Google has a good claim to the world's first fully-functioning wearable computer with Glass. Google Glass was made available to selected developers last year as part of a Google Glass Explorer Program. Google has recently released Glass 2.0 and opened up sales to the UK. Google is charging a heady £1,000 for Glass in the UK, a price which would make even the most ardent tech fanatic think twice.
Google Glass Explorer Edition 2.0 doubles the amount of RAM available on the original device, but there is no other hardware change. Google has also developed a companion app called MyGlass for Android and iPhone. Meanwhile developers have been busy creating a range of truly original apps for Google Glass. Google Glass is available in five different colours and the firm has introduced a range of frames for prescription lenses or to work as sunglasses (the frames cost £120 but a pair is included in the price, don’t forget to add it when you checkout). These frames open up Glass to those who need prescription glasses, but they may also help normalise what is effectively a head-mounted computer.
Google Glass is a unique device; there isn't much to compare it to on the technology market. You wear Glass as you would a pair of glasses, but it features an optical heads-up display that projects a display in front of your eyes. Interaction is by means of voice commands, accelerometer and gyroscope and a thin strip known as the “Touchpad” that runs alongside the right hand side of the frame.
Glass shares some of its design DNA with smartphones: you can check email, post to social media, take photos and videos, search Google and download apps. But it is a radically different experience and is designed to sit alongside your smartphone, rather than replace it.
Our Google Glass review discovers what it is like to own, and use Glass, in the UK on a regular basis.
Google Glass fits snugly on your forehead by means of a thin metal band that wraps around above your eyebrows and tucks in behind your ears; two curved pieces of metal tips with plastic nibs fit this band snugly onto your nose. Along the right-hand side of Glass is a rectangular strip of plastic that curves above your right right-eye. In front of your right-eye is a prism projector that displays a small screen.
When you look forwards you don't see the Glass device at all. But activate Glass (either by tapping on the side or tilting your head back) and you can see the display by looking upwards. It appears in the centre of your vision, and we found the Glass display to be reasonably clear but seethrough. Despite being in front of the right-eye, we found it appeared to be in front of both eyes (like looking at a television screen displayed on the wall). It took a small amount of time to get used to the weirdness of seeing a virtual screen, but within half an hour we were used to the Google Glass screen.
Glass feels impossibly light: the bare device (without the new clip-on frames) weighs in at just 36 grams (about the same weight category as a regular pair of glasses). We found it comfortable to wear to the point of quickly forgetting Glass is on our head. It also feels sturdy: Google introduced Glass with a skydiving stunt, and Glass stays in place during extreme activity.
We found it fine to use Google Glass when on foot, and cycling. It wasn't distracting at all, and the bonus of being able to capture photos and videos hands-free allows us to interact with the day's events in a way that wouldn't be possible with a camera or smartphone. We also love the natural nature of the shots we get, when you remove the physical device you snap people acting naturally, there is no “say cheese” moment with Google Glass photography.
Perhaps the only time we found Glass to be distracting was when using Directions when driving. Instead of displaying the route constantly, Glass pings every time you approach a junction, and the display fires up (a battery-saving measure) showing you where to go. We have concerns about using the Touchpad while driving, though. The status of Glass is somewhat unclear, it is theoretically illegal under the 1988 Road Traffic Act (which bars mobile phone use) but the Department For Transport is having talks with Google at how to make the device safer. For now, we'll avoid using it while driving.
There are two primary means to interact with Google Glass: voice activated commands and the Touchpad that runs along the right hand side of the frame.
Glass is wakened by tilting your head backwards or tapping the right side of the frame (the display sleeps after just 15 seconds of inactivity). The Glass screen is not visible when you look straight ahead, instead you need to glance slightly upwards to view the display. This upward placement of enables you to ignore Glass while walking around, but view the display when you need it. Google describes it as equivalent to a 25in high definition screen seen from eight feet away.
The screen appears in a slightly translucent fashion, enabling you to view what is behind the display. It's blurry and while you can watch videos and browse websites, the Glass display is more for flashing up snippets of information.
