-inch display is surprisingly immersive. It’s as though you’re looking at a big laptop screen or something.
(Even though I usually need reading glasses for close-up material, this very close-up display seemed to float far enough away that I didn’t need them. Because, yeah — wearing glasses under Glass might look weird.)
The hardware breakthrough, in other words, is there. Google is proceeding carefully to make sure it gets the rest of it as right as possible on the first try.
But the potential is already amazing. Mr. Pariz stressed that Glass is designed for two primary purposes — sharing and instant access to information — hands-free, without having to pull anything out of your pocket.
You can control the software by swiping a finger on that right earpiece in different directions; it’s a touchpad. Your swipes could guide you through simple menus. In various presentations, Google has proposed icons for things like taking a picture, recording video, making a phone call, navigating on Google Maps, checking your calendar and so on. A tap selects the option you want.
In recent demonstrations, Google has also shown that you can use speech recognition to control Glass. You say “O.K., Glass” to call up the menu.
To illustrate how Glass might change the game for sharing your life with others, I tried a demo in which a photo appeared — a jungly scene with a wooden footbridge just in front of me. The theme from “Jurassic Park” played crisply in my right ear. (Cute, real cute.)
But as I looked left, right, up or down, my view changed accordingly, as though I were wearing one of those old virtual-reality headsets. The tracking of my head angle and the response to the immersive photo was incredibly crisp and accurate. By swiping my finger on the touchpad, I could change to other scenes.
Now, there’s a lot of road between today’s prototype and the day when Google Glass will be on everyone’s faces. Google will have to nail down the design — and hammer down the price. Issues of privacy and distraction will have to be ironed out (although I’m not nearly as worried about distraction as I was before I tried them on). Glasses wearers may have to wait until Glass can be incorporated into actual glasses.
We may be waiting, too, for that one overwhelmingly compelling feature, something that you can’t do with your phone (beyond making it hands-free). We’ve seen that the masses can’t even be bothered to put on special glasses to watch 3-D TV; it may take some unimagined killer app to convince them to wear Google Glass headsets all day.
But already, a few things are clear. The speed and power, the tiny size and weight, the clarity and effectiveness of the audio and video, are beyond anything I could have imagined. The company is expending a lot of effort on design — hardware and software — which is absolutely the right approach for something as personal as a wearable gadget. And even in this early prototype, you already sense that Google is sweating over the clarity and simplicity of the experience — also a smart approach.
In short, it’s much too soon to predict Google Glass’s success or failure. But it’s easy to see that it has potential no other machine has ever had before — and that Google is shepherding its development in exactly the right way.