Even though Google’s head-worn computer is going nowhere, the technology is sure to march on.
Two and a half years after Google cofounder Sergey Brin unveiled Google Glass with a group of skydivers jumping from a zeppelin above San Francisco, the computer you wear on your face is falling to its death. It’s still not a finished consumer product. It’s not even close to being something people yearn for, at least not beyond the Glass Explorers who each paid $1,500 for early access.
Although Google says it’s still committed to Glass, several companies, including Twitter, have stopped working on apps for it. Babak Parviz, the creator of Glass, left Google in July for a job as a vice president at Amazon, where he’s looking into new areas of technology. Even some of the early adopters are getting weary of the device. “I found that it was not very useful for very much, and it tended to disturb people around me that I have this thing,” says James Katz, the director of emerging media studies at Boston University’s College of Communication.
A lot of this is Google’s fault. Rather than spending years developing Glass in secret, Google trotted it out as an early “beta” product that was somewhat functional but finicky and literally in your face. It hoped that software developers would come up with killer applications and that the people wearing it would act as evangelists. Presumably, this has led to some priceless insights for the next version—Google’s online Glass forum brims with questions and feature requests from early users. But it has also caused a social backlash. Seeing a computer on your face makes some people, for various reasons, extremely annoyed. The “explorers” have become widely known as “glassholes.”
But despite Google’s missteps, the technology isn’t going away. The idea that Glass represents—allowing you to ingest digital information at a glance—has appealed for decades to die-hards like Thad Starner, a Glass technical lead who has been making and wearing these kinds of gadgets since 1993. Researchers are going to keep plugging away until we get to a point where the technology blends into the glasses themselves, rather than sitting so obviously atop them.
So imagine that in a few years someone comes out with smart glasses that are pretty much unnoticeable. They have a tiny display in the lenses; the electronics and battery are neatly concealed in the frame. They’re operated easily with a few fairly discreet touch gestures, eye movements, and, when appropriate, voice commands. Now this is no longer something that irks people around you—it’s something you buy as an add-on to your normal glasses, giving you a head-up display for navigating city streets and translating signs while traveling. And who knows what else it might do? A non-obnoxious version of the technology would surely inspire software developers to have another try at creating interesting new applications—apps that could deliver on the information-rich lifestyle that Starner calls a “killer existence.”
There’s no ignoring the prism-like display on the current version of Google Glass, which juts out from the frame and sits just above your eyeball. When the display is on, other people can’t fail to see the bright, tiny, mirror image of what you’re looking at. Even when the display is turned off, rendering the prism a clear block in front of your right eye, it’s impossible to forget about.
For a device like this to work, it will need a display that is much less obvious. One solution may be something like what’s in the works at Lumiode (see “New Kind of LED Could Mean Better Google Glass Displays”), a startup that uses LEDs to create microdisplays. Typically, LEDs serve as the light source at the rear of a display, and the light passes through filters to form the pixels that together create images. Lumiode eschews the filters. Instead it uses each LED as a pixel by adding a layer of transistors atop the LEDs to control how they emit light.
Lumiode founder and CEO Vincent Lee says the technology could yield tiny displays that are 10 times brighter and more energy-efficient than other display technologies. That could make it easier to integrate a display into regular-looking glasses, cut down on clunky batteries, and make the glasses work better outdoors, too.
Lumiode is now focused on perfecting the process of fabricating the layer of transistors atop the LEDs without ruining the lights. Lee says the obviousness of a Lumiode display that’s built into a pair of smart glasses will depend on a few factors, including the optics used in the glasses. Eventually, he says, it could fit into the frame.
A more radical approach to cutting down on smart glasses’ bulk may be to simply take the lens needed to magnify what’s on the display out of the glasses and bring it closer to the eye. A company called Innovega is doing this by developing contact lenses with a tiny bump that serves as a microscope for content that can be streamed from the inside of a pair of glasses. The lenses do nothing when you’re looking at the world around you, but when media is streamed toward your eyes from a projector or display panels built into glasses, it passes through the bump on each contact and comes into focus just in front of the eye. This offers the benefit of showing content to both eyes—and it can stay in focus as you move your eyes.
Innovega showed off an early prototype of its technology streaming high-definition content at the 2014 International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. They looked a lot like normal—albeit dorky—sunglasses, and CEO Steve Willey says the company is developing a consumer contact lens. It plans to seek approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2015.
Even if displays can be made practically invisible and much more energy-efficient, smart glasses will need battery technologies that can hold up to a full day of usage and eliminate the bulging batteries currently connected to Glass.
Getting smart glasses to work all day without a heavy battery probably will require a combination of technologies. Software must be optimized to use power more frugally (already, the Glass team has made progress in this regard). Thin, flexible, printed rechargeable batteries such as the zinc-based ones made by Imprint Energy could be contained in the frames, eliminating some of the bulk typically associated with lithium-ion batteries, which require protective layers due to their sensitivity to oxygen (see “Flexible, Printed Batteries for Wearable Devices”).
In addition, some sort of power harvesting could replenish the batteries throughout the day. A company called Perpetua Power is working on technology that uses body heat to produce electricity; in theory, your smart glasses could extend their battery life with tiny thermoelectric generators on places that touch your skin, such as the bridge or temple. For now, though, Perpetua’s module is much too big: one by two centimeters. And each one can generate only a bit of the power you’d need to run even a fitness-tracking wristband. Perpetua’s bracelet-like prototypes include eight to 10 modules.
Where We Are
Google has tried hard to make Glass more fashionable. It formed a partnership with the world’s largest eyeglass maker, Luxottica Group, whose brands include Ray-Ban and Oakley. It cozied up to designer Diane von Furstenberg, who designed a Glass frame and aviator-style shades that come in hues like “shiny lagoon” and “rose gold flash.”
Speaking on the sidelines of a Google-hosted design conference in San Francisco in November, Isabelle Olsson, the lead designer for Glass, said that while Google is always trying to make Glass as sleek as possible, getting people to wear a head-up display comes down to giving them cool frames and colors to choose from. She said the prospect of having more fashionable options “sounds kind of banal in a way” but is even more important than miniaturizing the technology. “If you can pick the frame that you would normally pick and that you’re normally comfortable with, it’s going to look more like you,” said Olsson, who wore a matte black Glass during our conversation.
I didn’t expect Olsson to speak ill of Glass; she works for Google, after all, and like a number of people at the company, Glass is her baby. She has managed to bring it miles from where it was when she started at Google in 2011: a prototype she described as a scuba mask with a phone attached to it and cables running to a backpack.
But she’s wrong about stylish frames being enough to lure more users. As long as there’s still obviously a computer sitting on the middle of your face, it’s going to be distracting and a non-starter for most people. Stylish frames can’t fix that, unless the technology dissolves into the frame.
I do agree with Olsson on one point, though: it’s a numbers game. The more people out there wearing these things, she reasons, the more normal it will seem. After all, even regular glasses, which have been around in various forms for over 700 years, didn’t become fashionable until the last century.
© 2014 MIT Technology Review