Saying “ok glass” brings up a list of options such as “Google," “Get directions to," “send a message to," “take a photo” and “record video." The list of default Glass menu items grows as you install more apps. Tilting your head up and down scans through the list, and saying that option issues a command. Voice commands open the app (or in the case of “take a photo” or “record a video” performs the specific action). It is worth noting that you have to say that specific command to Glass: it has to be “take a photo” not “take a picture” or “record a photo”. You have to say exactly what is listed the screen. This exactness keeps the Glass interface straight-forward, but it sorely lacks the charm of a service like Siri or Cortana.
Google's Voice analysis is great, however, and none more so than when you say, “ok glass," “Google” and speak out your search term. The accuracy of Google's voice recognition is ahead of Siri's by a considerable margin. Glass returns a lot of information directly from search, so you can ask Google what the weather is going to be like, or to perform a calculation and it will speak out the results.
The Bone Inducing Headphone is an interesting addition, and it is certainly more practical using a headset. We found the volume to be extremely quiet, even with the setting turned up to 100 per cent. The built in audio is fine for alerts and for making a phone call in an extremely quiet area, but with any external noise you'll need to make use of the earpiece accessory (a single headphone for your right ear is included in the box).
If you don't want to use voice control, you can access all options by tapping and sliding along the Touchpad. You slide your finger back and forth along the Touchpad to move through the menu, and tap once to select something, and swipe your finger downwards (towards your feet) to move back.
There is also a two finger tap and hold gesture when viewing a website, this allows you to move up and down the web page by looking up and down through Glass. We like this idea of looking around a web page, but the Glass display doesn't lend itself to reading long piece of text.
In terms of pure technical specifications, Google Glass 2.0 isn't astounding in any way whatsoever. The main System on Chip (SoC) is a TI OMAP4430 Dual 1.2GHz (ARMv7). It is the same SoC used in the Samsung Galaxy S2. The new edition of Glass 2.0 has doubled the amount of RAM to 2GB, but kept the 16GB of storage - 12GB is available for use.
Glass also features an InvenSense MPU-9150 (gyroscope, accelerometer and compass) and a Wolfson WM7231 MEMS microphone; in terms of software it runs a variation of Android 4.4 KitKat but the interface is so different from the smartphone version that you wouldn't be able to tell.
In terms of connection, Glass has WiFi 802.11 b/g and Bluetooth 4.0 LE but notably lacks a GPS sensor or any 3G/4G SIM card slot. This is mainly why you hook it up to a smartphone.
The camera is a key component of Glass, and has a resolution of 5-megapixels, and it snaps JPEG photos at 2528 x 1856 pixels. Glass records video at 720p resolution. We find picture quality to be mostly great.
The components found inside Glass are all standard fare found on any smartphone. Perhaps the only truly unique specification is the Bone Conduction Speaker next to the battery, that transmits audio by conduction through to the inner ear (a technology normally used by people with hearing impairment). However, you can plug in special earbuds via the microUSB port. A mono earbud is included in the box.
Charging is performed by means of a standard microUSB port, which can also be used to connect Glass to your computer. We were intrigued to find that a charger did not ship with Glass, although it comes with a custom microUSB cable that matches the design of the headset. You also get a free carry bag (an attached note informs us it is weaved of Japanese Micro Fibre).
It's worth noting here that there isn't anything in the hardware that comes remotely close to warranting the £1,000 price tag. It has has been estimated that the total costs for parts of Glass 2.0 comes to around $105 (Google Glass 1.0 was estimated to contain around $80 worth of parts).
Of course, the parts alone do not take into account the cost of research and development, or the cost of putting together the manufacturing molds to build the device. But this is true of every device that comes to market. Even taking all this into account, we believe the price of Glass is being kept artificially high. We can only presume that Google wants to limit sales of the device to developers while it improves the design (this also has the benefit of creating a notion of scarcity around the device, although how successful this has been for Google in the wake of the “Glasshole” commentary is debatable).
Pricing issues aside, the design of Glass is neither simple nor straightforward; it is a unique device that has been solidly designed and expertly put together. In terms of physical construction Google Glass could easily have come from the design table of Apple's Jony Ive.
