Google finally launched its Glass Explorer programme in the UK on Monday, making its fabled wearable technology available to enthusiasts and developers in the region – albeit for a hefty £1,000.
Designed to help Google fix problems and develop the Glass technology before its wider global release, the Explorer Programme has been running in the US since 2012 and, according to Google, has massively improved the platform.
In fact, Google says the Explorer Programme has been such a success that the version of Glass V3 tried a year ago is archaic compared with the current version being sold in the UK. So when we were offered the chance of a fresh eyes-on look at Glass, we couldn't resist the chance to check on Google's progress.
Design and build
The basic Google Glass design hasn't been changed since we last tested it and the majority of the upgrades are software based.
This means in its basic form Glass has the same slightly futuristic-looking metallic frame with a power pack at its rear and a mini high-resolution display on its front.
While predominantly designed for use with voice commands, Glass also has the same trackpad feature on its right arm, which lets you turn it on with a tap, or navigate through the device's menus with up-and-down strokes. It also has a camera button that lets you silently take a photo or shoot a video using its 5MP 720p camera.
In the past, while we've found the bare-bones Glass version comfortable to wear, we couldn't escape the feeling that the device made us look very strange. Even if we wore them in Soho, one of London's quirkier areas, we'd still feel self-conscious.
But Google has inked deals with a number of frame manufacturers to make Glass more friendly for public use, and to make the frames look more like regular glasses.
At the Glass UK launch event we got to see a number of different frames and were impressed by how good a job they did to make Glass look more subtle. The frames ranged from regular office specs to 1980s Terminator-style sunglasses.
While the glass technology is still very prominent, the frames go a long way to make them less noticeable, which, as well as making us feel less conspicuous, will also make them less obvious to potential thieves. Considering their hefty price tag this is a very good thing.
Operating system and software
As before, Google Glass runs using a heavily customised version of Google's Android operating system and is designed to offer users a similar experience.
Powering it up by leaning our head back, we were able to perform a variety of tasks. These included searching for a picture online, taking a photo, getting directions using Google Maps and opening various webpages simply by saying "OK Glass" followed by a command.
To get directions, for example, we said, "OK Glass, King's Cross Station", and then tapped directions on the trackpad to launch the Maps app. Once open the app presented us with a dynamic map showing our current location. Impressively we found the icon showing our location actually reacted to where we were looking, making it easy to know which direction we should walk in to get to our desired Tube stop.
Glass is also confirmed to integrate Twitter, Facebook and Google Now to offer users dynamic push updates. Though, as we found with our first hands on, we didn't get a chance to see how Google Now works on Glass, as it wasn't connected to our Google account.
While the innate services on Glass are impressive, we were more interested in testing out the wealth of third-party applications on offer. Google has been trying to increase developer interest in Glass since it first came up with the idea. One year since we first tested the technology, we have to say we were impressed with some of the applications on show at the Glass UK launch.
While we didn't get a chance to try some of the more enterprise, healthcare and education-focused apps Google has been ranting about, we did see a wealth of interesting products, chief of which were Word Lens, Star Chart and Goal.com.
Word Lens is an innovative application designed to make Glass translate any text you're looking at. The app is currently available in a number of European languages including English, French, German, Spanish and Italian. We were impressed with how well it worked.
The app could be launched at any time simply by saying "OK Glass: translate". Once activated we simply had to look at the piece of text and tap the language we wanted it translated to using the trackpad. We found not only was Word Lens accurate, it was also very quick and was able to translate posters and information boards in seconds.
Star Chart is a free application designed to offer users information about the stars. It does this using an augmented-reality display that offers dynamic feedback and information on any constellation the user is looking at, or in the direction of. The information is displayed as text or as an audio file that's played using bone-conduction technology. This is similar to the technology used in some hearing aids and is designed to let Glass play audio without using traditional speakers or headphones, by transmitting sound through the bones of the skull to the inner ear.
The Goal.com application lets users set up custom information feeds about football. The feeds can be set to push updates about specific games, teams or leagues to the user via Glass. While the feature isn't of direct business benefit, unless you happen to be in the football industry, the app is a good example of how Glass could theoretically be used to keep up-to-date with news 24/7. For example, how useful would it be for any IT professional or business user to have a permanent feed pushing news updates and industry analysis from V3 on Glass?
Google says the display offers users an equivalent viewing experience to watching a 25in high-definition screen from eight feet away. Initially we found the screen was slightly blurry and difficult to use at the busy launch event, but we soon sorted this by altering the angle we were viewing it from using the hinge connecting it to the metal frame. The screen seemed no better to us than non-HD TV quality, falling short of current high-end smartphone displays.
Poor battery has been one of the key gripes coming from the Google Glass US test group, with many complaining that it dies in hours. We didn't get a chance to test the battery life, but the spokeswoman on hand told us she generally gets about four and a half hours of use before having to reconnect it to a micro USB charger.
One year on from our first encounter with Google Glass, we have to say we're impressed. While the updates aren't groundbreaking it's clear Google is getting some momentum in increasing developers' interest in the technology. Hopefully with Glass now available in the UK this will continue and we'll see yet more innovations and app-development projects in the very near future.
By V3's Alastair Stevenson
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