REVIEW: Google Glass Explorer Edition Version 2.0

Over-hyped and over here, does this travel-friendly wearable deserve a place on your face?

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Wearable devices are ideal for travel – in theory – so we got quite excited when Ebuyer kindly loaned a Google Glass Explorer for a review on TravGear.com. Now in ‘open beta’, whatever that means, Glass has been both hyped and hounded for its revolutionary capabilities of location-based and privacy-bashing data overlays and hands-free photos and videos.

Design

It looks clunky and awful unless you have Glass Shades Active on, too. Clipped-on to the Glass frame – which comes in various colours – only the addition of the Shades makes Glass truly wearable out on the street. Without them you’ll look like an idiot. The tiny transparent screen, which can be likened to watching 25 inch high-definition screen from eight feet away (yes, it’s pretty weird), is kinda hard to make-out indoors. Outdoors it seems to work fine, with the lines in the low-res screen less visible and the drop in brightness making it easier to read. TravGear.com has excellent eyesight, but we couldn’t see much detail. Photos and videos look awful on the screen, though they look OK on a computer screen.

What does Glass do?

‘Glass, take a photo. Hello Glass, start video. Glass, send photo to …’. Glass is a hands-free camera, and for most users, that’s about it. Wi-Fi cameras have been around for a while that let you send a photo straight from the camera, though smartphones are the main challenger to Glass, which manages only five megapixel pictures and 720p HD resolution videos. Strangely, what you see in the Viewfinder and what photo is actually taken differs enormously.

Experimental features

One handy experimental – though usually effective – feature is taking pictures by winking. Whatever else you’re doing with Glass, a wink (albeit a powerful one!) automatically takes a photo, with a soon-to-be-familiar sound (that thankfully sounds nothing like a fake camera shutter). Photos and videos are uploaded – when there’s Wi-Fi – to a private album in your Google+ account, though you can also share them with social media hands-free. It’s actually very detailed here, with various options to share with specific Google+ circles such as acquaintances, friends, family etc., or keep it private.

How to use Glass

As well as voice, the right-hand arm of Glass can be used like a mouse. Learning how – and when – to tap, drag, touch and rub the side of Glass is like learning a new language, and it took us weeks to get used to it. So far, Glass seems like the best way to ruin a holiday, no enhance it. You swipe back on the arm to toggle through the menus, and swipe down to go back, with a tap to enter/agree/confirm actions.

Usability

Is Google Glass swish, sleek and totally awesome? No, it’s not. There’s a big reason why Google is still calling it a ‘public beta’; it’s slow, ponderous, it times-out when you least expect it, the connectivity is less than smooth and the hardware is jumpy. If this was an Apple device, it wouldn’t have seen the light of day yet. In fact, it would probably be in the labs somewhere in a box awaiting both a leap in technology and a real demand for headsets like this.

Setting-up Glass & the MyGlass app

Glass isn’t easy to set-up. It’s not obvious how it switches on, how to pair it with a smartphone (which is pretty much essential), or how to prevent the tiny screen from switching itself off every minute or so. It’s so annoying that we actually left it alone for days on end between tests sessions. The main problem is that Glass wasn’t able to access the MyGlass app on the phone or a 3G signal, despite the iPhone 5s being paired via Bluetooth, on a WiFi network, with a strong 3G signal and with the Personal Hotspot turned on. MyGlass is a poor app indeed, at least on the iOS platform. For a so-called must-have gadget of the century to have a bug in it this big isn’t good.

The Glass app

According to Google, Glass will ‘just work (http://www.google.co.uk/glass/help/myglass/ios/). Err … though we managed to pair Glass with our iPhone over Bluetooth, it took a long time to get it sorted; the app is useless, though when it did finally work, the presentation of barcode that we could scan with a phone to connect was nice. Nice, but naughty, because after that the app just gets in the way It offers zero options to customise Glass – it seems as ig Google wants the user to rely solely on Glass to control everything – when an app-based check-list of features to toggle-on and off would be so, so much easier.
The Glass is app is just for setting-up the initial connection between phone and device, and not for anything else. Worse, Glass and our smartphone didn’t automatically link-up when we switched-on Glass; the totally manual procedure was laborious and took three attempts. This was using an iPhone 5s.

Glassware & Travel apps

The desktop software is eons ahead of the Glass app, and inside you’ll find stacks of Glassware (https://glass.google.com) – aka apps – that you can add to your Google accounts, and thus, to your Glass headset. There’s not much to choose from, with Google-made apps for Gmail, Google Now, Google+, Google Calendar, YouTube and Hangouts the pick of the bunch, and the likes of Facebook, Twitter and The Guardian also included. There are 83 so far, most of them pointless ports from phone to Glass; only some are better poised for use on a headset, and fewer still and travel-centric.

Glassware

The entire concept is let-down by the need for an always-on data connection via a smartphone, which travellers are unlikely have. Besides, there are really only four apps that could appeal to travellers. Field Trip (https://glass.google.com/glassware/12120586609670834156) identifies local sights and can read aloud stuff it finds from the web on a particular place, but it gets nowhere near a proper audio guide to a historical place. Word Lens (https://glass.google.com/glassware/16789448588362059188) instantly translates printed words using the Glass camera, in real time, though it only deals in English to and from Portuguese, German, Italian, French, and Spanish. On a similar bent, DuoLingo (https://glass.google.com/glassware/16006325522259980809) lets you practice your Spanish, French, German, Portuguese, or Italian vocabulary using hands-free flashcards. Still want Google Glass?

Better next time?

Frustration and a lack of travel-centric features leave Glass looking like a flop for travellers, though the overlaying of navigation data could – just could – be useful in the future if the hardware gets faster and flasher. However, let’s remember the terms upon which Glass is available at all. This is what Google is calling a ‘public beta’, the result of which – hopes Google – is plenty of feedback from nerds, tech journalists and anyone else interested in trying it out. The consumer version next year, or the year after, will therefore be much, much better than Explorer 2.0.

Price as reviewed: £1,000

Buy the Google Glass Explorer Edition Version 2.0