Review: Google Glass Explorer Edition 2.0
January 4, 2014
When Google first told us about Glass back in 2012, it was very much an unattainable product of the future. Hell, it even had a futuristic-sounding name: Project Glass. Yet here we are, less than two years later, and countless folks have plunked down a cool US$1,500 for the Explorer version of Google's smart glasses. That future may still be in beta, but it's here nonetheless. Join Gizmag, as we review the Google Glass Explorer Edition 2.0.
The most important thing to keep in mind here is that the Google Glass Explorer Edition is very much a beta product. Google could make huge changes to the final retail version, and this review could ultimately mean very little when it comes to that mass-market edition (expected sometime this year). Of course we'll still speculate and imagine what the future looks like for Glass, but the only question we can really answer here is whether we recommend snagging an invite and plunking down for the Explorer Edition.
The short answer to that? You probably only want to become an Explorer if you're a developer or an eager early adopter with plenty of money. But this beta version of Glass does hold a lot of exciting possibilities, as well as a few concerns and some rough edges. If nothing else, it raises some fascinating questions about the future – not just for Glass, but for all of us.
Even if you've never used Glass, there's a good chance you're already familiar with its look. It has an asymmetrical design, with the device's processor, memory, and other internal hardware housed in a curved plastic bar that hugs the right side of your face. A thinner visor-like portion of the bar wraps around your head to hold everything in place, and it pancakes into another thicker section behind your right ear (where Glass' battery lives). Two nose pads protrude from wires to prop Glass up.
There's a micro-USB port on the bottom of the main body, sitting just in front of your right ear. That's where you charge Glass (more on that later), and also where you plug in optional earbud accessories.
At first Google required Glass Explorers to have an in-person meeting with a Google rep to fit the device to their faces. We skipped that part (Google now gives you the option of having it shipped to your doorstep) and I didn't have any problems fitting it to my face or my schnoz. I found the nose pad wires to have a great blend of rigidity and flexibility, as you can bend them when you want to, but they stay pretty firmly in place once you find your sweet spot.
The front visor that fits Glass to your face also has some bend to it. You can squeeze it and flex it back without feeling like your $1,500 investment is going to snap in two. It applies enough pressure to stay firmly on my head, but doesn't feel like my melon is being squeezed in a vice grip. It's understandable if you'd want to treat such an expensive device gingerly, but, overall, Glass feels very durable.
Of course we haven't yet mentioned the most important part of Glass. Protruding from its main body on the front right side of your face is a small, rectangular, glass prism. You know: the glass. That's your display, and once you adjust Glass' fit to your head, the mostly-transparent screen should sit just above your right eye's field of vision.
The right side of Glass' body (that thick bar) doubles as a trackpad. There are two main ways to control Glass: with your voice, and by swiping and tapping on that trackpad. It can also respond to the angle of your head (via accelerometer and gyroscope) and the tracking of your right eye (via an infrared sensor), but voice and the trackpad are your primary means of navigating the Google Glass UI.
Glass not only gives you visual feedback on that display, but it also gives you audio feedback. If you aren't using any accessories, then that happens through a bone conduction transducer that sits above (and a little behind) your right ear. That little transducer sends vibrations through your skull, but I find the sensation similar to having a little speaker sitting near my right ear. The only difference is that other people nearby won't hear much out of it. You can adjust Glass' volume in its settings, and if there's too much background noise, covering your right ear should help you to better hear the bone conduction audio.
The 2nd version of the Explorer Edition that we've been using also includes a separate mono earbud accessory that plugs into its micro-USB port to deliver better sound. Glass Explorers also have the option of buying a pair of wired stereo earbuds for $85. For my taste, though, Glass already looks geeky enough without adding a wired earpiece to it, so I've been satisfied using the built-in bone conduction for audio.
