Google Glass: Not Ready for Prime Time

Thursday Jan 9, 2014 by Joe Kinsella - CTO & Founder, CloudHealth Technologies

I am less than a week into using Google Glass and am convinced this device is 1+ years away from being ready for the typical technical consumer, and 3-5 years from the mainstream consumer. I’ve heard all the rumors of a June launch at a $300 price point too, but can’t see how Google could possibly hit that date without sacrificing the quality of the product.

But before I go into the issues, I’d like to first enumerate what has impressed me with Glass:

  • Light, attractive frames

  • Excellent speech recognition

  • Solid / high resolution heads up display

  • Good voice search via Google (better than Siri)

  • Very good text to speech

  • Bluetooth enabled

  • Wifi enabled, with seamless transition between available networks

  • Ample storage (12 GB)

  • Extremely rich set of sensors: gyroscope, accelerometer, magnetic field, orientation, rotation vector, linear acceleration, gravity, light

  • Builds on standard Android SDK

  • Early web service API (Mirror API)

  • Simple, clean navigation combining voice and headset actions

In summary: I’m impressed. The day of augmenting the physical / intellectual capacity of humans with wearables is arriving much faster than we possibly could have imagined. If Google can find a way to navigate the remaining daunting social and technical challenges, they have the potential to accelerate this nascent market by 5+ years or more.

But the current version of Google Glass is much further from prime time than most of us think. The major gaps include:

It’s a Poor Smartphone

To achieve adoption within its first wave of users – technologists – Glass needs to establish a clear purpose in our device ecosystem. The laptop has become the primary workhorse for the technical consumer, the smartphone for voice and read-only access to content on the move, and the tablet for longer read-only interactions. So where does a wearable headset fit in?

Anyone who watched both Star Trek the original and Next-Generation series knows wearables will eventually replace the need for a communicator… I mean, smartphone. ;) But to replace the smartphone, Glass needs to achieve feature parity with it, while leveraging its technical advantages: voice activation, heads up video, and rich sensors. Unfortunately Google’s current approach is to tether Glass to a smartphone, like a patient on life support. While this will reduce the barrier to initial adoption, it is a strategic mistake. Glass should replace, not augment a phone. In addition, the current voice call experience on Glass through a smartphone is choppy and unimpressive.

I like to think of the current Glass version in the Explorer program as the iPod Touch. Now give me the iPhone.

Lack of Google Integration

For Glass to be useful for the mainstream technical consumer, it needs tight integration with Google products beyond just search – e.g. Google Alerts, Apps, Bookmarks, Books, Calendar, Contacts, Goggles, Mail, News. Search has received first class integration through a very good Siri-like voice activation feature, but all other products have either no or minimal support in the current version. For example, you can send or receive email on Glass, but there is no access to your mailbox. There is also no integration with Google Contacts, instead requiring you to manually enter and manage your contact list to a maximum of 10. Also the most obvious integration, Goggles, is suspiciously missing.

Poor Battery Life

A smartphone is designed to last a full day with moderate use. While active use can substantially lessen this duration, most of us can get through a full day without needing a charge. But the Glass battery drains in 5-6 hours of light use. Steve Jobs had a phrase for this: “it’s s***!”.

While certainly not insurmountable, this will need to change before a consumer release, and will likely have an impact on other characteristics of Glass (e.g. profile, weight).

Needs Face Recognition

One of the great advantages of having a pair of eyes connected to a visual cortex is the ability to recognize things in your environment. One of the most common things we like to recognize is people. Unfortunately in response to privacy concerns, Glass will not be able to recognize faces.

I think Google is making a mistake banning Glassware that uses facial recognition. It’s hard to imagine that at least some of the “killer apps” for a headset will not require face recognition. In addition, Google may be opening themselves up to competitors less responsive to the demands of privacy advocates, and more responsive to what customers want.

Usable Web Browser

While I was very impressed with the voice activated web search, I was very unimpressed with direct web browsing. Navigating a web page in Glass reminds me of pre-multi-touch smartphones. It’s hard to navigate, zoom in/out of a page, and you cannot use forms.

Much work needs to be done with the web browsing experience to make this usable for commercial use.

Richer Voice Activation & Gestures

The early voice activation works quite well, but is very limited. Google needs to expand the vocabulary to allow users to do more with Glass. They also need to expand their navigation to support physical gestures. Limiting navigation to voice and headset swipes will be very constraining to mainstream consumers.

Google should take another look at Tom Cruise in the Minority Report. ;)

Glass to Glass Integration

Just as users of Apple product have special features (e.g. iTunes, AirDrop, our secret fanboy handshake) that make buying into the ecosystem worthwhile, Glass should have Glass to Glass integration. Early Glass users should should be made to feel part of a privileged group, with the ability to share their location, checkin, communicate with each other, and swap information between our headsets.

Loose Ends

This is an early pre-release product, so there are many minor loose ends that need to be tied up before shipping, none of which seem overly challenging. Here is a random list off the top of my head:

  • Location of the power button

  • Improved messaging

  • Improved portability

  • Proprietary audio interface

  • Better GPS

  • Support for prescription glasses

  • Camera zoom

  • Easier shade attachment

  • Sound recorder

  • Multi-account support

  • Richer web service API

Conclusions

In spite of the substantial shortcomings of the early pre-release product, I am still very enthusiastic about both Glass and the emerging wearables market. This enthusiasm has only increased by using Glass and seeing Google solving the very difficult technical and social challenges required to deliver a commercially viable product.

But in a rush to deliver on the promise of their vision, I hope Google does not lose sight of the bigger picture. They have the opportunity to accelerate the augmentation of humans with wearables by 5-10+ years. What stands between them and a missed opportunity is a simple thing that Steve Jobs called an “insanely great product.”

Glass in 2013 is not an “insanely great product”. To make that product will require another several iterations in hardware, software and social / privacy policies. It will require challenging assumptions that seem hard-coded in the device’s direction and DNA, and putting the needs of the customer above everything else.

Google has positioned itself on the verge of a coming revolution very reminiscent of the personal computer. The early interest they are driving has the potential to transform not just how we think of Google, but also the sustainability of their long term financial success. But it also has the potential to attract well-funded competitors that can leverage the learning Google has acquired toward a better mousetrap.

So my advice for Google for 2014: never forget, it’s all about the product.

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Steve Jobs, The Lost Interview: “…there’s just a tremendous amount of craftsmanship in between a great idea and a great product. Designing a product is keeping five thousand things in your brain and fitting them all together in new and different ways to get what you want.”

Joe Kinsella is the CTO & Founder of CloudHealth Technologies.  You can find this post, as well as additional content on his blog called High Tech in the Hub.  You can also follow Joe on Twitter (@joekinsella) by clicking here.

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