In Durham, public gets first look through Google Glass

akenney@newsobserver.comOctober 4, 2013 

  • What is Glass?

    Glass is like an eyeglasses frame that displays smartphone-style information, from maps to searches.

    Display: A tiny prism contains an image that is the equivalent of a 25-inch screen 8 feet away.

    Camera: 5 megapixel photos, 720p video.

    Audio: A bone conduction transducer on the arm makes the device almost inaudible to everyone except the user.

    Storage: 12 gigabytes of usable memory, synced with cloud storage.

    Connectivity: Glass uses Wi-Fi and can connect to the cellular network via a mobile phone.

    Battery: Enough power for a day of “typical use.”

    Source: Google

— Many in the tech-connected world have been trying for months to figure out Google Glass. So has Amy Roberts – except she actually has one of the eyeglasses-mounted mini-computers.

While about 3,500 of the Triangle’s clamoring techies will demo the device at its public debut in Durham on Saturday, Roberts and her team have been working since June to deploy a life-changing app on the new platform.

When Google first announced the idea – information and images would float in front of the viewer – it seemed like the cybernetic stuff of science fiction. Then the company opened a contest, with the best proposed uses of Glass winning early access.

Roberts, 30, saw a way to redefine an entire subset of scientific experiments.

As a Ph.D. student in nutritional epidemiology at UNC, she’s interested in what and when people eat. That’s not easy to know: Most experiments require tedious self-reporting of breakfast, lunch and dinner.

There are protocols, “but at the end of the day you’re relying on people’s memory and ability to tell you,” she said. “I had an idea that a wearable device would probably be a good way to tackle that problem, but it wasn’t until I saw Glass that the whole picture came together.”

The Glass camera could photograph meals. Its microphone could capture details about food. Its GPS and Internet connection could determine what restaurant the user is visiting, then pull a healthy meal choice from the menu.

So Roberts tweeted her plan for an app named Healthy Bytes. A few months later, she had the privilege of paying about $1,500 to become one of the Triangle’s digital pioneers.

“I’m not usually an early adopter, so this is kind of a new experience,” Roberts said. She wears Glass while she’s walking her dog, and she has used it to let her family see from her perspective as she worked in New York this summer.

The trouble, she said, is that the device draws too much interest. “You attract a lot of attention,” she said. “It’s hard to go anywhere quickly.”

Slow, careful introduction

The idea of a computer that lives on one’s face, ready to implant information into the wearer’s vision, is so foreign that it requires a careful introduction. First, Google has tried to show the device’s potential by putting it into the hands of experimenters, developers and entrepreneurs like Roberts.

A few months on, the company is tackling a broader challenge: Convincing the public that it’s not all too weird. So, starting this weekend, Google is letting people try out the eyewear.

Interest is massive, to say the least. The 3,500 people who registered for Saturday’s event filled the first stop of the Glass tour to capacity just days after its announcement on Sept. 26.

The Glass event also underlines Google’s new outreach to local developers. The company has named American Underground, a local crossroads for entrepreneurs and tech folks, as a Tech Hub for Entrepreneurs, folding it into a support network for growing businesses.

At a Glass preview on Friday, a wood-floored hall of the American Tobacco Campus was stocked with bloody marys and custom coffee. The Glass logo was projected on a brick interior wall, and the devices were hung next to mirrors in rows of five. They were colored “charcoal, shale, tangerine, sky and cotton,” explained a “Glass Guide,” one of several 20-somethings from New York City who walked visitors through the disorienting first steps.

When first donned, the glasses don’t seem to do anything. The blocky, clear prism in their upper right corner distorts part of the user’s vision – but it’s not until a finger taps the glasses’ arm that a text prompt floats into view.

“It takes a little time to get used to that – it’s a new sensation,” explained Brian Deidolori, a guide. Then voice commands – “OK, Glass, take a video” – fire up the built-in camera, or display Google image results, or patch in another Glass user’s point of view, or do almost anything a phone could do.

Augmenting the world

Lance Cassidy, a partner on the Healthy Bytes project, was among the tech folks circulating the campus on Saturday. He met Roberts, the epidemiologist, as she sought partners for her healthy-eating project.

Glass, it turns out, is techie catnip. Roberts quickly had Cassidy and a crew working with her out of 1789, a “venture lab for UNC.”

The key to designing for Glass, Cassidy said, is to be unobtrusive. Though the device naturally attracts attention, its programs aim to seamlessly slip in and out of view and consciousness. Instead of being part of a phone, Glass apps seem to appear out of thin air.

“It’s really exciting, being able to augment the world around you,” said Eric Martindale, a Cary resident, referring to the way devices like Glass can overlay visuals onto natural vision. Martindale, a 26-year-old who previously ran an “augmented reality”-focused company, thinks Glass marks a technological turning point.

Underlying much of the talk on Friday was the idea that connectivity, technology and data can make for a better world.

Google’s informal motto is “Don’t be evil.” Its advertising for Glass focuses on people sharing very human activities, like ballet and hot-air balloon riding. The company’s #IfIHadGlass campaign was about the change a new device could bring.

“It’s very idealistic,” said Cassidy, who is starting his own hardware and design incubator called DXLab. “I totally believe in it. I think designers are really good at envisioning an idealized future.”

On Saturday, some of the Triangle’s humans will decide just how much they like that future.

Kenney: 919-829-4870; Twitter: @KenneyNC

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