Google Glass at Events: A First-Person View

We've been hearing a bunch of hype about Google Glass lately, but is it worthy of it? I had a chance to check it out for myself at ASAE's Technology Conference & Expo a couple of weeks ago. Could it catch on? My quick thoughts.

If nothing else, Google Glass is a great conversation-starter.

The wearable computing tech, which has been around in very limited release for the past 10 months or so, has been the target of numerous breathless articles about its potential—particularly as far as conferences and tradeshows go.

So, when I got the chance to wear a pair around ASAE’s 2013 Technology Conference & Expo, my goal was to see if it was mere novelty, the future of devices, or a bubble of hype that needs a pin poked into it. That’s where this article comes in.

Read on for my take below.

How I Used It

So, what do you do with one of these things at a conference, anyway? Here’s the tactic I tried: Whenever someone came up to me and asked me about the device (which a lot of people did), I would strike up a conversation and ask them to offer up a quick thought on an innovation trend, then shoot a video. This was a successful strategy, albeit one that won’t necessarily work if everyone has one of these things. Mini-interviews I got to do included such smart folks as Personify’s Jay Daughtry and Mike Lakas of the American Society for Surgery of the Hand:

Obviously, I did the iMovie editing after the fact, but you can tell a couple of things from the clip. First up, the background noise is strong, but the video quality largely holds up. Second, while there’s some shakiness, it’s not as bad as it could be. (I credit that to my iron neck.) Finally, putting people on the spot like this drew some surprisingly insightful things, from data analytics to cybernetics to private LinkedIn communities. Clearly some smart people in the audience and expo hall.

So, obviously that was fun, but is that enough for it to be the future of conference technology? Let’s consider the good and the bad.

[I]f Glass is going to have a chance of succeeding somewhere, it’d likely be the events space, where the controlled nature plays to the product’s strengths.

The Good Things

There were some interesting things about the device, but in my opinion, this is what it excelled at:

The voice commands: Glass has multiple styles of usage. To open up the menu, you can tilt your head up and start talking (hint: start by saying “OK, Glass,” then follow the commands on the screen), or you can tap your finger on the right side of the device and scroll through. In testing, I found that the device recognized most of the voice commands I threw at it and was pretty good at doing Google searches for random stuff. I wouldn’t recommend it, but you can surf the web with this thing.

Tradeshow panorama

The camera’s use cases: This is where the device excels. Shooting a photo or video with this thing is absurdly easy, and it solves a problem of the smartphone era: The fact that your hands are simply not designed to stay still, leading to the rise of “shaky-cam.” Professional shooters often get around this issue by putting the viewfinder directly against their eyebrow, stabilizing the camera. Having something directly on your head has a similar effect. Shooting a photo or a video with Google Glass, you’re far less likely to get a blurry shot. As shown above, this also lends itself to dizzying panoramic animated GIFs like the one I created from a Glass clip I shot.

The Bad Things

Designing the future of human interaction isn’t easy, and despite Google’s best efforts, using Glass is confusing—especially at first. Some weaknesses I spotted:

The learning curve: This isn’t obvious, especially if you’re not working from a factory-reset device. The first time I put it on, it took me a while to figure out how to exit a menu. And while there are a handful of great third-party apps around for the device that could hold much potential for event-goers—for example, the third-party Word Lens app, which translates words on the fly—it takes a while to figure how to set up and install them. And being a pre-release device, it lacks real support for a huge segment of the smartphone market: the iPhone. Without an iOS app, you have to have a laptop handy to download apps, tethering the device is incredibly complicated, and even joining a password-encoded WiFi network is a challenge that requires a web browser and a QR code. It’s easier on Android, but there’s no excuse for ignoring such a huge section of the market.

The camera’s quality: This issue is definitely not something unique to Google Glass, but definitely something which feels more pronounced on a device that acts like a second set of eyes: The 5-megapixel camera is not the best quality, and you won’t be able to shoot much in the dark or even zoom. That means its best mode for shooting is face to face—so good luck recording something happening on a stage.

Practical concerns: The reason why an iPhone or Nexus tablet is useful is that it doesn’t feel like you’re working outside of your normal routine when using it. With the Glass, however? It’s obvious at all times that you’re carrying it around, and it also feels extremely fragile. Since you can’t just fold it up and put it in a case like regular eyewear, that also means storage is a challenge. Unlike a smartphone or glasses, it’s not easily stored in a pocket. A backpack or purse might not be the best spot for it, either.

The Potential

This may be scratching the surface, but these these possible conference-use cases stood out to me the most:

Sharing on the fly: It’s not nearly easy—and requires the installation of third-party apps—but it’s possible. (After the conference, I tried posting a video directly to a Tumblr page, but it didn’t work.) But even without apps, it’s possible to extract and share: I was able to hook the device to my Mac and upload directly to my Dropbox folder. That’s more complicated than it should be, and though methods do exist to simplify the process, the average user would probably get tripped up. The potential is growing, however: Last week, the marketing firm Weber Shandwick launched the Glass-compatible WordPress plugin wpForGlass, which allows you to take a photo or video, add a voice-enabled caption, and automatically post the visuals to a WordPress site—taking livestreaming to a whole new level. I can imagine a few community managers who would love to be able to do something like that at events.

Painting a mental picture: One problem you might experience after leaving a conference with a lot of new business cards in your possession is that keeping track of all the people you met isn’t easy. It’s the same with educational experiences. Shooting quick videos and adding notes to them would certainly help refresh your memory. (It’s worth noting, note-takers, that an Evernote app is available for Glass.)

Developing for scale: What if everyone at a conference had a Glass device? The possibilities could be endless: We could develop apps that help us walk through a conference and give us a quick way to see what’s available, or even augment events visually. (An app that does this at city scale, Field Trip, already exists.) The problem in this case, though, is that you’d have to reach mass usage at events to make it worth programming for. Maybe that’s a matter of renting out a thousand Glass devices, depending on your budget, but if it’s just two or three, it probably isn’t worth your time.

Is This the Future?

I lean toward a tentative “possibly.” There are a lot of kinks that need to be worked out for Google Glass to make it something more useful to folks who aren’t early-adopter types like me, and the device still looks unnatural on a person’s head.

The idea may not go mainstream. That said, if Glass is going to have a chance of succeeding somewhere, it’d likely be the events space, where the controlled nature plays to the product’s strengths. It could be a match, like Segways and police officers.

I wouldn’t call it the future just yet, but let’s say it’s certainly not looking backward.

(photo by tedeytan/Flickr)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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