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Living With Glass: Everyone Else Is Into Glass

By Will Smith

Will's experiment with Google's Project Glass continues into its first full week as Tested visits E3.

I'm writing this at the end of my first full week of the Glass experience, and living with this weird thing attached to my face has become almost routine. Last week, I’d had one highly-stressful interaction with the public, a trip through SFO on the way to E3. While I was at E3 and during the rest of the week, I’ve probably demoed Project Glass to a few dozen people, everyone from friends and co-workers to curious strangers.

The second question people ask, after “Are those Google Glasses?” is “What do you use them for?” It turns out, I’ve taken way more pictures than normal, at least for me.

Pictures and Video

Typically, I'm not the kind of guy who shoots a bunch of pictures. In the first week of using Glass I've taken loads of pictures--more than 500, which is around 10 times my normal output. And the pictures aren’t all good. While Project Glass’s always-available nature has let me capture a couple of killer candids and a wide-sweeping vista or two, I’ve also shot loads of terrible pictures, too. I haven’t done any formal image quality comparison shots yet, but the camera on Project Glass seems to roughly analogous to a decent smartphone camera.

So why all the bad photos? The lack of a viewfinder on Glass means that in order to get the framing I want, I usually have to take a couple of practice shots first. As I’ve used the camera more, I’ve gotten better at eyeballing the framing as I’ve used the camera more, but it’s trickier than it needs to be.

Because Glass is tightly integrated with Google+ getting access to the photos you take is relatively easy—Glass automatically uploads all the photos and video you shoot to Google+ when you’re on Wi-Fi. Once that’s done, you can access them on anything with a browser. Google+’s new auto-enhance feature does a decent job of surfacing the better shots and hiding the bad ones, but it isn’t perfect yet and as a result, I’m struggling to integrate Google+ in my current photo editing workflow. While I could use Google+’s batch downloader to manually download the photos I’ve taken on Glass, it seems like the smart thing to do is just use Glass like an old-fashioned, non-Internet connected camera, plugging it into my computer when I want to grab photos or video. That feels a little backwards though.

Because the lens is so wide, I've taken quite a few pictures of my hand with Glass.

I also managed to shoot a couple of interviews using Project Glass at E3. I was worried about the lack of zoom controls, but the video turned out OK. I was even able to work around the lack of zoom by leaning in uncomfortably close to the interview subject. As long as I don’t show your agreement with the interviewee by nodding or shaking my head, the footage is usable and comparable to that shot with a decent smartphone. Sure, a crash zoom that ends with your face 4 inches from an interviewee is awkward, but the effect was worth it. We had even more luck using Glass as a second camera for interview shoots. This enabled us to have a second shot for our E3 interviews without the hassle of carrying a second camera.

The bad news for anyone hoping to shoot video with Glass is that the sound suffers in all but ideal conditions. There are two issues, ambient noise and normalization. The microphone picked up a fair amount of ambient noise whenever I shot video, stuff like traffic noise, other conversations, and the general hubbub of a tradeshow floor were all clearly audible and unfiltered. Ambient noise can be reduced by adding additional microphones and doing some signal processing, but normalization is a trickier problem.

In videos I shot that include me talking, the sound volume varies wildly due to my proximity to the mic. No matter how close I was willing to get to an interviewee, Glass’s mic is always closer to me. As a result, I’m always going to be louder than my subject, which isn't good. I’m not sure I feel comfortable interviewing people I don’t already know pretty well using Glass because of the unexpected personal space invasion, but if I am, I’ll need to to add a dedicated audio recorder to my setup so I can record sound that's usable in a production environment.

Turn-by-Turn Navigation

I don’t spend enough time driving in LA to know my way around, so I was excited to try Glass’s turn-by-turn navigation features while in LA. Glass requires connection to an Android device with GPS for turn-by-turn nav to work. Once I had Glass hooked up to my Nexus 7, the turn-by-turn directions were amazing.

Glass provides directions for drivers, walkers, and public transit riders (no bike directions, yet?) While you can get directions fairly easily using voice commands, I’ve found Google Now to be faster and more reliable than voice search. If you add street addresses to your appointments or search for a street address or business when you're logged into your Google account, you’ll likely find a card that includes your destination in Google Now the next time you don Glass. Swiping to the correct card and getting directions just takes a couple of taps.