The build quality shows, and Glass is sturdy, drop-resistant and reasonably resistant to the elements. Google has stated outright that despite rumours the contrary the device is not waterproof. We have no issues taking Glass out and about to the countryside during a particularly stormy weekend.
Still, it is obvious that Glass isn't worth £1,000 from a pure consumer gadget point of view. Current purchasers are either software developers, looking to create something new with Google Glass, or extremely wealthy (or extremely eager) early adopters. Google, for its part, has stated outright that Glass will cost much less when it officially launches to consumers (although it's worth noting that anybody can now buy Glass from the Google Play store, so technically it has launched publicly and the amount of slack we can cut Google here is eroding by the day).
Google Glass 2.0 connects directly to the internet by means of regular Wi-Fi connection. The way Glass enters passwords is pretty smart. First you tap on Settings > Join network and choose the network you want; then you go online using a computer, phone or tablet to the www.google.com/myglass website and tap on My WiFi networks.
You enter the Wi-Fi network name and password into the MyGlass website, and it displays a QR code (containing the information). Glass then scans this QR code and connects to a Wi-Fi router. Thus, you never have to enter the password manually (which would be tricky with the Glass Touchpad).
The Glass website also enables you to get information on your Glass device, add contacts, check on its location and also add and remove apps from Glass.
Google has also released a MyGlass companion app for both Android and iOS (but not Windows Phone). The MyGlass app enables you to view device information, and add contacts or apps to Glass. It also makes it easier to set up Glass and connect to Wi-Fi networks (by generating the QR codes that Glass uses to connect to Wi-Fi networks).
The other main uses for the MyGlass app is to share your GPS with the Glass as it does not have this on-board. f your phone contract includes data sharing, you can set up your phone as a mobile hotspot and share its data connection with Glass.
Google Glass sends all the photos and video you record to the Google+ website. This occurs when Glass is connected to a Wi-Fi network and is plugged in to the mains.
You pair Glass to your Android phone, or iPhone, using Bluetooth. Once Glass is paired with a smartphone you are able to make and receive phone calls on Glass. The phone call quality isn't great using the built-in Bone Inducing Headphone, but Glass comes with a single USB earphone.
We were surprised to find Google Glass offer almost identical support for iPhone users as their own Android customers. The only omission for iPhone users is that they can't send and receive SMS messages with Glass; this feature requires an Android phone.
There is a surprisingly good range of apps (known as Glassware) available for Glass. A selection of featured Glassware apps can be found on the Glass website or app in the Glassware Gallery. Glass has its own app store that is distinct from the Google Play store.
Installing an app couldn't be easier. Simply locate the app on the Glass site and tap the switch next to it to On. There is no syncing or installation process, the app simply appears in the list of supported apps and opens when you select it.
When you install an app, it also adds a new voice command to the default selection (the list that appears when you say “OK Glass." Installing the Compass app adds the “Show a compass” command, for example.
While the selection of apps is much more limited than either Google Play or the Apple App Store, there seems to be no difference between the UK and US in terms of apps.
There may not be many apps for Glass, but the quality is remarkably high. Star Chat was a standout experience for us, overlaying a grid of stars above the night sky as we looked around. Word Lens is another “augmented reality” app that translates foreign signs as you look at them (the only downside is that you have to hold still while it works).
There are apps for Twitter and Facebook. There are also some early offerings from The Guardian and New York Times (these flash up headline alerts). We were also pleased to see WatchUp on the store, a new service that curates video feeds from various news services around the world. There is something frighteningly futuristic about hearing a ping, and looking up to watch a video clip of a breaking news event appear right in front of your eyes.
As you use Glass you quickly realise just what a balancing act Google has had with the product. The space for the battery is much smaller than you'd expect to find in a mobile phone, and you find yourself taking photos and videos more often that you would with a smartphone.
Glass is also permanently connected to either an iPhone or Android phone using Bluetooth 4.0 LE (Low Energy). While Bluetooth LE doesn't drain any power when idle, it still drains the battery more quickly when Glass is communicating with the phone.
