What is it? Google Glass is a wearable headset mobile device developed by Google and set for wide release in late 2014. The device currently is available in the United States as a beta prototype for participants in Google’s Explorer Program, which the company began in 2012. Early adopters wishing to obtain Glass must apply to become “Explorers” for Google, which, if the company selects them, will sell them a beta device for $1,500.1
The design of the beta device currently available consists of two temples, with the battery stored in the back of the right temple, a top bar, bridge, a prism display located in the upper-right corner of the user’s field of view, a camera, and a bone conduction speaker. It currently features no hinges. It seems Google does not intend users to fold Glass and store it in their pockets, but the design is constantly evolving; recent developments like Google’s partnership with Luxottica Group, which owns Ray-Ban and Oakley, could indicate potentially substantial future redesigns to broaden the appeal of Glass.2 Users activate the device through head motion, voice command, or by scrolling on a control pad located on the right temple. Glass can take photos, record video, and conduct Internet searches by tethering to a user’s mobile device or connecting to a Wi-Fi network.3
A device that can do everything your phone can do, with less time and effort, is the idea. Glass gives you information when you need it and hibernates when you don’t. The point of Glass, Google says, is to paradoxically take users away from ubiquitous technology by placing computers on their faces. Because here’s the catch with Glass: wearable technology is just that. It’s not something you pull out of your pocket when you need it, but remains on your face even as you let it sleep.4 You wear it like you would a pair of eyeglasses; the current version even comes with attachable shades. Google will soon go further by including frames for prescription lenses in upcoming editions of Glass.5 Market Trends Some see the wearable device market as the next big thing, in the tradition of smartphones and tablets. Wearable devices don’t just include headsets: Samsung recently introduced the Galaxy Gear, a smart watch. And it’s not only Samsung’s smart watch that Google will find itself competing against in the wearable device market.6 Google soon will face many other wearable device manufacturers.7 Samsung recently announced plans to develop the “Galaxy Glass,” which will eliminate the voice activation function, replacing it with a virtual keyboard.8 Another Korean competitor recently announced a rival wearable device, a clunkier version of Glass.9 Devices like the Pivothead, basically a pair of sunglasses with a small camera mounted to it, also competes with the camera function of Glass.10 Some consumers actually might prefer a more immersive augmented reality device than Glass, like the cheaper alternative Epson has developed and will start selling in April 2014.11These days it has also become easier for smaller companies (and conceivably universities) to compete with the likes of Google and Samsung in the wearable device market. For instance, The “Pebble” smart watch developed from a 10.3 million Kickstarter campaign in 2011.12 Current Uses of Device As stated earlier, the device basically operates as a hands-free smartphone. Glass includes common smartphone capabilities and features, with some unique twists like motion-activated virtual reality games. The search option operates like the plain Google browser search option, which can benefit users with predictive information like traffic updates and appointment alerts based on an event calendar users share with the device.13
Google, of course, approves all third party developers of downloadable applications - which it calls “Glassware” - on its “MyGlass” page. So far Google has teamed with big companies like The New York Times, Tumblr, and Facebook, but smaller developers also are out there working on apps.14 Indeed, a major purpose of Google’s Explorer Program seems putting the device in the hands of designers, and to promote research and development guidance from ordinary consumers.
Application Potential The application potential for Glass appears boundless.15It could feature medical applications, including those that identify and halt the spread of epidemics, 16help the disabled speak,17 and help the hearing-impaired understand conversations, like the Georgia Tech-developed Glassware “Captioning on Glass”.18 Surgeons have already used Glass to assist in performing surgery, and it could also help medical school professors give lectures and demonstrations for medical students.19 Glass could potentially benefit students in all fields by operating as a quick and convenient research and organizational tool that will keep them constantly plugged into their schools.20Former NFL player Chris Kluwe has researched how Glass can make playing football safer for future players.21In a logical extension of the ubiquitous surveillance apparatus that has become the status quo, law enforcement officials have also begun researching how they can use Glass; the NYPD is an acknowledged Explorer.22
Google states on its Glass website that it won’t allow Glassware developers to use facial recognition technology,23 but a company called “Emotient” has developed an emotion-reading application.24Whether Google will actually use facial recognition software is unclear. But it stands to reason that if Google does not exploit such mind-numbingly profitable tools, a competitor will. After all, facial recognition software is a marketer’s dream.
Google has taken pains to market Glass as a non-intrusive, non-creepy piece of technology by building transparency into the basic functions of Glass. Users generally speak to the device to take a photo or record a video, signaling the Glass wearer’s intentions to neighbors. Besides, curious people can still see the prism screen illuminate, which signals the user’s actions. Some Glassware developers, though, might find ways to get around the signals. At least one developer discovered a way to let Glass users take photos by merely blinking.25 Problems and Issues A university communications department really could do worse than dissecting the interesting (to put it mildly) public relations strategy Google has employed to introduce Glass to the market. Surely it’s worth “exploring”…
Glass availability started much like Facebook, as an exclusive club that gradually expanded its membership. Exclusivity bestows a sense of mystery, which Glass already had, being developed by Goggle’s secretive Google X division.26 Exclusivity elicits interest, which in turn garners demand. At least that seems Google’s thinking. But I wonder if turning customers into applicants really translates into a winning strategy for expanding a company’s consumer base. Who knows? It’s a fascinating way to turn customers into employees, whose feedback will improve product design, in terms of both hardware and software. The customers don’t just work for Google as designers, but also as marketers. Google has even provided a list of conduct guidelines for Explorers on its website (ex: “Don’t be a Glasshole” – i.e. don’t emulate the snooty techno-elites widely perceived as currently composing the early Glass adopters).27
Google recently has gone on the offensive to address common misperceptions about the device, such as the fear that it could enable non-stop surreptitious recording of others, on its social networking site Google +.28 Surely Google’s defensiveness stems from incidents like the one involving tech writer Sarah Slocum, whose visit to a San Francisco bar while wearing Glass resulted in what she characterized as abuse and harassment from surveillance-wary patrons.29
Indeed, a number of bars in San Francisco, where Glass wearers are common, have started banning wearable technology.30At least one Seattle, Washington restaurant has banned them.31Google also could see blowback from other businesses, as seen in the case of an Explorer who was ejected from a movie theater and interrogated by FBI agents who suspected the man of illegally recording the feature.32 Based on the incident, how will the motion picture industry as a whole react to Glass? Police have pulled over another Explorer for wearing Glass while driving. How will using Glass conflict with existing prohibitions against using mobile devices while driving, and what new legislation could follow?
On a different note, I wonder if a nascent wearable technology market could raise demand for mobile device jammers. I could see businesses owners or government officials who could, perhaps with device owners’ permission, or perhaps not, employ devices that temporarily disable technologies like Glass within a certain radius. If even a semblance of this development transpires, I can scarcely imagine the ramifications.
Conclusion Some technology writers predict that Glass, once it hits U.S. markets, will become much cheaper, have a sleeker design, and will become more practical to wear.33 Whether it will take off and become as revolutionary as the personal PC, the laptop, the tablet or the smartphone is anyone’s guess. Early opinions seem mixed. Basically every tech writer ponders aloud whether the lure of novelty will translate to purchases. In either case, Glass and similar wearable technologies offer a wide range of research opportunities for a film, journalism, public relations, political science, law, information technology, or medical department within any university.