Google Glass review - first look, price and UK explorer
We take a look at the UK Explorer version of Google Glass, which is on sale now
Until recently Google Glass was only available in the US, but with the smart glasses maturing and improving all of the time, the company has decided to make them available in the UK now via its Explorer program. That means that anyone can buy them right now, provided they're 18 or over, a British resident and have a cool £1,000 to spend on the technology. With the glasses officially available we took ourselves over to the Glass showcase to try them out for ourselves and to see how the technology and design have matured since the product was first announced.
Comfort and design
When we first tried out Google Glass over a year ago, the product only came in its original form, with a frameless set of glasses with the screen mounted just in front of your eye. These were no good if you wore glasses, as there was no easy way to fit both your regular set and Glass comfortably together. Since then, Google has expanded its range of products and now has a range of frames available that can take prescription lenses. They can also be fitted with plain glass, which sounds a little odd, but actually works.
With the original models, we found that with Glass just resting on or nose, it didn't feel as comfortable. With a proper frame and lenses, the smart glasses feel that much more comfortable to wear and a lot more natural. Perhaps it's because we're used to glasses, but this definitely feels like a step forwards. We also think that they look better, with the rims giving a better sense of design than the plain-looking originals.
There's bad news for short-sighted people in the UK, though, as while they can choose the Glass frames they want, they can't currently buy any prescription lenses. We were told by Google that it's working with opticians to bring this to the UK, but the technology means that the lenses have to be properly measured and fitted in order to work properly.
Also not available in the UK are the Dianna von Furstenberg designer frames. We got a sneak peek at what they look like and they're available in the US now, but over hear we're going to have to wait. We have no idea of pricing, but there's a premium for these frames in the US, so we'd expect them to cost more over here, too.
Also available from Google are sunglasses. These are the only set of frames where you can unclip the sunglass component, leaving you with the original Google Glass design. It's a must-have feature, as think how crazy you'd look wearing sunglasses inside all of the time in order to use Google Glass. Again, there's a good choice of colours available and we found them pretty comfortable to wear. You can't buy prescription sunglasses in the UK, so these are really only for people with regular sight and contact lens wearers.
Wearing Glass for the first time is a slightly strange experience, as the screen is alwayss in your peripheral vision. At first, it's a little distracting and the natural thing you want to do is raise your eyes up to look at it. However, after wearing them for a while your brain learns how to ignore the display and only look up to it when you need to find something out.
This design is on purpose and the position of the screen is something that Google's Sergey Brin hopes will end smartphone addiction. The desire, Brin explained during a brief appearance at a TED Conference last year, is to solve a serious problem: smartphone addiction. Ignoring the audience at first in order to reply to an email on his Android-based smartphone, Brin made a clear point: peering down at your phone all the time isn't exactly a welcoming feeling for others in the vicinity. "In addition to potentially socially isolating yourself when you are out and about using your phone, I feel it is kind of emasculating," Brin told the audience.
The display has a resolution of 640x360 pixels, which sounds a little lame when you consider the high-resolution screens you find in smartphones and tablets. However, at the distance you're looking at it from, this is like watching a high-resolution 25in screen from 2.4m away. Everything looks sharp and neat on the display. Care has to go into designing the apps, so that they're fitted correctly to the display, but if this has been done properly, Glass is a great experience (more on apps later).
We found that the screen was clearly visible most of the time, but with harsh direct light coming in directly, we found that it became a little tricky to view. That's not a massive problem, as turning your head makes it easy to find a new angle where everything is sharp and clear again.
Google Glass has just been updated to Android 4.4.2 KitKat. The update has improved battery life and added lots of new features. However Google has removed video calling from Glass, claiming that less than 10 per cent of people were using it.
On the inside Google Glass has been upgraded to 2GB of memory recently (we're checking to see if this is available in the UK), 16GB of Flash storage and a 5 megapixel camera that can record video at 720p. It also has Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, a micro USB port, GPS, accelerometer, compass and gyroscope. The processor has been reported as a Texas Instruments OMAP 4430, although the clock speed isn't clear.
The 640 x 360 display might seem awful but as it is located to close to your eye it is actually the equivalent of watching a 25in screen from 2.4m away. As a result, it looks a lot higher quality than the resolution suggests.
Glass is controlled by two methods: voice and the touchpad mounted on the side. Voice is the primary interface for inputting data and doing slightly more complicated things. For example, if you want to turn on navigation, you can just talk to Glass and get it to enter the address of where you want to go. It's all powered by Google and worked well even in a very loud room. Sure, there's room for some error, but what voice system isn't? Besides, there's no way of integrating a keyboard neatly into the design, so voice is definitely the way to go.
