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Living with Glass: Picking Up and Learning to Use Google's Project Glass Explorer Edition

By Will Smith

Will went to Google's campus to pick up a set of Google Glass Explorer Edition glasses yesterday, then he got on a plane. Here's what happened.

I picked up a pair of Google’s Project Glass Explorer Edition augmented reality glasses yesterday. It’s the kind of thing I generally discourage people from doing, but when I had an opportunity to buy a pair early courtesy of the If I Had Glass program, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to try them out and talk about them on the site. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start at the beginning.

Once you are selected by Google to buy a pair of Project Glass Explorer Edition glasses (henceforth referred to as Project Glass, Glasses, or Google Glass), you had to A: have $1500 and B: be able to pick the glasses up at one of a handful of Google campuses. I rolled into the Mountain View Google campus at noon on Sunday with my wife and baby, and we walked up to the Glass building, where we were greeted by a friendly Google employee who introduced us to Evelyn. Evelyn’s job was to guide me through the setup process for the Glasses, which was supposed to take about 30 minutes. Google also offered a variety of beverages, including mimosas and fancy fresh juice. Swanky!

We sat down at a table in a converted part of a big workshop, which I later learned was one of the shops where Googlers can work on projects of their own choosing. Each of the Glass setup stations would be familiar to anyone who has ever had glasses fitted at an optician—there were a couple of chairs and a mirror angled up to give you a good look at yourself wearing the Glasses.

Fitting Project Glass is unlike fitting traditional glasses. You’re supposed to wear them higher on your face than I’m accustomed to—the top of the frame is supposed to be near your eyebrows. The frame’s arms are curved—instead of resting on your ears, they wrap around your skull. And the metal parts of the frame are made of thin titanium, which means you can (and will) bend the hell out of them. During the fitting, Evelyn encouraged me to bend all the metallic parts of the frame until the glasses were comfortable. After the frames were lined up properly, I had to adjust the screen slightly—it’s a on a swivel that lets you move it closer and further away from your eye.

Regarding Weight

I normally wear relatively thick polycarbonate lenses. When I first tried on the Glasses, they didn’t feel noticeably heavier than my normal frames. However, when I took them off at the end of the night, my perception had shifted and my normal glasses felt noticeably lighter than the Glasses. My guess is that I was paying attention to too much other stuff during the initial fitting to notice. Even though they weigh more than my normal glasses, the Project Glass glasses aren’t uncomfortable to wear, even for extended wearing sessions. In the 13 hours since I picked up my Glasses, I’ve worn them for a total of about 8 hours.

Configuring the glasses requires a computer. Evelyn helped me log into a Pixel Chromebook using my Google account. After I was connected, I was able to link the Glasses to my Gmail account by pointing the camera at a special QR code on the laptop’s screen. The Glasses took a second, then startled me with the profile from my Google+ profile. Connecting to Wi-Fi used a similar process—Evelyn typed Google’s public Wi-Fi info into a form at google.com/myglass, which generated a QR code containing everything the Glasses need to log in. A few moments after I pointed the Glasses at the QR code, I was signed into Wi-Fi. Finally, we connected the Glasses to my phone’s Bluetooth radio, which can be used to provide an Internet connection to the Glasses while I’m out of Wi-Fi range.

During the entire setup process with Evelyn, I was asking questions and learning more about how the Glasses work and how to use them.

Controlling the Glasses

When the Glasses screen is on, it appears to be about the size of a car’s side mirror as seen from the driver’s seat. It’s in the top right area of your field of view, and is fairly unobtrustive once you get used to it being there. When the screen is off, it registers as a transparent, but slightly different colored area. The color representation on some of the images I snapped with the Glasses was a little washed out on the built in display, but it worked reasonably well everywhere I tested it, including a bright outdoors area.

The main interface for the Glasses is the touchpad on the right temple. Right now, you use four main gestures to communicate with it: tap to select and wake up, swipe forward, swipe back, and swipe down. The main user interface starts with the time--if you swipe back, you go to the left where your Google Now information live. Swipe forward and you'll go to the right, where a timeline of photos and videos you've taken is interspersed with updates from apps, Google+, and your Gmail. Navigating menus uses the swipe forward and back gestures as well, while swipe down closes the current tab, goes up a level in the menu, or turns off the Glass’s screen. You can also use your voice to launch a handful of commands, navigate menus, search Google, or compose a message or email.