We found battery life on Glass to be hugely varied depending on how much we used it, and what activity we were doing. We turned Bluetooth off on our smartphone and managed to spend six hours photographing an event, on other days it ran out in just a few hours. Once we took 101 photos, and 36 video clips during the course of a day, which is pretty good going. Most of the video clips were the ten seconds default, but some lasted for around a minute.
Recording video drains the battery quickly; you can expect about 45 minutes of battery life with Glass if you just constantly record video.
Using Bluetooth also drains the battery quickly (and we found it caused the device to become hot). We found Bluetooth usage also caused Glass to stutter due to overheating if we tried to switch to other apps (we receive the “Glass needs to cool down message” frequently when using Glass with our connected phone). We don't get on with Directions in a car, and the legality of Glass is questionable at the moment, so Glass is better suited to navigation on foot.
Google claims that Glass lasts for about a day, but in truth we find it lasts a maximum of about eight hours if you go easy on video recording.
Glass was typically done by around 4:30pm in the afternoon. Most of our interactions with apps are fairly brief: you can browse the web and watch YouTube videos, or play Google Play music, but these aren't the greatest experiences ever. While this would also quickly drain the battery; We quickly tire of trying to look at the Glass display for longer than 30 seconds.
It's clear to us that battery life and the heat caused by the Bluetooth connection are the biggest hurdles Google is facing with Glass development. We also presume that battery life and heat are the reasons Glass does not support its own internal GPS or SIM card housing. Both of which would simply overheat the device or drain its battery so quickly to make it redundant.
Should you buy Google Glass? No, probably not is the outright answer. Certainly not for the £1,000 that Google is asking for the Google Glass 2.0 Explorer Edition.
It is a waste of time to compare Google Glass with smartphones like the Google Nexus 5 or tablets like the iPad. Glass is unique, original and it is outright weird. Glass is not like any other tech product on the market.
In terms of features: Glass doesn't offer anything that your smartphone can't do already. In fact, it does far, far less than the average smartphone. You can't create calendar events, set alarms, dictate notes, or compose or read documents on Glass, for example.
Google Glass is notable for what it gets rid of, rather than what it has. Google Glass is an attempt to get rid of the physical device that you hold up in front of your face during use. Smartphones (or even smartwatches) acts as a barrier between you and other people. Sometimes that barrier is helpful, letting people know that you are taking a photo, or talking on the phone, or watching a movie; sometimes it isn't so helpful, such as when all your friends are in a pub checking for phone alerts instead of speaking to each other.
For the most part, Glass succeeds in providing a device that enables some of the functions of a smartphone (notably photo and video capture) in a way that is better than any smartphone. Column after column has been written on the social implications of Google Glass. Nobody is talking about the social implications of the smartwatch; that is why Glass strikes us as the more important product in the long run. Google Glass has real implications for society. If Glass is successful, it won't just disrupt the tech world, but the wider world; perhaps more than any device since the mobile phone.
So, if nothing else, Google Glass is interesting. Not since the original iPhone have we had so many people want to talk about it, use it, or know more about it. People who aren't even normally interested in tech find Glass intriguing.
Google Glass in its current state is not designed for consumers, and even putting aside the huge price Glass isn't ready for prime time. The battery drains too quickly, and Glass is prone to overheating when using Bluetooth. Native GPS and a SIM-card both slot seem out of the question with the current design and components. Google still has some work to do here.
Glass only makes sense if you stop comparing it to smartphones, smart watches and tablets and see it in the same space as devices like Oculus Rift or the MakerBot 3D Printer. They are devices that make little sense to consumers, but developers are going nuts for them. Why? Because Glass, Oculus Rift and 3D printers offer a taste of the future. A future where the line between what is real, and what is computerised is increasingly eroded.
Owning Glass feels like owning a piece of that future. And a taste of it is yours for £1,000. Still… it's a lot of money for a development kit so you need to be super keen to splash out.
Unless you have a vested interest in owning Glass, you are almost certainly better off buying an Android Wear smartwatch instead and waiting for Google to finish Glass development and sell you the finished product for around £300. It may even be out later this year.