“Die Gedanken sind frei” – Unknown, a German saying meaning “Thoughts are free”
(for the moment at least)
Over the past few weeks I’ve been actively testing Google Glass. I actually didn’t realise how few of those Glasses are around until many of my friends asked me to tell them more about how it feels and what you can do with it, so I decided to write an essay about it.
About 20 years ago, I was lucky to get my hands on one of the first mobile phones and then a few years later on one of the first smartphones (an O2 XDA) when they launched in Germany. Looking back, I realize how much the early exposure to new technologies shape our thinking of the future and about what may come next. So when Google came out with the Explorer program, I immediately applied for it and was happy to finally play around with Google Glass.
Note that it wasn’t easy to get Google Glass at all. If you try to get your hands on Google Glass the way I did, you’ll eventually end of up with a US address, credit card and your devices are registered with the US based app stores. Let’s just say: Google is turning you into a US resident by the time you have Glass in your hands and this is one of the things I hope Google is going to change real soon.
Why is focusing on the US alone – even at this point – a problem?
First of all, if you’re living or travelling outside of the US, you’re not truly owning the device, or you’re at least at the constant risk for it becoming (like my nephew put it) just a neat “new pair of sunglasses”. In the terms and conditions of the program, Google reserves the right to deactivate Glass remotely. Though I paid $1,500 for it, they can still do that (they might have already done so after reading this article) and they won’t have to refund you.
Is it right or wrong? I don’t know. But Google isn’t doing itself a favour calling it an “Explorer” program when the moment you start to have fun and not just explore Google Glass technically, but with it, “the world” – you effectively risk running into trouble one way or the other.
Secondly, the focus on the US is understandable for a number of reasons from Google’s perspective, but to the rest of the world – and taking into account my personal experiences with having early access to new technologies – it surely creates an imbalance.
This holds true in terms of competitiveness between developers but also in relation to simply being a citizen of planet Earth. If you’re a developer with access to Google Glass, you could be way ahead of the game already. If you’re not, you can still think as creative and innovative as you want, but without proper access to the real experience, it’s just not the same. And while we in the world certainly have enough problems to alone get food, water, education and care to all our citizens, the early access to new technologies on a global scale will eventually play a more important role in future as it could significantly aid and accelerate the other matters.
Google Glass arrives in a nice gift box and with it sets expectations high. Clearly everybody learned from Apple in this respect on how important the packaging for new products is. Google has done a great job to keep it simple yet informative and elegant yet environmentally friendly enough.
The first problem I encountered was that the USB charging cable which was included did not charge the Glasses. You’d think you’d figure this out on day one, but my human mind tricked me into believing it is the battery or the Glasses itself which are at fault or perhaps it could be the fact that I was outside the US when powering it up the first time. A simple solution came with replacing the USB charging cable – so in case Google Glass isn’t charging for you, try that first!
Once Google Glass was charged, it presented itself with a somewhat easy and clear guide explaining basic swiping gestures (the right side of the frame is touch sensitive and reacts to up/down and forward/backward movements using your fingers) – I felt sorry for my lefthanded friends.
There are different ways to connect Google Glass to the internet, either via the Android or the iOS version (you must be registered in the US iTunes app store) of the MyGlass app, or, by connecting it to your local w-lan network. The later option is too complicated whereas you first have to create a QR code which contains the details of your network before Google Glass can scan and use it. When Google Glass hits the market, I am convinced they will have to have solved this in another way if they want to reach the masses, everything else simply is neither practical, nor feasible.
Once successfully connected to the internet and logged in with your Google account though, the fun – and getting a glimpse of the future – can begin.
The swiping gestures are reliable and work well though they’re not as intuitive as what you’re used to from a smartphone. A simple improvement would be to make it very clear during the first tour what the main “back” swiping gesture is and (possibly in Google’s own interest) relating this to the back button usage on Android smartphones.
Google has also equipped it’s first Glass device with basic voice recognition features: “OK, glass” is the term which is supposed the make Google Glass realize that you’re going to issue an order and that it should get ready to execute your very command. Just that it’s not clear for a first time user what to do next after issuing the trigger term. If you say “OK, glass” – you’ll have to quickly conclude your sentence by what you want it to do, i.e. “Take a picture”.
