Sunday, January 12, 2014

Through the Google Glass

It started innocently enough. When Google announced that it was looking for a cohort of early adopters for its shiny new Google Glass device, I answered the call with a nod back to my undergraduate years at MIT, where the Wearable Computing project was just getting underway. I have fond memories of spotting Thad Starner wandering around the Porter Square Star Market looking like he'd been assimilated by the Borg, and although my education ended up taking me about as far away from computer science and electrical engineering as one could possibly go, I never stopped being enamored with technology and its convergence with everyday human life.

Oddly enough, I became a total Google fanboy at the same time that I'd become a librarian (or maybe this isn't so odd in retrospect, given that the digital revolution was fully underway in librarianship at the time I was finishing my LIS degree)- one of my professors had begun her seminar by exhorting us all to create Gmail accounts, as the service had just become available to the public earlier that year; and my final class in the program, the Literature of the Humanities, spend a great amount of time studying the Google Book Scan project and what such an initiative meant for our discipline, the academy, and the future of the written word.
Needless to say, as soon as I heard of Google Glass I knew I'd want to get my hands on one of them, so it was inevitable that I'd take part in Google's #ifihadglass competition.

It never occurred to me that I'd be selected as one of their 8,000 inaugural Glass Explorers, however, as although my desire to play with this new digital toy was surely as greater as the other gazillion people who Tweeted (or whatever the equivalent is called for Google+) their case to be included in the program. My answer was heartfelt, to be sure, but it was a little on the flip side, and more than a little lacking in specificity. So when I did get the nod from Google, I was flabbergasted to say the least...  then I was sad when I realized that, with Child #2 on the way, there was no way I'd be able to justify ponying up the $1500 I'd need in order to get my very own Glass device.  

At first I considered using a Kickstarter to obtain the necessary funds.  I was going to call it The Glass Library, and the idea would be that each backer would be allowed to "borrow" the device for a certain amount of prorated time, to do with it as they will. The mechanics of shipping the item from borrower to borrower seemed somewhat challenging, but certainly I had enough colleagues out there in libraryland who might be willing to contribute in exchange for some quality time with Google Glass. At this point it occurred to me that other librarians may have also been chosen as Glass Explorers, so I reached out on social media to see what they were doing with their invitations.  A few of colleagues responded that they'd approached their Powers That Be about funding their purchase, and that one or two of them had succeeded in getting approval to buy them for their library.

This was encouraging news, as at first it seemed that the Terms of Service for the Glass Explorers program precluded any such institutional purchasing. Emboldened by my colleagues' success, I asked my boss if he thought we might able to do the same for our undergraduate Bass Library, especially since it already had an ever-growing collection of circulating media equipment which could be checked out by Yale faculty, students, and staff. He liked the idea, but suggested that we bring our Instructional Technology Group and Student Technology Collaborative on board with the purchase as well, not just to share the cost, but to widen the pool of potential innovation and development as well.  Fortunately everyone was just as excited as we were about exploring the new technology, so we agreed to move forward as equal partners.

(I'm going to leave out the part where, in the process of putting this coalition together, we unfortunately ran out the clock on my original Google Glass invite. Despite much begging and pleading, we had to resign ourselves to being waitlisted, and although everything turned out okay I still feel somewhat chastened by the near-miss and resolve to keep it fresh in mind so as not to sit on any future similar opportunities. Awesomeness waits for no one, indeed!)

I got to pick up our device this past Friday, at Google's NYC offices in Chelsea Market (where Major League Baseball and the Food Network also hang their hats). To say that I was nervous about my Google Glass experience was an understatement, but despite my initial fumblings with the new technology, my patient  Google technician soon had me up and running with my "fitting" and out the door as a newly-minted Glass Explorer. Despite the fact that I opted to wear the device out, I quickly put it back away as soon as I got in the elevator, as I was deathly afraid of losing or breaking the Bass Media collection's latest acquisition. I was also somewhat self-conscious of being seen wearing Google Glass, which apparently is not an uncommon thing, even among Google employees. The good news is that it comes with a sunglasses attachment, which almost looks like a normal pair of shades and makes you feel much less like you're a walking, talking Borg drone as a result.


