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Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Google Glass: Is It Worth The Hype?

This promotional image of Google Glass appears on the purchase page. The device is being offered for sale to the general U.S. public today only. (Google)

This promotional image of Google Glass appears on the purchase page. The device is being offered for sale to the general U.S. public today only. (Google)

Google is making its wearable computing device, Glass, available today. For one day only, people can buy Glass for $1,500 plus tax. Buyers can choose from plain lenses, prescription lenses or sunglasses.

Until now, only people handpicked by Google had access to the device, through Google’s Glass Explorer program.

The device allows people to constantly monitor e-mail and calls, surf the web and take photos and videos, which has raised privacy concerns.

Scott Stein, a senior editor for CNET, has been using Google Glass since it first came out last year, and tells Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson whether Glass is worth all the hype.




This is HERE AND NOW, and Google is making its Google Glass available for purchase to the public for one day only today, and supplies are limited. The device, which people wear like glasses, costs $1,500 and allows users to monitor email, phone calls, surf the Web and take photos and videos.

Scott Stein is a senior editor at CNET. He's been testing out Glass since Google first released it to a small group that they called Glass Explorers. He joins us from NPR in New York. Scott, welcome.

SCOTT STEIN: Hey, thank you.

HOBSON: Well, first, what does this do besides what I just said, which is it allows you to monitor email, phone calls, surf the Web and take photos and videos?

STEIN: Well, that's what you should basically expect that it does. You know, beyond that, it runs experimental applications. There are other ways that you can run Glassware, they're called, apps that do other things, from games to location-aware types of tools. But if you think about what this is, it's really two different things. It's heads-up display on your head that's giving you notifications, and then the other part is really like a wearable camera that you can then use to upload to the Internet on your phone or when you're home.

HOBSON: Why would you want this, then, as opposed to just having a phone? What's the advantage? Why would you spend $1,500 on it?

STEIN: Right, well, that's the number one question you ask and why a lot of people should not get one, because really you can do most of that on your phone, and a phone is pretty wearable tech. But you see a lot of wearable technology that's been developed in a lot of different areas - on your wrist; on your head.

Google Glass is the most expensive of them all, but it also is, in the area of life-logging cameras, if you think about recording what you're doing hands-free, it's at the top of that heap. But do you really need to be at the top of that heap, and how desperate are you to record everything without your hands?

HOBSON: Well, and there are big privacy concerns about that, about recording. And I want to get to that. But first let's just talk a little bit more about how this works. How do you control it?

STEIN: Well, you can use your voice. You can also tap on the side. There's a touch pad. So you can do any combination of those two. To start a recording, you can tap it, or you could say OK, Glass, record. And, you know, it's pretty simple. It's one touch and pretty fast, and there isn't a real, clear indication that it's recording, which is why people have always been unsettled by it. But, you know, that's not unlike, I think, what happened back when cell phones first adopted cameras.

You know, you were wondering are you recording me with that, but now of course it's on your face.

HOBSON: And can you say to it - I mean this is a concern a lot of people have, is what exactly is it able to record. Could you get an app that makes it so that people's clothes disappear? I mean, what are the possibilities with this?

STEIN: Well, I mean, you know, it is basically like a little computer. It's not as advanced as a smartphone. So, you know, there are lots of possibilities for what it could do, if you could imagine what smartphones can do. Right now the uses are pretty limited, or you have to be able to sort of, you know, find the right app to tackle that.

You know, it's a bit mysterious, and if you look at what Google is advertising that the Explorers program is doing, it really just boils down to mostly the wearable camera element. You know, if they look at all of the people who use it, the splash videos are looking at doctors and chefs and mountain climbers who are really saying here's a vantage point that's not easy for me, you know, when I'm doing something else, and now I can share what I'm doing with you.

That's valid, but it's really hard to sell the other elements of it.

HOBSON: Is it annoying to look through them? Does it feel like you're holding your phone right up next to your face?

STEIN: It feels like a semi-transparent TV screen is hovering up in the corner of your eye, and it disappears and then reappears like a little bug. You know, it's nothing that overlays your eyes like some sort of augmented or virtual reality. It's almost like a mini-teleprompter. And so the text is set up so it's pretty big, pretty simple, almost like cue cards, and that really is the idea, that they're card-based, and so you can read them, or you get a little picture of somebody who is calling you, and you have to keep looking up, so that could either be something that gets it out of the way of your field of view, or it could be distracting, depending on who you are.