Once you're in an app or just want to navigate through menus, you use the touchpad on the side of Glass. You can swipe in all directions and tap to select. It takes a little getting used to, particularly as you can't see what you're tapping away at, but once you do, it becomes second-nature. Our one minor complaint is that this touchpad area, which also houses the CPU and memory, can get quite hot, particularly when it's busy on a complicated application.
As part of the demonstration we were given, we got to try out a variety of apps available for the Glass. Known as Glassware, these apps have been specially written for Glass in order to properly use the screen, touchpad and voice commands. There are new apps coming all of the time, but these are a just a sample of what's out there to give you an idea of how Glass works.
Navigation is one of the key applications for Google Glass and perhaps one of the best apps. All of the on-screen maps are powered by Google Maps, but they're cleanly and neatly formatted to fit the small screen. What's particularly brilliant about the system is that the maps rotate as you move your head. It makes it really easy to work out where you are and which way you need to walk, as you can look around naturally to gain your bearings before you set off. With a smartphone this just isn't as natural and swinging your phone round wildly to see where you are and which way you're facing doesn't quite work.
Navigation can give you driving, walking, cycling and public transport options. The system is intelligent, too, turning off the display when you're moving in a straight direction for a long time, only turning back on to bring up a clear instruction of the next turn. This is definitely one of the most impressive things about Glass at the moment.
This has to be one of our favourite apps on Google Glass. It comes pre-loaded with star charts, using your GPS position and the Glass gyroscope to show you what you're seeing in the night sky. It's a great way to look around and discover the night sky. As you look around a box highlights stars and constellations; just hold your head steady and you get a pop-up telling you more about what you're looking at. The only thing missing at the moment is the ability to search for a particular star, constellation or planet and have Starchart guide you to it. Even so, this is a really great app.
The popular AR translation app has made it to Glass. It's a great use of the technology, too. Just point the camera at anything written in a foreign language, using the live feed on screen, hold steady when the software shows you that it has a lock and off it goes. Translation is quick and effective, so you'll never have to worry about what you're ordering or what that scary-looking sign means.
There's all of the usual apps you'd expect to find built-in, and you can receive email, getting a similar view as you would on a smartwatch. You can also compose a reply, using voice messages. Appointments pop-up automatically to let you know about events, while Google Now can tell you other things related to where you are and what you're doing, such as how much traffic there is on the way home.
New apps are being added all of the time, too. The New York Times, Twitter, Facebook, Evernote, CNN and dozens of other websites and services have already developed apps for Glass, and The Guardian, Shazam and Zombines Run! are all new additions.
Of course, you can also use the camera to take video or still shots, simply by asking it to. It's a handy way to record what's going on at any one time.
Privacy and legality
Google Glass has already had a major setback in the UK – it is likely to be banned on roads. The Department of Transport has said that it is aware of Glass and considers it unsafe:
"We are aware of the impending rollout of Google Glass and are in discussion with the Police to ensure that individuals do not use this technology while driving," the DfT said in a statement.
Google has attempted to calm fears that Glass will cause a massive invasion of privacy by issuing its 'top 10 Google Glass myths'. In a post on Google+, the company said that glass wasn't a distraction and couldn't record everything. It pointed out that its battery would only last 45 minutes, arguing that because people don’t constantly record the world on their phones. Google refers to people currently using Glass as “Explorers” and said that they were only recording as often as people do on phones.
Google said Glass isn't capable of always recording video as its battery would only last 45 minutes and said that people wouldn't want to record everything they do anyway.
Google also said that Glass wasn't just for geeks and was used by people from "all walks of life", including "parents, firefighters, zookeepers, brewmasters, film students, reporters, and doctors". The company said that Glass allowed people to get on with their lives without being "distracted by technology". Google also pointed out that Glass is a terrible spying device because it is on people's faces and has flashy lights. The company also explained that Glass isn't capable of facial recognition.
None of these conclusions has stopped the UK's cinemas banning the device, though. The Cinema Exhibitors' Association, which represents nearly all cinemas in the UK, has moved to ban Glass and other wearable technology in a bid to tackle piracy and for the privacy of other theatregoers.
"As a courtesy to your fellow audience members, and to prevent film theft, we ask that customers do not enter any cinema auditorium using any 'wearable technology' capable of recording images," the CEA explained. "Any customer found wearing such technology will be asked to remove it and may be asked to leave the cinema."
Glass is certainly an interesting technology and when apps are written properly to use its screen and interface you can really see what it's worth. At the moment, though, you can only buy Glass for £1,000 as part of the Explorer programme. As you're buying a prototype product, you're not really sure if what you're getting is the final thing. We're not convinced it's worth that amount of money, but Glass is certainly one of the most interesting bits of wearable tech out there.