Glasshole...  or just wearing cool shades?

Although it does seem rather fragile, Google Glass is actually surprisingly rugged. It's basically a big plastic headband built around a titanium frame. Because it's designed to be form-fitting, the device does not fold compact like a conventional pare of glasses, which makes it a bit awkward to carry around, but it does come with a nifty bag that protects the eyepiece display when you stow it away. Now about that eyepiece.  I think one of the common misconceptions about Glass is that it's like looking through a computer screen, when in fact the display is only projected in the corner or your right eye.  Even I was surprised at how easy it was to tune the image out when I didn't want to look at it, and the screen times out quickly as well so as not to waste the onboard battery.

Glass syncs either with your smartphone via Bluetooth, or any existing wi-fi network. Wi-fi syncing is a breeze- you look at a QR Code on your computer screen and voila, you're in.

(WAIT!  Did I just say that Google Glass actually uses QR Codes?  And that it actually makes sense?  And it actually works?  The Apocalypse may in fact be nigh...)

The interface takes a little getting used to at first, as it involves a combination of voice commands and swiping up and down and side-to-side along the rim of your device.  I'm still getting lost when trying to visualize the right path in Glass' operating system, and find myself wishing that it recognized more natural-language commands. Still, it's pretty freaking cool to tell Google Glass to take a picture, and snap, there it is appearing in the upper right-hand corner of your eye as a thumbnail.  Glass has a 5 megapixel camera, so you'll be taking snapshots similar to your current cameraphone.  It is rather weird that you have to "point and shoot" by aiming your head at things, and I've yet to find a zoom function on the camera, but it is extremely liberating not to have to remove yourself from the moment by fumbling for your phone, activating the camera app, aiming and shooting.

I guess this is really the epiphany of wearable computing.  After wearing the device for a while, you really do forget it's there.  Think of Google Glass like a bluetooth earpiece for your eyes and you wouldn't be far off.  In fact, I couldn't help but notice that knowing I was wearing Glass made me less conscious of my smartphone. I didn't want to fiddle and stare down at my screen compulsively because I knew I could get whatever information I needed out of Google Glass by cocking my head and asking it a question.  ("What's the score of the Denver Broncos game?" I asked it as I was changing the baby this evening.  "The Broncos are currently leading over the Chargers 17-0 in the third quarter," the device dutifully replied).

They see me rollin'...

Right now the list of available applications for Google Glass- called Glasswear (get it?) -is somewhat bare-bones, but the promise of the technology can be seen in an app like Strava Cycling, which in addition to tracking your trip like the smartphone app already does using GPS and the onboard accelerometer, also feeds you a real-time heads up display of your speed, time, and distance traveled as you bike. There is also a Glasswear version of Google's Field Trip app, which I've yet to try out, but I'm very curious to see how wearable technology takes advantage and makes sense of location-based data. This is one of the respects in which I think devices like Glass will work really well with libraries, as translating the oceans of metadata on our shelves in the library stacks could open up brand new ways of visualizing our physical collections. We've always romanticized the "serendipity of the stacks," but imagine how much more powerful happenstance discovery could be if a reader could see subject headings, citation rankings, and cross-references just by glancing at the spine of a book!

Our partnership with the ITG and STC means that we will have many different groups of interested parties playing with the potential of Google Glass, so I hope this increases the chances of our seeing these kinds of applications being developed in the long run. On a more utilitarian note, over this Spring I'd like to work on a proof of concept for using Glass as a vehicle for fulfilling electronic document delivery requests via Scan and Deliver. Although the device's price tag is quite hefty for a wearable computer or smartphone, for a mobile scanning unit it's actually quite cheap- add to that the time savings of not having to lug books around the library to be scanned (during which time they are unavailable to other patrons), and I feel like there might just be something there beyond the simple gee-whiz factor.

So that's my two cents after a weekend with Glass. Despite knowing that I'd be kindly disposed towards anything so new and shiny, I was nevertheless still pleasantly surprised by how natural and unobtrusive it felt while wearing and using it.  But don't just take it from me- here's an assessment of Google Glass from my 10 year-old daughter Andriana, who naturally took to it like a fish to water.

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