Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Google Glasses, and Is Apple On The Wrong Side Of Innovation?

The New York Times Bits Blog has a piece yesterday about Google's new technology venture: Google Glasses. According to the blog's sources, the glasses will resemble a bulky pair of late-90s Oakleys, cost $250-$600 dollars, and feature augmented reality--data showing up before your eyes when you look at something, like a star review when you look at a restaurant you're passing by.

The concept isn't new, but it is a prominent vision of where we're headed in mobile computing. Today's smartphones require us to look down to access information-- there's a clear advantage in a smart device that allows us to look up.

However, it doesn't seem like Google Glasses are ready for prime time, and it doesn't look to me like they will be. There are a couple problems I see:

1. It's a pair of bulky, late 90s Oakleys.

Many people say that the iPhone is a fashion statement. Which refers to its smart, sleek design and ubiquitous popularity. But it's also something that you keep in your pocket. Glasses are, quite literally, "in your face." Sunglasses are a deeply personal object, unique to one's style. And there's a reason why Oakleys' heyday was over a decade ago.

2. They're glasses.

People who don't need glasses don't wear them, unless they're sunglasses. People who do need glasses have eyeglasses that won't fit under a pair of Oakleys. The 3D trend is stuck on this same obstacle-- people feel uncomfortable with glasses (or extra glasses) on their face.

3. The money quote from the NY Times article: "The navigation system currently used is a head tilting to scroll and click. We are told it is very quick to learn and once the user is adept at navigation, it becomes second nature and almost indistinguishable to outside users.”

Oh boy. Engineers are in love with finding new ways to navigate the devices they put in front of us. First, they came up with punch cards. Then scroll wheels. Then the mouse. The joystick. Finally-- the touchscreen. Apple's navigation system worked because it was so intuitive: when we pick up something to take a closer look, we "pinch," when we drop something, we spread our fingers. This is the way we've always navigated with real objects-- Apple translated it to the smartphone.

This head tilt thing? "Quick to learn," and "second nature" and "almost indistinguishable" to people looking at us? Read between the lines and the picture you get is a twitchy man bobbing his head about while onlookers wonder if they're witnessing epilepsy or a the beginnings of a stroke.

And our heads move a lot. Can the device tell our intentions with such precision? If I turn my head to look at a hot chick or move quickly to dodge falling bird doo, will I accidentally email my mom or dial a number in Taipei?

Why not create a navigation system based on iris movement and the simple "double blink?" Looking around would move the cursor or scroll, and a double blink (which people would normally not do) would make a selection. That's far more intuitive than nodding and bobbing.

4. The biggest hurdle is response speed. The reason augmented reality apps are nothing more than a novelty right now is that they don't work fast enough. By the time something loads, your gaze has shifted. If you have to stare at something for a long time in order for Google Glasses to show you the relevant data, then why not just pick up a smart phone instead? No one likes to uncomfortably stare at something for more than a second or two. Is 4G fast enough to deliver the data? Are the GPS, the cameras and the chipset all integrated to generate results fast-- as fast as the blink of an eye?

With all this said, Google is at least on the right track. Some type of heads-up display is the future, I'm convinced. Which is why a line near the bottom of the blog post gives me concerns about Google's competitor, Apple:

"Apple engineers are also exploring wearable computing, but the company is taking a different route, focusing on computers that strap around someone’s wrist."

Yikes. So Google cops Oakleys, while Apple goes after the Casio Calculator Watch?

There's a reason the watch market collapsed following the explosion of cell phones. Watches are no longer a utility. They've become merely a fashion item. Like glasses, people buy they to match their personal style. Expecting to mass market one style of watch the same way Apple sells one style of cell phone is a boneheaded expectation.

The wristwatch concept doesn't solve any problem... indeed, it creates new ones. Yes, your hands are free, but in order to navigate, you're forced to keep one arm immobile while the other one touches. You're looking down, not up. You require a separate device to hear (glasses, at least, are close enough to the ear to incorporate a built-in headphone. I mean... wristwatch? Really?

This revelation comes on the heels of new photos that show the new iPad 3 will be THICKER than the iPad 2. While it seems the difference is no more than 1.5 millimeters, and improvements to the display and camera account for the extra space, its hard to believe Apple couldn't shave down the extra millimeter to avoid the perception of going backwards. If faster, smaller, lighter are the watchwords for future tech, Apple's fatter iPad sequel has been set up for obsolescence.

For Apple to continue its lead in the mobile computing field, they need to show they're thinking forward. Google's Glasses concept at least shows an eye looking ahead. Apple's wrist watch and belly-busting iPad 3 seem to indicate they may be staring at their feet.

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