The current version of Glass also includes an "Active Shade," which essentially turns it into a high-tech pair of sunglasses. At first, I found it a little cumbersome trying to finagle the shade on and off every time I went out during bright daylight (Google's oversimplified instructional diagram didn't help), but I can now get it on and off pretty quickly and easily. Glass also includes a micro-fiber travel pouch, which has a harder shell at the bottom to help protect the most critical parts of the device.
In addition to several third-party options, Google now sells its own prescription frames for Glass. At $225 a pop they aren't cheap, and you might need to pay at least that much extra for your eye care provider to fit them with prescription frames. But we also think they make great strides in dialing down Glass' nerdiness quotient. For more on the Titanium Collection, you can check out our Google Glass frames review.
Pairing and UI
Like most of the early smartwatches, Glass isn't a smartphone replacement. It's more of a smartphone accessory, requiring a phone's Bluetooth connection for on-the-go-data (it can also connect directly to a Wi-Fi network). Right now Android phones work better with Glass than iPhones, as Apple's restrictions prevent the MyGlass companion app from letting you send or receive SMS through Glass.
The Google Glass UI itself is based off of the 'cards' concept that anyone who's used Google Now on Android or iOS devices should be familiar with. Simplicity and glanceability are the keys here, so each card is usually composed of some fairly large text splashed onto a black background. When you're reading conversation threads, you'll also see pictures of you and your pal stacked on the left side of the card.
When you wake Glass' screen (either by tapping the touchpad or lifting your head) you'll see a simple home screen with the current time and the words "OK Glass" sitting underneath. This is the screen where you activate voice control. The "OK Glass" option will also pop up after receiving a message or taking a picture (so you can easily send or reply).
Rather than home screens full of app icons, like on a smartphone, each Glass card takes up the entire screen. Swipe forward on the trackpad from the main screen, and you'll scroll to the right through the various cards in your timeline. Each recent action (like a picture you took or a message you sent) will have a card in the timeline, with the most recent ones first. Right now there's no user-centric (non-developer) way to organize or clear your timeline. Its job is to give you quick access to whatever you've recently been using Glass for.
If you scroll backwards on the trackpad from the main screen, then the timeline moves to the left. Here you'll find the more permanent cards like weather, navigation (if you're currently navigating), relevant Google Now cards, and settings.
As you might expect, tapping the trackpad will select a card. For cards like messages or pictures, this will brings up basic options, such as "reply," "send to," or "delete." For threads with several messages, this will let you scroll through the individual messages. Another nice option (also available via voice command) is "read aloud." That's especially handy for reading new messages while driving, jogging, or some other situation where you need to keep your eyes ahead of you.
Swiping down on the trackpad is the Glass UI's equivalent of a back button. Swipe down to back out of an individual card, and again to turn the screen off. You can also set Glass to turn its screen off when you tilt your head up and then back down again.
Look, no hands!
Now that we've covered Glass' basic hardware and software, we can get down to what you really came for. You know, things like what's it like to use the damn thing? And is there a place in our future for products like Google Glass?
On its simplest level, using Google Glass means having a smartphone-like display that hovers above your right eye's field of vision. It means receiving audio cues for notifications, or things like navigation or fitness tracking. And it means having 100 percent hands-free access to a solid camera (more on that in a minute), Google search, and messaging.
To me, that hands-free aspect is what separates Glass from other wearable accessories, like smartwatches. Watches will probably be an easier sell to the general public at first (mostly because they don't make you look like a science fiction character), but Glass lets you do some important smartphone-like tasks with absolutely no touch required. And it should do much more as developers unleash more Glassware apps into the wild.
I personally think it would be a mistake if governments continue to try to ban Google Glass behind the wheel. Because that's one of the places where it makes the most sense. Of course lawmakers are going to (understandably) worry about the potential for distraction, but the fact is you can do all kinds of things like send messages, read incoming messages, and search for local businesses without even looking at Glass' display. As long as you use it responsibly, I see it as the safest and easiest way to do things like that while behind the wheel.