This is the first picture I took with Project Glass. The baby was not impressed.

Next, Evelyn taught me to use the Glass’s camera. You can fire the camera by tapping on the control surface and saying “OK Glass, take a picture” or “shoot a video”. Shooting pictures or video using your voice is nice, but I found myself using the dedicated camera button most of the time. The button is above my temple, tapping takes a photo, tapping and holding starts a video recording. Videos default to 10 seconds in length, but you can tap the button again to extend the recording session indefinitely.

I didn’t realize how wide the lens on the Glasses is, especially when you compare it to the typical smartphone lens. The camera is wide enough that you don't need a viewfinder. It just captures the better part of the user’s field of vision. In order to take a close up or a portrait, you need to get VERY close to your subject. Better use some mouthwash!

Once you've shot pictures and video, you can share them directly using email or (presumably) SMS. You can also share using social networks. I'll likely devote an entire post once I figure out the nuances, but for now you should know that you can share images and video with specific people or circles very easily on Google+, but the Twitter and Facebook clients are much more barebones.

Project Glass Is In Limited Release For a Reason

We talked some about of Project Glass’s limitations. Project Glass only works with one Google account, and it has to be a Gmail account. It won’t work with Google Apps for Your Domain users, at least for now. There’s no easy way to access email, contacts, or calendar information from more than one Google Account or any other providers. Additionally, iOS users can’t send text messages and can’t use turn-by-turn navigation, which Evelyn attributed to Apple’s restrictions on their platform using what sounded like specific language which I'm going to paraphrase here: "Apple doesn’t allow other developers to hook into Messages, and will require a Glass app to push GPS info out to the Glasses for turn-by-turn navigation." (The official Glass app handles the same task on Android).

I was able to get turn-by-turn navigation working by connecting the Glasses to both my Nexus 7 and iPhone 5. I’ve only used turn-by-turn once—to get from the airport to my hotel, but I loved having my navigation information constantly available. Instead of voice prompts, when you get close to a turn, Glass just shows you the distance and direction, the name of the street, and a diagram showing your path through the intersection. Turn-by-turn navigation is the most promising application of the tech I’ve seen yet.

The last thing Evelyn showed me was how to mount glass shields on the frame. Basically, you twist a lens over the nosepieces. The Explorer Edition comes with two shields, a pair of sunglasses and a clear shield for keeping wind out of your eyes, if you’re biking or something. Evelyn explicitly told me that the clear shield is NOT to be used as safety eyewear, so I’ll still use real safety goggles around power tools.

Going Out Into the World

So, what’s it like to wear Google Glass in public? I’ll talk about that experience in more detail soon, but in short, it’s weird. Wearing the Glasses left me feeling intensely self-conscious—but only at first. The closest analog to the feeling I had is when I’ve worn a costume in public when it isn’t Halloween. I felt actual anxiety in the car on the way to the airport, no one wants to be laughed at, and these orange glasses are silly looking. Aside from a couple of elderly people who gave me the stinkeye, most of the people I met were just curious. They wanted to know if the Glasses worked (they do) or what I’m going to use them for (I’m not sure yet). Most often, they just wanted to know what the Glasses were. I was stopped by an equal number of men and women, and even did an impromptu demo session on the airplane. I helped several of my seatmates and a flight attendant try them on to see what they thought. Google even planned for these kinds of demos by including a Guest mode, which presents the wearer with a working demo account, minus your personal information.

I’ve been working with technology for a long time, and I’ve never used anything that elicited this kind of reaction in strangers, not even early PDAs and smartphones. After using the Glasses for a day, I can see why Sergei Brin is so obviously excited about the promise of ubiquitous information, but the practicality of the product remains to be seen. Right now they're only useful in somewhat limited ways. Don't worry though, I’m going to keep wearing the glasses and I’ll keep you guys up to date on my adventures. Next stop, E3.

Edit: Removed a few 3AM typos.