Glancing up and to the right at the Glass display seemed much less distracting than fumbling with a phone at 80mph.

I tested both walking and driving directions last week in LA. The driving directions are great—they’re just like the turn-by-turn navigation on Android or the iOS Google Maps app. Glass chimes to warn you of an upcoming turn with plenty of time to make any lane changes and signal appropriately. Then the screen lights up with the name of the street you’re turning on to, the distance to the intersection, and a graphical preview of your route overlaid on a closeup of the street map. All this was overkill for most intersections—you shouldn’t need a navigator to find LAX—but it was useful for tricky turns and navigating around rush hour traffic. More importantly, glancing up and to the right at the Glass display seemed much less distracting than fumbling with a phone at 80mph (130 km/h).

I’m not sure that I actually needed walking directions, but I tested them by walking a half-mile between venues at E3. They worked exactly like driving directions, but the pace was much slower.

Calls and Hangouts

You may not know it, but Glass also includes all the functionality of a Bluetooth headset. While I was at E3, I used the headset feature of Glass to make a couple of calls, once in the car and once while standing on the side of the road. However, I found the bone-conduction speaker is a little tricky to use. The headset didn’t always get loud enough to hear over ambient noise. I haven’t been able to tell if the problem is that the speaker doesn’t hit the right part of my skull or that it just doesn’t get loud enough. There's a definite sweet spot for the speaker though, but even when it’s sitting correctly, external noises (the ones that come into your ear the old fashioned way) seem to overpower the bone conduction signal. I also got mixed reviews on the sound quality from me using Glass—one caller said she heard every single car or truck that I passed on the road. I’ll test this later in more controlled circumstances, but in the meantime, I’m going to keep using my wired headset to make calls in the car.

The quality of Google Hangouts with Glass is noticeably worse than FaceTime, Skype, and even PC-to-PC Hangouts.

I’m also unimpressed with Glass’s Hangout capability. The glasses promise the ability to do a Google+ Hangout with anyone on your friends list, so they can share your experiences and see what you see. Unfortunately, the quality of the video, both for the user on Glass and the person you’re calling, is crappy. It’s noticeably worse than FaceTime, Skype, and even PC-to-PC Hangouts. The issue didn’t seem to be connection-dependent either, I had crappy video calls on Wi-Fi networks connected to 50mbps connections as well as tethered LTE connections.

There’s a social component to using either of these features, and I’d be hesitant to do either in public even if they worked better than they do. Whether you’re taking a call or participating in a Hangout, to everyone around you, you look like a crazy person talking to yourself.

Other Things I’ve Noticed

Actually wearing Glass was the biggest adjustment of all. While I was anxious during the first few days, by the time I had them for a week, I didn’t think twice about wearing Glass out in public. Everywhere I went, whether it was to Tested’s home office in Santa Monica, to E3 meetings or press conferences, or just wandering around airports and the show floor, people had lots of questions. As they become more popular, I’m sure this will change, but in the meantime, I have to take them off if I’m in public and in a hurry.

But what about all those people I met? The vast majority of them want to know what it’s like to use Glass. They ask the question in different ways, but they want to see the screen, find out what it can do, and learn what I use it for. More often than not, they just want to get a taste of a potential future. While I’ve literally met dozens of people who were curious about Glass, I’ve only met a handful who were skeptical or immediately turned off. Those folks mostly wanted to know if they were being recorded. A typical encounter, involves answering a bunch of questions followed by an offer to try the glasses on. Very few people decline, most swipe around menus a bit, and more than a few have wanted their pictures taken. I assume that those pictures end up as Facebook profile pics.

This week, I've also started a list that includes a few places that are inappropriate for Glass wearing: doctor’s offices, playgrounds, fancy restaurants, and public restrooms. I evaluate bars on a case-by-case basis—in Silicon Valley, I wouldn’t hesitate, but when I’m on vacation in Tennessee, I’ll probably leave the glasses in their case.

I’ve also noticed another alarming side-effect of my Glass use—I’ve become accustomed to being able to look up at the sky and see the time. I’ve gotten so used to it that I've done the head tilt when I was wearing my old-fashioned, vision-correcting glasses a couple of times. I’m not sure if this means anything, but I’ll probably end up buying a watch.

I’ll be back next week with another installment of Living With Glass, this time documenting a vacation to Tennessee and the reaction to Project Glass in the American heartland.