Friday, August 30, 2013

Googling Yourself Takes on a Whole New Meaning

Here's what you see if you look at my face: a skinny titanium headband stretched across my forehead. It looks like a futuristic pair of sunglasses, minus the lenses. On my right-hand side there's a computer, a metal frame with a small, clear cube of plastic perched just over my eye. When I tilt my head upward a bit, or run my finger along the side of the frame, the cube lights up. What I see, floating six inches in front of me, is a pinkish, translucent computer screen. It gives me access to a few simple apps: Google search, text messaging, Twitter, a to-do list, some hourly news headlines from CNN ("See a Truck Go Airborne, Fly Over Median," "Dolphin Deaths Alarm Biologists"). Beside the screen is a teensy camera built into the frame of the glasses, ready to record anything I'm looking at.

Google Glass is the company's attempt to mainstream what the tech industry calls wearable computing, to take the computer off your desk or out of your pocket and keep it in your field of view. In a world where we're already peering at screens all day long, pecked at by alerts, the prospect of an eyeball computer can provoke a shudder. But over several weeks of using the device myself, I began to experience some of the intriguing -- and occasionally delightful -- aspects of this new machine. I got used to glancing up to start texting and e-mailing by addressing its surprisingly accurate voice-transcription capabilities. (I admit I once texted my wife while riding my bicycle.) I set up calendar reminders that dinged in my ear. I used an app that guided me back to my car in a parking lot. I sent pictures of magazine articles to Evernote, so I would have reminders of what I'd read. I had tweets from friends float across my gaze.

Despite my quick adoption, however, only rarely did I accomplish something with Glass that I couldn't already do with, say, my mobile phone. When I first heard about the device, I envisioned using it as a next-level brain supplement, accessing brilliant trivia during conversations, making myself seem omniscient (or insufferable, or both). This happened only occasionally: I startled a friend with information about the author of a rare sci-fi book, for example. But generally I found that Googling was pretty hard; you mostly control Glass with voice commands, and speaking queries aloud in front of others was awkward.

The one thing I used regularly was its camera. I enjoyed taking hands-free shots while playing with my kids and street scenes for which I would probably not have bothered to pull out my phone. I streamed live point-of-view video with friends and family. But it also became clear that the camera is a social bomb. One friend I ran into on the street could focus only on the lens pointing at her. "Can it see into my soul?" she asked. Later, she wrote me an e-mail: "Nice to see you. Or spy you spying, I guess."(...)

The earliest prototypes of Glass were made by taking the components from phones running Android -- Google's mobile operating system -- and gluing them to a pair of safety goggles, with a huge L.C.D. in front of one eye. Heft was a hurdle: the prototypes were more than five and a half ounces, creating an untenable amount of "nose-borne weight," to use an industry term. "If it doesn't meet a minimum bar for comfort and style, it just doesn't matter what it will do," Lee said. Nobody would wear it all day long.

To shrink the device and make it more attractive, Lee hired Isabelle Olsson, a Swedish industrial designer known for her elegant, stripped-down aesthetic. She wasn't told what she was being hired for. On her first day at work, Olsson was shown the safety-goggle prototype. When she pulled it out of a box and put it on to show me, she looked like a mad scientist.

"My heart skipped a beat," she said with a laugh. "As a very nontacky person, this idea overwhelmed me a little bit. I'm going to wear a computer on my face? I really felt like we need to simplify this to the extreme. Whatever we can remove, we will remove." (...)

Google started selling Glass this spring. Two thousand went to software developers; 8,000 went to people who submitted to Google short descriptions of what they'd do with Glass; those selected paid $1,500 for it. (I received mine this way and paid full price.) Once users began wandering into public life a few months ago, gazing into their glowing eye-screens, it became possible to begin answering the question: how would people use wearable computers in their everyday lives?

by Clive Thompson, NY Times | Image: Grant Cornett for The New York Times
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