The one thing I (and everybody else I’ve seen playing around with Google Glass) badly missed is a voice recognized “back” term. I can “swipe to back”. But why can’t I simply say “back” and Google Glass does it? Perhaps Google wants to limit the voice recognition to a few terms and do those well, though I’d argue unless you’re Arnold Schwarzenegger, “back” would be a comparatively easy term to add.
That said, I’m sure that many people will have a tough time simply getting the “OK, glass” term right and voice-recognized properly. You’d think it’s easy enough, but Google will have to optimize many variants of the term in different languages and dialects to enable people have a great first experience. In the area where I originally come from (near Stuttgart, Germany) there is a very particular type of German spoken (in fact: Germans don’t call it German!) of which the accents are not only tough (or impossible) to get rid of, but even extend into other languages, such as English. Swabian (Schwäbisch) is the dialect I am referring to and when a Swabian born German speaks English, one could rightly refer to him as speaking Swenglisch instead.
Like good old Swabia, there are many other places around the world with similar challenges. People are usually proud of their heritage and local tongue. If Google Glass doesn’t recognize them well simply speaking the “OK, glass” term (which is likely due to the users lack of paying attention to the subtleties of the English language), people may not feel welcome and/or even embarrassed. I’ve witnessed this several times with friends from different backgrounds and nationalities. They didn’t say anything to me and we had a good laugh about it, but I could clearly observe that there is an obvious correlation between their interest and excitement of the product before they had used it the first time and after they realized how little it seems to understand them. Google would do well to consider this point seriously by launching Glass both globally and locally.
Localized (even considering accents) voice recognition is a fickle beast and it may be hard (if not impossible) for Google to pull off, but a personal touch like this would help people to have courage in overcoming some of the oddities that naturally occur in your daily life when you start exploring Google Glass. If you’re the only one in a room with those glasses on, you’re already the object of curiosity, envy, uncertainty or fear – depending what is the group of people whom you’re with.
Once you start talking to yourself with “OK, glass”, you could easily be outlawed and possibly even be considered as an idiot by the rest of the group. In my opinion, the real break-through of wearable technology, whether it’s glasses or something else will come only if we can create a safe and secure one-way thought-bridge between our brain and our devices which can be used to send commands from a human to a machine but (at least for now) not the other way around.
Sounds too far out there?
Well, it already exists and it’s only a matter of time until it’s ready for prime time.
Compare it with the good old concept of computers where the input device (1 – keyboard) was different from the output device (2 – screen) and the computing power was again held in a different box (3 – storage, ram, motherboard etc.). Google Glass fundamentally challenges this separation as it has all 3 in one device, plus it is powered by the cloud, thus providing infinite computing power and data access, even today.
My first experience with Google Glass therefore reminded me of an early prototype of a so-called “memex”, or personal outboard memory which Vannevar Bush famously imagined in his 1945 article “As We May Think”.
Not just Google, but several other companies, such as Evernote for example, have embedded the creation of a memex deeply into their purpose and destiny. I just hope that it won’t be one single company owning a fair share of our minds in this respect, but instead an active collaboration of them which will eventually lead to the creation of such a memex in which – so I hope – Unified Inbox will be able to be a major contributor as well.
Where Google Glass could make a real difference is in the ability to both work as an identifier of what we see and look at (without having access to our innermost thoughts) as well as being the display (2) through which we consume the enriched and contextualized information or access deeper content related to it from the cloud or other (possibly wearable) technology. The given name “Mirror-API” for the Google Glass developer program therefore suits it well.
What’s missing for me to take it to the next level is the previously mentioned thought-bridge which would allow us to communicate our wishes and desires to the device at high speed while being at ease that the device cannot read more from our minds than what we want it to. Recognizing the thinking pattern and brain waves behind “OK, glass” would therefore be a great first step towards a more practical implementation of wearable technology.
One good side effect communicating with technology by “trained thought transmission” could be that we’re naturally training ourselves to discipline our thoughts more. From the cradle to the grave, teaching this to ourselves and future generations seems to have become a lost art since we’re overloaded with information and media. Who knows, maybe the very same technology that made us lose part of what makes us human, will one day help us find our way again.
Also Read: Imagining a future dictated by Google Glass
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