Review: Uneasy first steps with Google Glass

Mar 15, 2014 by Barbara Ortutay
In this Jan. 31, 2014 photo taken using Google Glass, vehicles are stopped at a traffic light in New York. (AP Photo/Barbara Ortutay)

Shaped like a lopsided headband, Google Glass is an unassuming piece of technology when you're holding it in your hands. You feel as if you can almost break it, testing its flexibility. Putting it on, though, is another story.

Once you do, this Internet-connected eyewear takes on a life of its own. You become "The Person Wearing Google Glass" and all the assumptions that brings with it —about your wealth, boorishness or curiosity. Such is the fate of early adopters of new technologies, whether it's the Sony Walkman, the first iPod with its conspicuous white earbuds, or the Segway scooter. Google calls the people who wear Glass "explorers," because the device is not yet available to the general public.

With its $1,500 price tag, the device is far from having mass appeal. At the South By Southwest Interactive tech jamboree in Austin this week, I counted fewer than a dozen people wearing it, including technology blogger Robert Scoble, who isn't shy about posting pictures of himself in the shower, red-faced, water running, wearing the device.

Google, like most successful technology companies, dreamers and inventors, likes to take a long view on things. It calls some of its most outlandish projects "moonshots." Besides Glass, these include its driverless car, balloons that deliver Internet service to remote parts of the world and contact lenses that monitor glucose levels in diabetics.

There's an inherent risk in moonshots, however: What if you never reach the moon? Ten years from now, we may look back at Google Glass as one of those short-lived bridges that takes us from one technological breakthrough to the next, just as pagers, MP3 players and paved the way for the era of the smartphone. Fitness bands, too, may fit into this category.

In its current, early version, Google Glass feels bulky on my face and when I look in the mirror I see a futuristic telemarketer looking back at me. Wearing it on the subway while a homeless man shuffled through the car begging for change made me feel as if I was sporting a diamond tiara. I sank lower in my seat as he passed. If Google is aiming for mass appeal, the next versions of Glass have to be much smaller and less conspicuous.

Though no one knows for sure where wearable devices will lead us, Rodrigo Martinez, life sciences chief strategist at the Silicon Valley design firm IDEO, has some ideas. "The reason we are talking about wearables is because we are not at implantables yet," he says. "(But) I'm ready. Others are ready."

Nevermind implants, I'm not sure I'm even ready for Google Glass.

In this Feb. 21, 2014 file photo, Associated Press Technology Writer Barbara Ortutay poses wearing Google Glass in New York. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File)

Specs in place for the first time, I walked out of Google's Manhattan showroom on a recent Friday afternoon with a sense of unease. A wave of questions washed over me. Why is everyone looking at me? Should I be looking at them? Should I have chosen the orange Glass instead of charcoal?

Ideally, Google Glass lets you do many of the things we now do with our smartphones, such as taking photos, reading news headlines or talking to our mothers on Sunday evenings—hands-free. But it comes with a bit of baggage.

Glass feels heavier when I'm out in public or in a group where I'm the only person wearing it. If I think about it long enough my face starts burning from embarrassment. The device has been described to me as "the scarlet letter of technology" by a friend. The most frequent response I get from my husband when I try to slip Glass on in his presence is "please take that off." This is the same husband who encouraged me to buy a sweater covered in googly-eyed cats.

Instead of looking at the world through a new lens on a crowded rush-hour sidewalk. I felt as if the whole world was looking at me. That's no small feat in New York, where even celebrities are afforded a sense of privacy and where making eye contact with strangers can amount to an entire conversation.

But that's just one side of wearing Google Glass.

The other side is exhilarating. Glass is getting some bad press lately. Some bars and coffee shops in Silicon Valley and Seattle have banned Google Glass, for example, and federal authorities in Ohio interrogated a man earlier this year after he was suspected of recording a movie with the device. Last month, Google put out a Glass etiquette guide that includes the appeal "don't be creepy or rude."

But the truth is that it's a groundbreaking device, even if it doesn't take off, even if it evolves into something completely different, even if we laugh at it 10 years from now while driving our flying cars in the skies of Manhattan.

I strolled around for a few hours with the cyborg glasses, happily snapping photos. With a mere wink, I captured snowy Lower Manhattan streetscapes and my reflection in the grimy subway-car windows.

There were some whispers. ("Did you see? Google Glass!") There were some comments as I squeezed into the subway with my fellow commuters —comparisons to the Segway scooter, and a warning that it will prove to be a huge battery drainer if I use my iPhone to connect Glass to the Internet.

For more human interaction, I walked into a small macaroon shop to buy a friend some birthday sweets. Alone but for the store clerks, I fumbled to take them off, find a place to put them on the small counter and get my wallet out of my bag.

"Sorry. You're the first people I'm interacting with wearing these. I don't mean to be a jerk," I told the man and woman at the counter. I took off Glass for the same reason that I take out my earbuds when I am talking to people. I don't want to appear like I am not paying attention to them.

It was fine, though. The woman thought Glass was cool. The man, he might not have, but he didn't say anything.