HOBSON: Now Scott, you've got Google Glass right there with you, is that right?

STEIN: I do.

HOBSON: When you walk around New York with it, do people look at you funny? Do they - I know in some places, Google Glass have been snatched off of users' faces and broken, they've been attacked for wearing Google Glass.

STEIN: Yeah, it's become representative for a lot of what's going on in San Francisco in the tech class wars. It's become sort of - you know, I don't think Google intended it for it to be that centerpiece icon, but, yeah, it's - you know what? It's a combination of I think people get unsettled, and I get really unsettled wearing it.

I find that it's really hard for me to wear for more than half an hour at a time before I just have an inner cue that says, you know, I've got to take this off my face now.

HOBSON: You've been covering other technology that's wearable for CNET. How does Google Glass compare to things like smartwatches, which are becoming more common?

STEIN: Yeah, so, you know, Google is actually, you know, coming up they have a developers conference that's going to be focused on their smartwatch initiative, Androidware. So - and there are a lot of smartwatches out there. Most people are focusing on the wrist, and there are only a couple that are looking at things that you wear on your head. Google Glass is the big one, and you can see a lot of other smartglasses that pop up at things like CES and feel like strange, experimental prototypes because they are. And, you know, you have lenses over your eyes, semi-transparent.

So it actually has the same idea in concept of a smartwatch because a lot of what it's doing is the same sort of pushing of notification, so hey, I've got a tweet. Oh, somebody's trying to call me. I'm trying to search for something, it'll show. Or even if you have an Android phone like a recent one, like a Moto X or something, that's how it works when you're using Google now.

So it's really very much like that interface, but the extra element is probably that camera, and the camera is pretty cool, but is it $1,500 cool? You know, that's a lot of money. There are other little cameras that you can buy that aren't necessarily Internet-connected that you can mount. You know, there are things like Go Pros that are really not about looking at what you're seeing, but there are also little ones, like ones by Looksy.

And there's - there are ones that take pictures every couple of minutes. There's a narrative camera, autographer. These are not as good as Google Glass in terms of its - but you're talking they only cost a couple hundred dollars, so...

HOBSON: The big question, though, is of course when are you going to go and watch all these videos and pictures that you've taken all day long, every day. And the other thing is, you know, at least now with a phone, I can pull it out of my pocket and decide I want to go look at a tweet or an email. If it's just going to pop up in front of my face while I'm having a conversation with somebody or while I'm driving, let's say, isn't that just taking it a little too far?

STEIN: Definitely, and, you know, Glass, I did try driving very early on with Glass, before they even announced that you shouldn't be doing that, and I immediately, like on that one block, realized I shouldn't be doing it. But the - you know, I wear smartwatches that will pop up with notifications and buzz me as I'm driving, and it's tremendously distracting. And plus do you even want that?

There are some people who are doing, you know, fitness or other applications. Like you say, if you're doing - you're climbing a mountain, and then suddenly, you know, I don't know, you get a message up there.

HOBSON: Get a new email, right.

STEIN: Right, you have emails popping up, and you're like wait a second, I've got to focus. But I also think that when it comes to capturing the moment, there's a debate on - I tried using it, and if you're in a perfect little moment that you want to remember, and this is the sort of myth - or not a myth but the promise of the always-recording, auto-logging camera, well, you say oh great, I want to capture this moment so I don't forget it.

But it's really hard to frame a picture with Glass. So maybe you think you caught it, but later on it's not really the right framing, and you say that great moment, I wish I had just taken my camera out or my phone. So if I'm with my kid or something like that, I'd rather just take my phone out and frame a nice shot.

Some people want to set up something where they're having a cooking show, and then you can actually pre-script it and record it, but that's different, I think, than, you know, the idea of being your memory.

HOBSON: Well, and maybe all this is just about making driving such a distracting thing that you have to go buy a Google self-driving car.

Scott, Scott Stein...

STEIN: That's the next step.

HOBSON: ...senior editor at CNET, thanks so much for talking with us.

STEIN: Oh, thank you.

HOBSON: This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Robin Young and Jeremy Hobson host Here & Now, a live two-hour production of NPR and WBUR Boston.

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