The hands-free portion of Glass starts with a nod of your head. If you turn on a "head wake-up" feature in Glass' settings, then a tilt of your head up to a 30° angle will turn on Glass' display. At that point, you can say "OK Glass" and follow it with something like "send a message to Suzie", "take a picture," "record a video," "get directions to McDonald's" or "Google 'who's winning the Lakers game.'"
Until Google gives Glass an app store for third-party software, the "OK Glass, Google ..." voice command just might be its killer feature. For queries that default to web results, it isn't particularly useful (you can browse websites on Glass, but it's far from an ideal experience). But for questions that Google provides a direct answer to – something that's more and more common these days – it's an amazing resource to have hovering above your sight line. You can even use it to tap into Google Now features like setting reminders (which you can also receive on Glass) and checking on traffic or the weather forecast.
Again, the key here is that it can all be done 100 percent hands-free. Glass gives you always-on, always-available answers from the world's biggest search engine, no matter what else you're doing. And it's only going to get better with time.
21st century digital boy
The big tradeoff (well, besides that $1,500 price tag) is that, in order to get in on Glass' awesome hands-free action, you have to wear some gear that's guaranteed to draw some stares in public. Prepare for some confused, quizzical, gawking looks from strangers you pass. Or if you live in San Francisco, where strangers are much more likely to know what Glass is, prepare to be called a "Glasshole" by the more disapproving sectors of the tech industry.
The experience of wearing Glass in public was the biggest obstacle I had in the early stages of using it. It's downright distracting having people look at you like you're some foreign alien object every time you run to the store or grab a bite to eat. Most adults try to conceal their sideways glances, but you can still pick up on the odd looks. Children, who typically have much less of a filter between their thoughts and expressions, will stare unabashedly with jaws hanging open (I actually prefer their honesty).
The more I wore Glass, the less self-conscious I was about having it on in public ... not because people stopped staring, mind you, but just because I gave less of a damn. That's why Google asks for "bold" individuals to join this Explorer program. You're very much a Google Guinea Pig and an ambassador for the product, and it's hard to forget that when you wear it in public. And that will probably continue to be the case until Google starts heavily marketing a retail version.
Google Glass has a 5-megapixel camera that sits on the front of its main body, to the right of the display prism. The quality of its photos is solid enough, even though it's easily outdone by basically every high-end smartphone from the last few years.
It isn't resolution or advanced optics that makes this camera special. Nope, this camera's secret sauce is how ridiculously quick and easy it is to use. There's a dedicated camera button sitting on top of the device's main body (below), which is nice in itself (tap for a still shot and hold down for video). But Glass' December update takes this speed and ease to a whole new level by letting you wink to take a photo.
You have to turn it on in Glass' settings, but the 'Wink for picture' option basically guarantees that you'll never miss a shot, no matter what your hands are doing. Wink your right eye, wait to hear the chime, and you'll see a picture of whatever you were looking at flash onto Glass' screen, ready to share. No need to tap any physical buttons, swipe on the touchpad, or utter any voice commands. Just wink and snap.
It can be a little tricky to frame shots with Glass, since the camera's view isn't displayed on the screen (the screen does, however, show what you're recording for a video). After taking enough pics, though, I can usually guess pretty well how the shot will be framed, so this shouldn't be a huge problem.
After snapping a pic, your instant sharing options are a bit limited. Right now that list includes Google Hangouts, Google+, Facebook, and Twitter. If you're infused in social media, that may be all you need, but I'd like to see MMS and Gmail attachments eventually added to that list.
You can also set Glass to automatically back up your images to a private folder in your Google+ library. And if you're really old-fashioned, you can manually copy them to a PC with a USB cable.
Battery life is, far and away, the Explorer Edition's Achilles' heel. It drains pretty quickly, usually losing about five to seven percentage points per hour – even with light to moderate use. Make video calls or record videos, and it will drain much quicker than that.
Google advertises "one day of typical use," and I can usually squeeze a full day out of it. But that's using it pretty sparingly. If you plan on doing anything that leaves the screen on for extended periods, you'll probably have to grab a charger before the day is over.
