I just tried Google Glass for the first time today – not for very long, just for a few minutes, but long enough to gain some first impressions beyond those of others that I’ve read. And unlike my colleague Eliza Kern, who was won over by the possibilities for voice-controlled photography, I actually came away from the experience less impressed with Glass than I previously was.
Let’s leave aside things like weight, fit and girth – it’s very clearly a beta product and all these things will improve (they’re not too bad to start with, anyway). But there are fundamental problems with the concept, and they are “why” problems that particularly stand out when you compare the Glass concept with that of the smart watch.
First off, let me reiterate and flesh out a pet gripe of mine that’s highly relevant to the way I view this comparison: I think there’s way too much duplication of functionality between smartphones and tablets. I get why that is – they use the same operating systems in order to simplify developer efforts – but the result is often inefficient. Twitter, Facebook, email… there’s not much of a compelling reason to pick one mobile form factor over the other.
If you’re going to have two communications devices, then, why not split their duties according to suitability? One option I’m considering is to get a cheap Nokia Asha phone for voice calls, SMS and WhatsApp, and to then pair it with my iPad Mini for more graphically intensive tasks: this would maximize phone battery life while giving me more screen real estate for the apps that require it.
But what if I could push those more basic tasks across to another device that makes more out of them? What if I had the combination of a tablet and something easier to access than a phone… something wearable.
Yes, I realize the battery-life-maximization element goes out the window here – and that may be a major medium-term problem for both Glass and the smart watch concept – but let’s take that out of the equation for now. For me, one of the biggest selling points of Google Glass is its ability to make it easier to see essential, bite-sized information: text messages, tweets, incoming caller identity and so on. This kind of functionality has been on smart watches for some time, though none have appealed to me until now (that might be a design thing).
Then we have geolocation, which is probably the most important addition to the mobile canon since cellular connectivity itself. True, it is slightly easier to watch a map through a heads-up display than by glancing at a wrist-borne device, so Glass has the edge here. But that kind of use case tends to imply a device that is constantly on, making the limitations of current battery technology a major barrier for both device types.
What’s more, the real promise of Glass for navigational purposes would lie in augmented reality – overlays, in other words. And that was perhaps my most surprising realization on trying Glass for the first time: the minute size of its screen makes it useless for the most interesting augmented reality ideas. For this form factor to really fly, it would need to utilize larger transparent screens as “lenses”, so that it could properly mediate your visual world. Again, the power usage implications are significant.
Where Glass really does have the smart watch form factor beat is on voice – not voice commands (I’ll get back to that in a moment) but voice communications, phone-style. Glass’s audio capabilities are based on bone conduction, so only the user can really hear what’s going on. Conversations generally need to be private, both for the protection of those talking and to avoid annoying nearby people, so a voice-enabled smart watch would have to be paired with something like a Bluetooth headset – hardly ideal.
But what about photos?
Then we have Glass’s voice-operated camera, the factor that Eliza found compelling and something that just flat-out wouldn’t work on a watch. For me, this feature is simply not much of a draw. For a start, I usually carry a good compact system camera with me. But I also don’t like the idea of verbally telling my glasses to take a photo – it’s only slightly faster than whipping out a phone, and it also means looking like I’m talking to no-one in particular.
And that is perhaps the biggest problem with Glass: even once its designers get past the visual tool factor, its use will still appear contextually odd. There will always be people who are fine with that, in the same way that Bluetooth headsets continue to be a thing, but it’s a hugely limiting factor when it comes to mass appeal. It may make sense when you’re driving, but most people don’t want to look like they’re talking to themselves as they walk down the street.
I realize that all of this comes down to the user. Some people want to take photos more easily; I don’t really care much about that. I want simple information, presented to me in a way that’s an improvement over my current smartphone setup; others might find this functionality unappealing. Each to their own — there is clearly not going to be a one-size-fits-all solution in the wearables space, not in the same way that smartphones have achieved near-universal appeal. (Incidentally, if Google Glass were a fully hands-free experience, which it isn’t, it would be very useful for certain specialists, such as surgeons and mechanics.)
There are some things that Glass, or something like it, could potentially be able to do much better than any alternative device. For me, augmented reality is at the top of that list, but Glass can’t really deliver without a monumental revamp. And that pretty much sums Glass up for me: intriguing, but I can’t see it doing what I’d want it to do anytime soon. A new generation of smart watches is a much likelier prospect in the short term and, after today’s Glass experience, that promise suddenly seems much more exciting.