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Originally published January 26, 2014 at 8:04 PM | Page modified January 28, 2014 at 6:53 AM

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Google’s cumbersome Glass more hype than handy

The whole business of wearable computers is one of tech’s hot spots these days, and the Google Glass is its glamour product. But is it ready to deliver on its promise? Maybe not yet.


Seattle Times technology columnist

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Pity the geeks — they are prowling gadget blogs and wandering aimlessly through the aisles at Best Buy, unable to find the next big thing.

Grandma has an iPhone, preschoolers have tablets and old fogies at the gym have wearable computing devices on their wrists.

Perhaps the only way to stand out and let everyone know that you’re on the cutting edge nowadays is to sport Google Glass, the $1,500 experimental headset that the search giant trickled out to select early adopters and app developers over the past year.

The mystique has been enhanced by stories of Glass users being thrown out of restaurants, accosted by federal agents, and receiving traffic tickets when wearing the devices.

Google may start selling Glass broadly later this year, which I’ll bet generates more buzz than any other gadget on the horizon, more even than the large-screen iPhone some are expecting.

My advice is to skip the overnight launch-day lines and wait for secondhand Glass to show up on Craigslist. That probably won’t take long because Glass doesn’t yet live up to the hype. To me Glass feels more like a tech demo and developer test bed than a product ready for mainstream use.

I’m also not sold on Glass because I’m wary of having such an intimate relationship with Google, especially since I don’t think the benefits of Glass are worth the potential loss of privacy.

Google is a brilliant company that has transformed the world with great products, overlaid with a refreshing joie de vivre, but I’m starting to wonder about all the new directions it’s heading as its core business matures and it looks for ways to further weave itself into our lives.

Motion-tracking eyewear that keeps a video display constantly in your line of sight seems like the last thing a sane person would want to buy from the world’s most powerful advertising company. Especially one that’s an insatiable hoarder of personal information and the mother lode for America’s spy agencies.

Still, I took the plunge last month and bought Glass for a trial run when my name finally came up on Google’s list. I returned it last week.

The rise of wearable computing is inevitable, now that we’ve got wireless computer systems smaller than a fingernail. Fitness-tracking devices, “smart” watches and “smart” glasses are expected to be the norm by 2018, when 485 million units a year will be sold, according to a forecast by ABI Research.

It’s a squishy category, but mostly these things are extensions of the cellphone. They give the phone additional sensors, extra displays and auxiliary interfaces.

Glass connects to Google and the Web through a phone or Wi-Fi. It wouldn’t take much for Glass to connect directly to cell networks, but this would further reduce its middling battery life.

Glass projects information onto a tiny display that hovers above your right eye. Such displays aren’t uncommon. You’ll find them on the windshields of some cars and airplanes. Some military goggles have them, as do ski goggles made by Recon, a Vancouver, B.C., company.

The most impressive thing about Glass may be the way Google introduced this technology to the mainstream and rallied developers to build apps for wearable devices, using Google’s software. From that angle, Glass is less of a wacky experiment and more of a crafty way to get a head start in a market that’s about to take off.

I first tried Glass at Google’s headquarters last summer. The demo didn’t go well. The interface was balky and the performance was underwhelming.

To get more perspective, I was hoping to bring Glass to my daughter’s elementary school, thinking I could do a story about what tomorrow’s consumers think about tomorrow’s tech. But I abandoned that plan after a trial run at home. It took five minutes of futzing around and taking the Glass on and off my two kids to see “why they weren’t working” to realize it would be a disaster in a full classroom.

Glass does some neat tricks, like taking photos when you blink. But it’s not a great way to take pictures or video, and the battery won’t last a full day using Glass this way.

The “spycam” aspect is fun, but it made me uncomfortable. I didn’t want people around me to feel like I was filming them or staring at a screen all the time. It’s illegal in some states to record people without their permission, and it’s rude to constantly point a camera in their face or gaze at the nearest display.

Glass owners may think these concerns are overblown — the camera is secondary, and the device isn’t always active — but that’s not clear to others, who will assume you’re doing something with that odd headgear.

That’s why federal agents yanked a Glass wearer out of a movie theater recently and interrogated him after a manager suspected he was pirating the flick.

Yes, society needs to come to terms with this new technology. Maybe Glass is the device that will force the issue and bring us forward.

But to me, the benefits of Glass don’t yet outweigh the potential discomfort — or the extra time it takes to get information from Glass instead of the phone in my pocket. It felt limiting, like looking at a miniature cellphone.

Actually, phones can give you lots of information at a glance. Google Glass forces you to slow down and scroll through lots of screens to get the same amount of information. You can use your voice or flick and tap the Glass frame to navigate, but it’s cumbersome, like using the first-generation Kinect to navigate the Xbox.

Maybe I’m biased because I wear regular glasses, reluctantly, so it takes a lot to convince me that you’d voluntarily wear such a thing. Would able-bodied people opt to buy a camera-equipped cane if it transmitted CNN headlines and weather reports through their palms? Would they care if the cane let Google see and track their whereabouts, model their behavior and deliver more precise advertising?

Don’t put it past a company that’s raking in $1 billion a month and using it to dabble in self-driving cars, digital thermostats, household robots and wireless contact lenses.

You can’t stop progress. But I’d be more enthusiastic if a company with a different business model were leading the way.

Brier Dudley’s column appears Mondays. Reach him at 206-515-5687 or bdudley@seattletimes.com.



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About Brier Dudley

Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.
bdudley@seattletimes.com | 206-515-5687

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