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What you need to know about Google Glass

Find out how well this wearable tech works

Published: August 2014
Google Glass

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The smart phone has integrated itself into our lives so thoroughly that many of us would feel naked leaving the house without it. A recent IDC survey of smart-phone owners found that 79 percent keep their device with them for all but two of their waking hours. And Google has claimed that Android users check their phones an average of 125 times per day.

This near-obsessive need to stay connected is one of the drivers behind a new category of electronics, known collectively (and somewhat vaguely) as wearables. Many of these devices tether you more tightly to your smart phone—so you can take calls or monitor text messages from your wrist, or feed your phone your recent workout data, such as how many steps you’ve taken or your heart rate. Someday a combination of such gadgets could supplant the smart phone altogether.

It’s hard to predict exactly what devices will eventually come to define wearable tech, but the category has evolved from its experimental phase to a bona fide consumer product category in a hurry. The smart watch company Pebble, for instance, first listed its prototype on the crowdfunding site Kickstarter in 2012—and by 2013 the company’s product was on the shelves at Best Buy.

This past spring, online retailer Amazon created a dedicated store for wearable tech. Google has launched a version of its mobile operating system called Android Wear to speed development of these products, and Apple is widely expected to launch its own health-and-fitness-oriented smart watch.

Google launches Glass

Click to enlarge our gesture "decoder."

There’s one device that seems to embody all of the potential of wearable electronics for both convenience and cyborglike strangeness. Google Glass is a wirelessly connected, voice-controlled, head-mounted computer that displays search results, navigation directions, and even recipes in the user’s peripheral vision.

Google is a company that is fond of experimentation, pushing projects such as self-driving cars and high-altitude Internet balloons out into the world long before they are ready for widespread use. Glass launched in 2012 with about 2,000 “Explorers” who pledged to use the device in a wide range of settings. Those included an airline pilot who used Glass to shoot video of his travels for his family to view through Google Plus and a mom who created a video blog of her child learning to walk. Then, this spring, the company started offering Glass to anyone willing to shell out $1,500. That’s when Consumer Reports bought a pair, and we’ve been using and evaluating it ever since.

If Google’s soft launch of Glass was intended to warm the general public to a new product category, the plan might have backfired. It turns out that many people found a head-mounted computer with a front-facing camera goofy-looking—and more than a bit creepy.

Soon, late-night comics were making jokes about it, and some restaurants and movie theaters were banning “Glassholes” from their premises. Google’s experiment had become a phenomenon that surfaced all kinds of questions about privacy and the etiquette of wearable technology before most consumers could even get their hands on the device.

Given all the bluster around Google Glass, we wanted to examine some practical questions. How does it perform as a consumer electronics device? Is it comfortable to wear this thing on your head all day? Does a camera worn on your face actually take decent photographs and video? And was wearing Glass in public going to get our testers punched in the face?

Learn more about wearable tech and check our smart watch reviews. And find out the 4 reasons why people object to Google Glass.

How Google Glass works

Glass syncs via Bluetooth to a smart phone; it then uses that connection or Wi-Fi to connect to the Internet. A small boom that extends from the frame contains a 5-megapixel camera and a viewfinder that sits just above the right eye. Once you set up the device using the MyGlass app and website, you can use Glass with voice commands to make calls, get verbal and visual directions, check your social networks, take photos and videos, listen to music, and run a variety of apps—all while leaving your phone tucked away in your pocket.

Wearing a computer on your face takes a bit of getting used to. Glass feels heavy after a while, and if (like our primary field tester) you already wear eyeglasses, you’ll either have to put up with the device on top of them or buy Glass with prescription lenses. You’ll also need to get used to a whole new user interface.

Typing? Never happens. Instead, you tap the touchpad on the frame or tilt your head backward to wake Glass up. You’ll see a screen displaying the time and the words “OK, Glass.” Say OK Glass out loud or tap on the touchpad. You can then choose from a list of voice commands that scroll down the screen (new ones are added as you install apps) or tap and swipe your way through the menus.

Our testers found that it took some time to learn the gestures, but eventually they became second nature. It was more difficult getting used to the display, which appears to float in the air above your right eye. You can swivel the screen to improve the viewing experience, but at any angle our testers noticed a faint double image when text was being displayed and found it difficult to read in bright sunlight.

