SAN FRANCISCO — Google believes it has the perfect accessory for the next phase of technology, the mind-boggling and appearance-shifting category already being described as "wearable computing."
The widely anticipated evolution hatched Google Glass, a spectacle-like device that contains a hidden computer, a thumbnail-size transparent display screen above the right eye and other digital wizardry. This Internet-connected headgear is set up to let users receive search results, read email, scan maps for directions and engage in video chats without reaching for a smartphone. Google Glass' grasp of voice commands even makes it possible to shoot hands-free photos and videos.
I got a glimpse of what it's like to wear Glass recently and saw just enough to conclude that it could fashionable, especially as society works out the rules of etiquette for using the device. Although I doubt the device will become as commonplace as the smartphone, I don't think Glass is destined to be remembered as a geeky curiosity that never lived up to its hype.
Google Inc. is touting Glass as a liberating breakthrough that will make technology more convenient and less obnoxious in social situations than checking a smartphone to see what's happening in your digital realm. Critics deride Glass as another disturbing example of a how enslaved people are to their devices and a sign that technology is obliterating personal privacy.
Only about 10,000 people in the U.S. have been given the chance to pay $1,500 to own a test version of Glass as part of Google's "Explorer" program. So I've been eager to get a firsthand look at what all the fuss is about. I finally got a chance last week, when Google invited a few technology reporters and bloggers to test Glass under the company's supervision at a specially equipped San Francisco office that Google calls a "base camp."
Only eight applications from The New York Times, Facebook, Twitter, Path, Evernote, CNN, Tumblr and Elle magazine have been approved for use on the Explorer edition. Unfortunately, none of the Glass models we were allowed to sample were fully loaded with all the applications, or "Glassware," that have been designed for the device. It would have been nice to check them all out. Instead, CNN was the only app available for this test. I also couldn't log into my Gmail to see what that's like on Glass.
Other major limitations were time and physical constraints. I only got to spend about an hour wearing Glass and was confined to using it within Google's base camp and an adjoining patio overlooking the San Francisco Bay.
Glass has potential to be much more than a novelty, especially if Google lowers the price below $500 by the time the company begins selling the device to the general public next year. (The exact date has yet to be determined.)
I also quickly realized that a lot of people will be turned off by Glass, if for no other reason than how they make a person look. Google has strived to imbue Glass with a sense of style by decorating the titanium frames in five different colors: charcoal, tangerine, shale, cotton and sky blue. Glass also weighs about the same as a pair of regular sunglasses, a vast improvement over Google's early prototype of the device, which consisted of a phone attached to a scuba mask.