SAN JOSE, Calif. – The “user experience” has become the tech mantra in recent years. The announcement this week of Google’s Project Glass is an example of how this philosophy can be pushed too far.
It's de rigueur these days for any self-respecting standards group to start by defining user scenarios--what it wants to enable. That's fine, practical. But it's becoming far to chic for self-styled marketing mavens to say, "It's not the hardware, it's the user experience." Sure, but let's not forget its the hardware that creates a user experience--or fails to.
Like thousands of others I enjoyed the fun video and classy pictures of prototypes and concepts Google posted this week. And I totally agree with the trio behind the project that “technology should work for you.”
In that respect, the concept of augmented reality glasses makes sense. How fun and useful to have an intelligent agent watch your life unfold and provide context sensitive alerts and links that save time, money and energy and keep you connected through your day.
The friend you are trying to meet is outside the bookstore. Subway service is suspended, but here’s a map for a walking route. Utterly cool, but totally impractical.
I don’t know about your experience of reality, but when I try to get a phone number using voice recognition on 411 the hit rate is mediocre at best. Even Intel Corp.’s automated attendant did not recognize (after three attempts) the name of one of its veteran PR people when I tried to call him this week. I wouldn’t trust a detour suggested by a current voice recognition system any more than I would ask directions from a toddler.
But this issue only scratches the surface of the technical problems Google’s Project Glass suggests. Having an always-on device that lasts all day, scans your field of vision, listens for your voice and maintains a broadband Internet link would require a device the size of a small brick. The battery requirement alone would outpace the needs of the new iPad which is burning the laps of devotees as I write.
Then there are the issues around retina tracking. Let's not even go there.
The happy models in Google’s pictures suggest this could all be done with a little attachment that fits on the side of your glasses. No doubt they neglected to picture the solar panel hat and jacket you need to wear and the energy-harvesting tennis shoes made from graphene supercomputers.
I’m all for looking into the distant future to see where we want to be and map out a road to get there. But such an exercise involves more than flashy videos and pictures. It requires an open, intelligent discussion about real technology barriers and ways to address them.
I would love to hear from some of the smart people at Google about what the industry needs to do to move in the direction of that vision. But frankly, I don’t have time for it.
I am too busy these days producing a really cool video about my jet pack that will revolutionize urban planning. It makes a great latte, too.
For someone like me, a digital map is easier than a paper one. I can easily search for a location I've never been to before (manual search takes forever on paper). Zooming in and out is easy, with different overlays for routes, topography, satellite, and even street view in some locations (zooming is possible on paper if you install the magnifying glass add-on). The cost of constantly updating paper maps is much more than digital, and with a little bit of download it should be able to support an offline mode (why doesn't my android phone support off-line maps?). And bookmarking (and the learning curve in general) are getting easier. How easy would it be just to say "remember this place for later. And add it to my favourite restaurant list. And check me in here. And Tweet it with hashtag #goodeats." That would be the power of a transparent, voice operated interface like Glass is proposing.
The biggest issues are reliability, accessibility, and learning curves. Consider navigation. My paper map has never crashed, slowly rebooted, failed due to "no service", or experienced a battery failure. It is completely unobtrusive until I access it. The learning curve was relatively short (long ago in my youth) and the user interface has never changed. Bookmarks can be placed in a moment with a ball point pen. Of course, the paper map is useless in new locations. The learning curve on digital maps is long (placing a bookmark the first time was a very long and painful process), the reliability is miserable (as you enter the wilderness, "no service" terminates navigation access), and unexpected glitches make instant access undependable. In short there are advantages of both the digital connections and the legacy systems. Somehow digital systems need to address these challenges, in the meantime it is prudent to carry legacy (paper) backup systems when traveling. Exactly the same lessons apply to banking (just try gaining access to historical financial records from a few years ago - especially for closed accounts). Emerging digital solutions have a half life of about 6 months.
Very challenging to build but if Google manages that most young people will wear it within a year or so...really cool, I am not that young but will buy it ASAP...even with limited functionality, I bike frequently...Kris
It's a cool concept but Project Glass will have to get away from an antenna near the temple region if they don't want users concerned about SAR from wireless components. Also, based on that form factor, it will be fairly difficult to design all of the electronics into the device without investing in custom ASICs. Power supplies (including battery), wireless devices with EMI shielding, a processor, storage, audio and video codecs + analog interfacing. It will be a challenging design task for sure.
In a lot of ways I think Google will be betting on the advancement of Cloud computing and mobile networking speed to make many of the things shown possible. Voice transcription, mapping, alerts, face recognition, social tracking, and many other tasks are going to be primarily preformed by the very large and optimized Google server farm while the Glass device is primarily display and interface. Right now, this is a slow and tedious process, but it's not inconceivable that speed increases and larger, smarter databases will make this a real (useful) possibility.
@Rick: More importantly, when I look at an emerging visual technology like Google Glass, I examine it through the lens of a hearing impaired electrical engineer, namely, how can it help me, and millions of other hearing impaired Americans, cope with day-to-day living?
First off, even the basic heads-up display is a G-dsend: One of the things we depend on is CapTel (captioned telephone), which is conducting a regular voice phone call, and having the other party being monitored by a relay operator who also transcribes the call, with the text appearing on our phone like this:
or appear on our mobile like this:
Now, let's say you're hearing mpaired, and walking down the street while talking to someone on your mobile: Instead of holding the phone up to your hearing aids or cochlear implant (CI) -- And missing many words -- or looking down to read the captions, instead the words come into our ears, and then appear in front of our eyes a second or two later. Pretty cool, ehh?
For the cognitively impaired, overlaying information on landmarks while walking about (as a sort of "heads-up GPS") would be very helpful.
Lastly, for those who are cognitively impaired when it comes to recognizing faces -- Or more accurately, connecting a familiar face to a name (which is absolutely maddening, as that's me) -- this would be a huge help.
For much more, talk to the good people at the Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center at Gallaudet in DC:
Editor, The Hearing Blog