May 17, 2013

The Original Google Glass Design: Totally Whacky and We Have the Proof!


On the second day of the Google I/O event (click the link for first-day coverage), we sat in a huge room full of Google developers, during which time some of the key members of the Google Glass team held a Fireside Chat. Most of the developers were sporting their own pairs of Google Glass, and we confess that as TRON-dorky as they may have all looked we were a bit jealous not to have our own pair in hand and looking, well…TRON-dorky along with the rest of them.

But let’s leave aside how they actually look while on one’s face and let’s leave aside the constant reminder of Star Trek’s Captain Jean-Luc Picard  once the Borg got hold of him (the reminders are eerie in a way). The truth is that the hardware design itself – which the Glass team admits is still in the early stages – is actually rather elegant and featherweight.

We’re not quite sure what we would have made of the original Glass design that the team’s industrial designer -- Isabelle Olsson -- encountered when she first joined the Glass team in 2011. The prototype back then was literally a phone attached to a scuba mask, and Isabelle was kind enough to let us grab a photo of her wearing the beast, which she took to the Fireside Chat. We’re not kidding; it is whacky looking!

In fact they look distinctly like something Elton John might have worn back in the early 1980s…

Since then, fortunately, Isabelle has done a fabulous job of bringing the design into the 21st century. Though the Glass team will tell you that the design is still very much in the early stages of evolution and has a long way yet to go, it looks great – whether it has sunglass inserts or not -- as a unique piece of hardware, as the image below suggests.

Participating in the Fireside Chat with Isabelle were: Steve Lee, a product director who has been with the team since the beginning; Charles Mendis, the key software engineer on Glass; and Timothy Jordan, a senior developer advocate for Google Glass. Aside from the strictly developer questions we won’t focus on here, the conversation on both ends – from the Glass team and from the audience – tended to focus on issues of looking ahead to public acceptance of wearing the device. The usual questions popped up:

  • Will Glass push people into anti-social behavior?
  • Will Glass cause people to lose focus “in people” and push them to spend their time staring into the Glass lens?
  • Can Glass become socially acceptable?
  • Will Glass bring “staring at the smartphone screen” to new levels of rudeness?
  • Will Glass deliver a sense of losing privacy (is the person wearing Glass taking photos or videos of us)?

And so on. Interestingly, it all echoes in reverse fashion what Google spent most of its time telling us during the Google I/O 2013 keynotes the previous day – that Google is driven to remove technology from getting in the way, that it is headed towards making technology invisible while allowing the technology to gain human-like interactions.

The Glass team is very sensitive to the issue and believes that over the next eight to 12 months additional refinements to both the hardware and software will begin to remove the barrier (perhaps “stigma” is a better word) towards providing the right answers for the questions that we noted above. Some developers worry about the truly dorky Bluetooth headset phenomenon -- today there aren’t quite as many around (we all hate ’em!). Certainly no one was wearing one at Google I/O.

The most interesting thing – and you really do need to try Glass on to understand this (we did, and it’s true as far as we are concerned) – is that the lens actually sits above the eye. A user has to look up in order to see the display. The lens does not sit directly in front of one’s eye, so that a person wearing them will in fact still look you in the eye when talking to you or others. This means that both the user and whoever is at the other end of conversations will definitely know if Glass is getting in the way – and in fact it also means that the one wearing Glass is the one most likely to want to ensure he or she is not acting in any sort of boorish fashion. The image below demonstrates how the lens sits up over the eye.

The other very interesting fact worth noting is that it does not seem to us that the developers in the audience – and to some extent the folks on the panel -- have yet come to grips with what the possibilities of Glass are or can be. Steve Lee noted that one of his most recent important experiences was during a roller coaster ride, with hands up in the air and Glass handling the video. We asked him afterwards if he was concerned about the entire thing flying away, but Steve claims it handled the whipping and wind just fine. We’re skeptical, but…

In any case, taking hands-free videos and photos doesn’t strike us as particularly earthshaking. Nor does such a thing as being able to pay for something while on a checkout line – another suggestion from the panel. But these are the early days and we expect to see many hugely interesting use cases emerge one the non-developers get their glasses later in the year (that is, those that were selected through Google’s “If I had Glass” twitter competition). We’ll see.

In any case, from original whacky look to today’s sleek design, the whole thing is a huge lot of fun. We don’t deny it!




Edited by Rich Steeves



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