Hands-on with Google Glass' big December (XE12) update
December 19, 2013
Earlier this week, Google pushed out the last software update of 2013 to Google Glass Explorers. As Gizmag is now part of the Google Glass beta-testing party, we thought we'd give you our hands-on impressions of some of the new features.
Wink wink, nudge nudge
The biggest new feature might be Wink, which lets you snap a picture just by winking. There was already a sideloadable app from a third-party developer that let you do this, but the experimental feature now comes straight from Google, baked right into the firmware.
In my experience, Wink works just as advertised. Wink with your right eye, and about a second later, you'll hear the chime as Glass snaps a pic of whatever you're looking at. It registers almost all of my deliberate winks, and it also differentiates them from regular old double-eye blinks. I did set it off by mistake a few times, but it was probably because I absentmindedly closed my right eye (too much caffeine perhaps?), not through some fault with the software.
If your goal is to always be ready for that Kodak moment, then Wink is something of a breakthrough feature. It's never been easier to snap shots, no matter where you are, what you're doing, or what your hands are holding. If your goal, however, is privacy, then you might want to keep an eye out for people wearing Google Glass. They can sneak pictures of you easier than ever.
Another big addition is the new Google Glass lock screen. If you set this up, anyone will need to know your handpicked series of taps and swipes to unlock Glass (much like a passcode on a smartphone). If you have Glass' on-head detection set up, the screen doesn't appear to lock when you take Glass off; you'll have to actually power it off (by pressing the power button for a moment) to lock it.
Unlocking Glass is simple. When you wake the device from sleep, you'll see a lone dot sitting below the current time. Enter your unique series of taps and swipes, and Glass will unlock. You even get visual feedback, showing each gesture as a series of dots on the screens ... kinda like sheet music for security buffs.
The new lock screen gives you a nice layer of security for your US$1,500 device, though you will have to remember to press that power button to put up the gates.
MyGlass for iPhone, Hangouts, and more
Another huge addition is better compatibility with the iPhone. Google just launched the MyGlass companion app into the App Store, so iPhone-owning Explorers now have some extra features.
The biggest are turn-by-turn navigation on your Glass display and a screencast of your Glass display on your phone. Android users have already had both of these features for a while, but hey, it's nice to see this make its way into the App Store nonetheless. The iOS version is still much more limited though (due to iOS' system-wide restrictions for third-party apps), so you can't use SMS and you'll need to pay for a personal hotspot plan to use navigation.
With the XE12 update, Google also brought a few more officially-supported apps to Glass. Google Hangouts is a big one. You could already use Hangouts for video calls, but you can now use it for messaging. This includes picture messages, something Glass couldn't do before. It also helps to fill in for the lack of SMS on the iPhone version, though your friends will need to be in the Google ecosystem with an active chat app to get your messages.
The biggest problem I have with the new Hangouts messaging is that it automatically becomes the default way of sending messages. See, Glass doesn't let you choose how to contact a friend. You say "OK Glass, send a message to Suzie" and it handles it from there. Hangouts gets priority, followed by SMS, and then email. So if a contact has their email address tied to a Hangouts account, you can't send them a regular email. It will always send it as a Hangouts chat message. You can get around this by turning off Hangouts integration altogether, but then you miss out on its other perks.
YouTube is also in the fold now, though maybe not in the way you'd expect. You still can't watch YouTube videos on Glass (that would probably kill its battery anyway), but you can now share videos you've taken to the popular video-sharing service. After recording a video, just bring up the "Share" option and choose a YouTube card. There are separate cards for Public, Unlisted, and Private options, so there shouldn't be any confusion about who can and can't see your masterpiece.
There are also a few extra apps added to MyGlass' Glassware section, like Weather Alert and Wall Street Journal. I don't live in an area with much severe weather, so I haven't been able to test that one yet. But it could be a handy feature to have onboard, especially if things like tornadoes, blizzards, or icy roads are concerns in your area.
Winkfeed is another new app that puts RSS feeds on Google Glass. You can read them on the device itself, have them read aloud to you, or save them to Pocket to read later on another device. Winkfeed doesn't really fit my workflow, but if you only have a few feeds you follow, it could be a handy way to get news alerts from your favorite sources pushed to Google Glass.
We're going to have much more on Google Glass in the coming weeks, but don't expect to see any big software updates from Google for a while. Google says that this month's big batch counts for both December and January, so these will have to tide you over until February.
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