Glass isn’t Google’s only foray into wearable technology, or its biggest. At the company’s big developers conference in June, Glass took a backseat to the introduction of the Android Wear OS, which will be used first in smart watches—from LG, Samsung, and others—and eventually in additional wearable gadgets. At the same time, companies including Samsung have filed patents for Glass-like technologies. Five years from now, will we all be wearing head-mounted displays? Maybe. But the devices could find their real home in specialized settings. For example, some surgeons have started using Google Glass to view diagnostic images of a patient in the operating room.

What’s clear is that wearable tech is still in its early days. As computing power migrates into our clothing, jewelry, and, yes, our eyeglasses, engineers are certain to come up with lighter-weight, more convenient mobile technologies for delivering text messages, serving up timely data, and possibly targeting us with location-specific ads. You won’t have to pull out your phone to see the incoming information—and it won’t be as easy to ignore it. Whether that all sounds intrusive or liberating depends on your perspective.

Using Google Glass day to day

Consumer Reports spent months using Google Glass on a near-daily basis. Here’s what the device lets you do and how it stacks up as a consumer-electronics product in real-world and lab testing.

Take photos and videos

It’s no exaggeration to say it’s as easy as winking an eye to take a photo with Glass because you can set the device up to do just that. Once you get your shot, you can share it to Facebook or your Google Plus circles. Photos are also backed up automatically to your Google Plus album when you are on Wi-Fi. You can dictate captions—Google Glass’ voice recognition worked quite well for us. Taking a video is equally simple. Glass records just 10 seconds by default, but you can extend that by tapping the touchpad near your temple— the device has 12 gigabytes of onboard storage.

Make a phone call

Using Glass to make a call isn’t that different from using a Bluetooth headset. The device comes with an optional earpiece that connects with micro USB; remove it and you can listen with the device’s built-in bone-conduction transducer, or BCT. The technology, which is used in a number of headphones already on the market, transmits vibrations to your inner ear through your skull. We found that BCT worked adequately for phone calls in a quiet setting but was hard to hear in noisy environments.

Listen to music

If you have a Google Play Music account, you can tap into it to listen to music through Glass. As with any streaming service accessed through a phone, if you’re not on a Wi-Fi network you’ll be burning through your cellular data plan. (You can’t directly access music stored on your phone.) If you do plan to listen to music through Glass, consider paying extra for the company’s stereo earbuds. Neither the bone-conduction technology nor the single earbud that comes with the device provides a good listening experience.

Use mobile apps

At press time, there were more than 100 apps for Glass, including versions of Facebook, Foursquare, OpenTable, and other mainstays of the mobile life. You can have weather alerts pop up on Glass, check stock listings, and play blackjack or other games. You can also browse ordinary websites with the device, but we found navigation to be clumsy, and it was uncomfortable to read more than snippets of information using the device.

Improve your golf game

The most intriguing apps may be those that go to work when you’re doing something active. Getting driving directions is the most obvious example. A more novel one is GolfSight, which combines GPS data with a database of golf courses to flash the distance remaining to the green. An app called Star Chart identifies stars, planets, and constellations as you gaze at the night sky. Word Lens will automatically translate printed words on road signs or menus by using the Glass camera and Google Translate.

Consumer Reports' lab tests

We took a first look at Glass’ photos and videos in our labs in much the same way that we test phones, pocket cams, and other devices. We also tested sound and the device’s battery life. Note: The version of Glass we tested was the one available in the spring. See our results in the table below.

Item

Description

Image quality

Pictures shot in bright light were slightly oversaturated, images were noisy, and contrasts lacked depth and dimension. In low-light conditions, images were underexposed.

 

Video quality

Glass’ videos images were comparable to its still photos in quality.

Note: It records at a slow 30 fps, making jitter noticeable in panning shots.

 

Sound quality

We found Glass’ monophonic bone-conduction technology thin and telephonelike. It was adequate in quiet conditions but hard to hear in noisy situations, such as listening to turn-by-turn directions on the highway.

 

Battery life

Google claims one day of battery life for “typical” use. We noted about 3 hours of battery life under what we considered continual “moderate” and “heavy” use. The protocols included tasks such as following turn-by-turn directions, recording video, and listening to music.

 

Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the October 2014 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.  
   

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