Explore further: Ohio man questioned over Google Glass in theater

3.1 /5 (13 votes)
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User comments : 12

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overcurious
2.6 / 5 (5) Mar 15, 2014
Where I do believe in suppressing technologies, the Google glasses concept/application is; to me, even more invasive than the NSA. Is there no anonymity nor privacy to be had any more? Do we really need to be "connected" at all times? Where and when do we have time for self examination and growth, or are we doomed to be drones? I swear I am not a technophobe :)
cabhanlistis
2 / 5 (4) Mar 15, 2014
even more invasive than the NSA

Exaggeration. Shall we actually produce a comparison list?

Is there no anonymity nor privacy to be had any more?

When you're in public, you are not anonymous nor respecting your own privacy.

Do we really need to be "connected" at all times?

No. Has someone informed you that you will be required to be connected?

Where and when do we have time for self examination and growth

I don't see how Glass impedes that.

or are we doomed to be drones?

I don't see how Glass imposes that.

I swear I am not a technophobe :)

If you say so. But you certainly sound irrational.
Bonia
Mar 15, 2014
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
cabhanlistis
5 / 5 (1) Mar 15, 2014
I don't deny privacy issues. But overcurious says it's worse than the NSA. While people could take pictures of everyone in public and run various software to exploit their identities, that's been around long before Glass, however inconvenient the steps would be. And yet, there's a big difference; businesses and facilities can and do prohibit people from bringing Glass onto their property. The NSA doesn't care what anyone says and they do all their work out of sight.

But I will need something far more substantial to accept that these devices will be the eyes that Big Brother will use to kill people than mere speculation. In any case, I responded to overcurious asking if we were "doomed to be drones." You tell me how long it would take before people decide that once the first drone strikes someone, that people decide not to participate. How about you? If you found out that the pics from your Glass or similar are used to kill, are you doomed, too? How long will that last?
MrVibrating
1 / 5 (1) Mar 15, 2014
Where I do believe in suppressing technologies, the Google glasses concept/application is; to me, even more invasive than the NSA. Is there no anonymity nor privacy to be had any more? Do we really need to be "connected" at all times? Where and when do we have time for self examination and growth, or are we doomed to be drones? I swear I am not a technophobe :)

...and yet we have to acknowledge Rodrigo Martinez's point expressed in the article, that we seem inextricably and inevitably destined to be implanting this kind of tech once it's viable.

Besides the plain creepiness of it, some of the possible fallout scenarios from there are startling...
24volts
5 / 5 (1) Mar 15, 2014
Google glasses have their place. They are a great idea for people doing technical jobs and medical jobs with the right software but I honestly don't believe people should be running around wearing them all the time on public streets. It's one thing to take pictures in public with a camera or phone because it obvious what you are doing and people can react to it and adjust their behavior or whatever but no one can tell what the glasses are being used for and many people don't like having their personal privacy invaded like that. I'm not at all surprised they are being banned in many public places of business.
Guy_Underbridge
3.7 / 5 (3) Mar 16, 2014
Is there no anonymity nor privacy to be had any more? Do we really need to be "connected" at times?

I find it silly to complain about eventual threats to 'privacy' with the GoogleGlass, but not complain about the video camera at the bank machines, gas stations, traffic lights, or on ANY given mobile phone. Telephones and email have NEVER been guaranteed free from snoopers. And how many of these doomsayers post the most annoying details of their life on facebook, linkedin, tweeter....?
alfie_null
5 / 5 (3) Mar 16, 2014
With all this churn about privacy in places people still wish to pretend are private, here's a thought: With the deployment of Glass, Google is positioned to be able to supply, for instance, law enforcement, information regarding recordings that might have been done in the area and at the time of some incident being investigated.
Bonia
Mar 16, 2014
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
jlewis
1 / 5 (1) Mar 16, 2014
"Such is the fate of early adopters of new technologies, whether it's the Sony Walkman, the first iPod with its conspicuous white earbuds, or the Segway scooter."

Oh what self-serving twaddle. This is a $1,500 head mounted computer that only Americans can buy - and even then, only a select group, not a cheap music player. This device is the epitome of a 'wealthy, privileged person's toy'.

And ignoring the silly argument above this comment, since they're entirely missing the point of why people feel uncomfortable having Glass around them, the real problem isn't that people think it's on all the time and recording people - it's that there's no easy to see way to tell when someone IS being recorded. That kind of omission just SCREAMS 'I don't need to be considerate of the people around me'. Something as simple as a little red LED on the front that turns on when it's recording video or audio would have worked.
Bonia
Mar 16, 2014
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
cabhanlistis
not rated yet Mar 17, 2014
which already do regulate the infringement of privacy with taking photos and movies at public

Bonia, I have to ask you to cite your source on this one.
cabhanlistis
5 / 5 (1) Mar 17, 2014
I think I can go as far as comparing these irrational fears of cameras in public with homophobia.
nowhere
1 / 5 (3) Mar 18, 2014
I think I can go as far as comparing these irrational fears of cameras in public with homophobia.

I would disagree with that because cameras in public cannot be avoided, whereas homosexuality can be.
cabhanlistis
not rated yet Mar 18, 2014
There is no negative result of exposure to either, and thus IS an irrational fear.