Welcome to wearable tech.
This near-obsessive need to stay connected is one of the drivers behind a new category of electronics, known collectively as wearables. This past spring, online retailer Amazon created a dedicated store for wearable tech. Google has launched a version of its mobile operating system called Android Wear to speed development of these products, and Apple recently launched its own health and fitness-oriented smart watch.
One device seems to embody all of the potential of wearable electronics for both convenience and cyborglike strangeness. Google Glass is a wirelessly connected, voice-controlled, head-mounted computer that displays search results, navigation directions and even recipes in the user's peripheral vision. This spring, the company started offering Glass for $1,500. Consumer Reports bought a pair, and its testers have been using and evaluating it ever since.
If Google's soft launch of Glass was intended to warm the general public to a new product category, the plan may have backfired. Many people found a head-mounted computer with a front-facing camera goofy looking -- and more than a bit creepy. Soon, late-night comics were making jokes about it, and some restaurants and movie theaters were banning Google Glass from their premises. Google's experiment had become a phenomenon that brought up all kinds of questions about privacy and the etiquette of wearable technology before most consumers could even get their hands on the device.
How it works
Glass syncs via Bluetooth to a smartphone; it then uses that connection or Wi-Fi to connect to the Internet. A small boom that extends from the frame contains a 5-megapixel camera and a viewfinder that sits just above the right eye. Once you set up the device using the MyGlass app and website, you can use Glass with voice commands to make calls, get verbal and visual directions, check your social networks, take photos and videos, listen to music and run a variety of apps -- all while leaving your phone tucked away in your pocket.
Wearing a computer on your face takes a bit of getting used to. Glass feels heavy after a while, and if you already wear eyeglasses, you'll either have to put up with the device on top of them or buy Glass with prescription lenses. You'll also need to get used to a whole new user interface. Typing? Never happens. Instead, you tap the touchpad on the frame or tilt your head backward to wake Glass up. You'll see a screen displaying the time and the words "OK, Glass.'' Say "OK, Glass'' out loud or tap on the touchpad. You can then choose from a list of voice commands that scroll down the screen (new ones are added as you install apps) or tap and swipe your way through the menus.
Consumer Reports testers found that it took some time to learn the gestures, but eventually they became second nature. It was more difficult getting used to the display, which appears to float in the air above your right eye. You can swivel the screen to improve the viewing experience, but at any angle, testers noticed a faint double image when text was being displayed and found it difficult to read in bright sunlight.
Wearable tech is still in its early days. As computing power migrates into our clothing, jewelry and, yes, our eyeglasses, engineers are certain to come up with lighter-weight, more convenient mobile technologies for delivering text messages, serving up timely data and possibly targeting us with location-specific ads. You won't have to pull out your phone to see the incoming information -- and it won't be as easy to ignore it.