Everything you need to know about Google Glass

February 27, 2014

(Angel Navarrete/Bloomberg)

Google Glass, Google's first entry into the wearable tech market, is back in the news this week after a Glass user reported being assaulted for wearing her device in public. It's been well over a year since Google first announced the smart headset in the summer of 2012 at its developers' conference. But it's clear that people still aren't all that comfortable with it. So, for those who need a review, or just want to catch up on the latest news about Glass, here's a quick refresher.

What's Google Glass?

Google Glass is a headset that you wear like a pair of eyeglasses -- Google has even announced that it's popping prescription lenses into some models. The headset has a small prism-like screen tucked into the upper corner of the frame that keeps you constantly plugged in to your e-mail, calls and other notifications so you don't have to miss a beat.

That sounds ridiculous. Why would people want a computer on their face?

Yeah, it does sound like a recipe for making tech-zombies. But the idea behind Glass is that bringing the technology closer will actually make it easier to disengage from it. Rather than having your head bent over a screen in your hand, you can look up. And rather than flicking through a list of notifications or e-mails to see if you missed anything important, you can make that decision immediately and get on with your day.

Not that you can abandon your phone altogether. Glass is designed to provide a second screen for your device, so you need to hook it up to your phone to get the notifications and other information.

I kind of get that. But what's it like to wear?

It's a little hard to describe, but it's basically like wearing a heavier pair of glasses with a small screen that hangs just out of your direct line of vision.

The idea is to have hat little notification bar from your phone in a place where you don't have to strain to see it, so you can actually look where you're going while you're out and about -- and stay plugged in to your inbox.

There are different ways to operate Glass. The device has a touchpad on the side -- the part that goes over your ear -- that you can tap or swipe for navigation. You can use voice commands for Glass by adding the phrase "Okay, Glass" to the start of whatever you tell it to do -- launch an app, take a picture, start a call, etc. Users can also wake up Glass by looking up.

What would you use it for? Glass has its own store where developers can publish apps that take advantage of the device's unique design. These tend to offer quick bursts of information and seem most useful when you're doing something that requires your hands, such as cooking. You can get step-by-step instructions for a recipe from Glass, for instance, rather than soiling your cookbook with hands that are coated in sticky dough.

Okay, that sounds like it could be cool. How do I buy one?

You can't. Google Glass isn't commercially available.

But I've seen people walking around with them. How did those people get them?

Those people are participating in Google's beta program, which the company calls "Glass Explorers." You have to apply to become one of those explorers, and it comes at a steep price: $1,500. That's expensive, but remember that the devices out now are prototypes, aimed at developers and others who may have cool ideas about how to use the technology in the future.

The number of explorers has grown over the past year, though. It does appear that Google is setting the stage for a full commercial rollout this year. So, if you want one, you probably won't have to wait too long.

It's creepy to have someone walking around with a camera on their face all the time. How can I tell if they're recording me?

The lens lights up when Glass is in use, so others can tell when someone wearing Glass is looking at something, taking a picture or recording a video. To start recording, you have to tap the control panel or say "Okay, Glass. Record a video." But if you pass by someone who is recording, or if you're not looking too closely at the wearer's face, it is a tricky thing to figure out.

People aren't that happy about the privacy implications. Sure, you can already record video any time with smartphones and camcorders -- remember those? -- but strangers can more easily tell when someone is recording with those devices. When the device is embedded in users' accessories, it makes it a bit harder to tell when someone is filming.

To meet such concerns head-on, Google's been embarking on a major education campaign. The company has been training its beta-testers in practicing good etiquette with Glass and is letting lawmakers and the general public try out the glasses before they start showing up in stores. There's also been a focus on educating policymakers about how the technology works. Google has taken Glass to the Hill and gone on the road to show "Cities Through Glass" to local and state lawmakers. The company has also told members of Congress that it will place certain limits on the device, such as vowing not to add facial recognition technology to Glass. And Google has been aggressive about publishing videos about the cool and interesting stuff its explorers are doing with Glass so far.

Cool and interesting, you say? Show me that -- I need to hear some upsides.

People have come up with super-interesting ways to use Glass, for fun and more serious purposes. For every instance where Google Glass shows up in a high-fashion runway show  or a marriage proposal, there's also someone looking at how it can be used to fight fires or help people with disabilities.

Still, there's no school like the old school. Here's the premiere demo of Google Glass, featuring Google co-founder Sergey Brin skydiving while wearing the device. Having Brin demonstrate the device while moving at terminal velocity seems to flout Google's recommendation not to wear Glass during "high-impact" sports -- but the video is still pretty cool.

What other concerns have been raised about Glass?

How much time do you have? Google has had to field plenty of questions and criticism from lawmakers. These include questions about whether people should be able to use Glass while they're behind the wheel and disputes about wearing Glass in situations where recording would normally be banned, such as in a movie theater. It's a bit of a tricky question because Glass has so many potential uses but users aren't necessarily taking advantage of them all the time. For example, an Ohio man wore Glass with prescription lenses to the movies and was pulled out of the theater because the thing that allowed him to see in focus was also capable of recording an illegal copy of the film. Those are the sort of delicate situations Google and Glass users will have to navigate as more people use the device.

How should I react if I see someone wearing Glass?

Well, rein in any impulse to assault, for one. Google Glass explorers get training and steady reminders from Google that they're ambassadors of a new product all the time. So, they're supposed  to be ready to handle questions and  the extra attention they get when wearing the device. If you're uncomfortable with the fact that they're wearing Glass around you, you can always ask politely whether they'd be willing to tuck it away for a little while. But, just as you'd expect Glass users to be courteous to you, be courteous to them -- etiquette goes both ways.

Hayley Tsukayama covers consumer technology for The Washington Post.
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