Liz Gannes

Recent Posts by Liz Gannes

How Google’s Project Glass Might Avoid Disrupting Its Users’ Lives

Google co-founder Sergey Brin’s favorite moment using the futuristic Project Glass prototype was taking a hands-free picture of his son in a moment of joy when he threw him in the air. Glass project manager Steve Lee said he loves that he can see text messages from friends who are meeting him while he’s biking to work without taking his phone out of his pocket.

Because it’s worn on your face, Glass has the potential to let information flow in, or capture a moment, with perhaps less interruption than pulling out a camera or a phone.

But what about when you’re trying to have a real interaction with someone, and you have a display screen popping up notifications in between yourself and them? Google Glass may be hands-free, but it’s also right there in front of a user’s eyes — how can that not be a distraction?

Today at a Google Glass press conference I asked members of the team how Google Glass can exist in the real world without being a hindrance to real human interactions. As they were testing the device, did their families and friends get annoyed about interacting with them through a wacky gadget?

“I’m optimistic,” Brin said. “I think it’s ultimately less disruptive than [phones] can be, because you end up holding [a phone] and looking down and taking you away from the environment around you.”

In testing, Brin said, the biggest problem has been when he notices the early software is buggy or badly designed — that’s when his wife has asked about being distracted.

If Glass software fails, “it’s much more intrusive,” Brin said. “But in the past month as we’ve refined it, we don’t have that issue.”

It has also been helpful to be more selective about triggering notifications. For instance, Brin now only gets notified about email messages in his Gmail Priority Inbox. “It tends to show me only when opportune,” Brin said. “I hear a ding, then look up and see it.”

Glass is focused on improving quick and basic interactions, Brin said. So it’s unlikely that the company will include something more involved like Web browsing.

Others from the Glass Project team replied to my question in keeping with their responsibilities.

“My aspiration is not to interrupt people, but if they need access to information then give them access to information. They’re in charge,” said Glass leader Babak Parviz, who’s the visionary.

Lee, the product manager, said he thought it’s about changing people’s expectations around using the devices. He said he thought social etiquette would evolve around things like someone with Glass on alerting the people in front of them that they’re about to be captured in a picture through a button press on the device, even if that simple action is subtle.

“While today, when people first see something on your head, it might be unusual; in three to four years, watching people holding an object in their hands, looking down at it — that will be awkward,” he predicted.

“The guiding principle is keeping people in the moment,” Lee said.

Meanwhile, device designer Isabelle Olsson said she thinks it’s about Glass becoming as minimal as possible. She said she obsessively weighs each new prototype, looking to shave off even fractions of a gram.

One improvement has been moving the display higher up, she said. “As long as you can look into people’s eyes, I think that’s baseline.”

And indeed, in the minute or so I had to try Brin’s prototype Glass on, what was most striking was that the device wasn’t immersive at all. It was a tiny screen, there if I wanted to look at it and otherwise kind of oddly blocking part of my view.

(See above picture — there’s a cord attaching the Glass to an external charger because the prototypes have only six hours or so of battery life, and his had run out.)

Olsson also said that recent improvements have been significant. “Today I was like, ‘Shit, I need to put my device on.’ And I was like, ‘No, I’m already wearing it,'” she said.


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I think the NSA has a job to do and we need the NSA. But as (physicist) Robert Oppenheimer said, “When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and argue about what to do about it only after you’ve had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb.”

— Phil Zimmerman, PGP inventor and Silent Circle co-founder, in an interview with Om Malik