If you spend much time during your day sitting at a computer, you can always grab a cable and juice Glass up through your PC's USB port while still wearing it. Unless you're alone, though, this is only going to ramp up the potential for stares. "Oh, look, it's the office/family/neighborhood cyborg recharging himself."
I'd be surprised if the retail version of Glass didn't make great strides with battery life. At least I'd hope so, or else Google may have a huge commercial dud on its hands. But, in the Explorer Edition, battery life is something you pretty much always have to keep in the back (if not the front) of your mind.
Retail wish list
Battery life is easily the biggest thing we think Google needs to improve before launching Glass to the public. But what else would be on our wish list?
Well, an app store of some kind would be a big plus. Though you can technically sideload apps downloaded from around the web, your main way to install apps now is through Google's MyGlass companion app for Android and iOS. There's a solid mix of applications there from Google and third-parties alike, with apps from companies like Evernote, Path, New York Times, CNN, and IFTTT. But it's still relatively limited. In 2014, when customers buy an expensive mobile device, they expect to have some kind of app store. I imagine Google realizes that, and will launch one alongside Glass' retail version.
If Google can somehow make Glass look a bit subtler, that would obviously be a huge plus. I'm not sure if the company can shrink Glass' footprint and extend its battery life all at once (at least this soon), but anything to reduce the geek factor for your average Joe or Jane is going to help its chances.
Of course pricing is the biggest question mark. Google has said that the shipping version will go for less than the Explorer Edition's $1,500 price tag. But how much lower? We just don't know, and maybe Google doesn't yet either. If they can get it down to $350 or so, they might have an instant hit on their hands. Push it above $500, and it's a tougher sell to the general public. $1,000 or higher, and Google's basically painting itself into a corner with the same early adopters who are beta-testing it today.
Prospects of commercial success aside, there's already a lot that I love about Google Glass today. Once you take some of these basic smartphone-like features (messaging, Google, photos, navigation, and so on), make them completely hands-free, and plop them in your field of vision, you quickly realize it's the most intimate form of computing around. That might not sound like a big deal, but you quickly get used to it.
On an intellectual level, you understand that Google Glass is a tech product that you place on your head that lets you perform these tasks. But on an experience level, these things start to feel like they're extensions of you. As I've said before, it's similar to wearing a pair of contact lenses. After a while, contacts make you feel like you actually have 20/20 vision. Likewise, Glass makes you feel like the internet and these smartphone-like features are actually a part of you.
Is that disturbing or amazing? I can see both sides, but so far I think it's a pretty cool experience. Glass takes many of the things you already do with your smartphone and, well, it kinda integrates them into you. It's a removable part of you, mind you, but it's intimate enough that I miss it – almost feel naked – when I take it off.
As we said at the top, this isn't about coming to conclusions or reaching verdicts about the future of Google Glass. But what we can say is that Glass is most definitely a product to keep a close eye on. You probably knew that without hearing it from us, but that's our take nonetheless.
As Google evolves Glass (and app developers work their magic on it), I think it has the potential to alter our daily lives on at least the same level as smartphones and tablets have. But there are also some huge question marks standing in between today's Explorer Edition and that potential world-changing product of tomorrow.
So, as we supposedly approach Glass' retail release, it's now wait-and-see time. What will Google's engineers and designers come up with? Can they minimize its head-turning appearance – or at least make it more socially acceptable as it is now? Can they improve its battery life by 50 percent or more? Can they do all of this and squeeze it into, say, the $300-500 price range? That's a tall order, but we'll see.
Unless you're an eager early adopter with lots of cash lying around, it's probably best to hold off on the Google Glass Explorer Edition. But we'd recommend paying very close attention to Glass when it finally ships to the public. It's far from a guaranteed commercial success, but it is practically guaranteed to be one of the boldest and most forward-thinking products you've ever used.
If you are that bold and eager early adopter that Google is seeking (and you live in the US), then you can sign up for an Explorer invite at the product page below.
Product page: Google Glass
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