To see a picture taken through Google Glass is (in its own awkward, yet intimate way) to see the world through an artist’s eyes.
On a recent Sunday afternoon, photographer and Bright Mango co-founder John Barnett (@johnbarnett) led a group of Instagram photographers wearing Google Glasses on a photo excursion through Brooklyn Bridge Park.
Connecting two New York bridges, the pedestrian walkway runs alongside the East River and offers sweeping views of the Manhattan skyline, which made the park an ideal place to see how well the computerized eyewear could capture a cityscape that’s already burned into our memories by television and film.
John, who co-created the Wood Camera and Viewmatic photography apps and has more than 42,000 followers on Instagram, was one of a few thousand people who had won early access to Google Glass by Tweeting his contest entry to the company with the hashtag #ifihadglass.
He tried using them to take my call, but failed. “It’s quite hard for me to hear calls in a crowded area or driving,” he explained. “The nice people at Google when I picked up Glass recommended that I cup my hand over my ear to hear better. (They told me ‘that’s what Sergey does.’) Since there’s currently no volume adjustment, people near me in a quiet room can hear exactly what Glass is saying.”
John arrived at Jane’s Carousel wearing just the frames without the lenses, explaining that because the device was built into the frame, the lenses were optional. With the lenses, it was not a subtle look. “Right now Glass is very Star Trek borg looking,” John said. “People in New York City are open and interested, but in other less connected areas of the world I’ve gotten some pretty curious stares.”
Warby Parker may design a more contemporary alternative for Google in the future, if the rumors are true.”I’d love to see Glass incorporated into a few different styles of eyeglasses,” John added. “Maybe spread the battery pack across both earpieces so it’s not so chunky. And I’d get rid of the silver halo.”
After handing me the glasses, John explained how to tap the earpiece to pull up the menu on the screen. A small square appeared just above eye level. Looking up at the projected image, I could scroll through my options on the menu by swiping the earpiece with my finger and then make a selection with a tap. I could shoot a video, take a picture, or use Google Search.
At one o’clock in the afternoon, the park was crowded and noisy — a good time to test the device’s voice-activated system. John showed me how to take a picture by starting the command with “OK Glass.” It didn’t pick up my voice at first, so I repeated the command at a higher pitch. This time, Glass heard me. In seconds, I had a clear picture of the waterfront that looked as good as one I could have taken with my Android.
This was during the day. “The beautiful display prism needs to auto detect the ambient brightness of my location,” John noted about the brightness level. “In a dark room or at night, Glass is almost blinding. It wouldn’t be that hard for it to check via the camera when I wake the device.”
This brought up the point that using the device isn’t an entirely hands-free experience — I still had to tap the earpiece to shake the device out of sleep mode — but the camera followed the movement of my head rather than my hands. To get close to an object, I had to put my face right up to it.
Normally, you can connect Glass to Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, or Google+ “and you can share instantly with a nod of your head, a few words, and 2 or 3 taps of your finger,” John said.
Because I was using the glasses in guest mode, I couldn’t post the images straight to my social networks, but that was probably for the best. Operating the device was a coordination challenge that reminded me of being in elementary school and trying rub my stomach and pat my head at the same time. (I’m sure I looked just as cool doing it, too.)
John had brought along Bright Mango co-founder Zach Garrett (@zachgarrett), who also had a pair of Google glasses; and a few other artists the co-founders had gotten to know through their photography on Instagram who trickled in throughout the day.
Together, we wandered away from the main path in search of a particular cobblestone street under the Manhattan Bridge that we’d seen in pictures and films. Using Glass, I tried searching on Google for both cobblestone streets and the Manhattan Bridge. For the former, I got pictures of cobblestone streets; for the latter, I got a brief description of the landmark’s location and history.
Getting directions or texting a friend for help was not an option, as John had connected the device to his iPhone and these features currently only work on an Android. “Google needs to sort this out with Apple and find a solution soon,” he said.
We eventually found the spot we were looking for sandwiched between two red brick buildings and stopped in the middle of the street to take a picture. Those of us who weren’t wearing Glass at the time got out their camera phones.
Soon, our futuristic eyewear attracted a throng of admirers: some of the people who approached us asked what we were doing, but most had figured out that we were wearing Google glasses and immediately asked if they could try them on. We laughed as they went cross-eyed trying to find the tiny screen, as we had done ourselves just minutes ago.
Etiquette was a lively point of discussion in the group — someone brought wet napkins to mop up our sweat as we passed the frames around in the hot sun, and everyone agreed that we should take the glasses off before entering a public restroom. We wondered if a signal could also be made on the device to let people know when they were being photographed.
Zach got down to the nitty gritty of the data plans. “I’m hoping that part of the natural evolution of Glass will be to eventually be able to operate independently of a smartphone,” said Zach. “To do that, it needs LTE data access. This could be structured as a month-to-month data plan, just like it is with my iPad. Currently, in order to have data access you must be tethered via Bluetooth to a smartphone with a ‘personal hotspot’ plan enabled. One of the beauties of Glass is that if it had its own data plan it could allow you to (sometimes) leave your phone behind completely. Right now that’s not an option.”
I may have felt like I was in an aquarium, but the glasses weren’t heavy or uncomfortable to wear, nor did they obstruct my vision. The only side effect was that after a while, the eye closest to the device started to feel more fatigued than the other eye.
By the end of the day, the glasses were also showing signs of fatigue. “If you’re using Glass for a good amount of photo and video capture, these are not all-day devices,” John pointed out. “If you’re just using Glass as a passive way to get calls, notifications, and to share occasionally, you should get pretty good battery life.”
But we weren’t at the park to take calls; we were there to create art. Much like Instagram, the limitations of the device — the slightly elevated perspective and the human-powered zoom — were also part of its appeal. Filters and other effects could be added later in another program, once the images were captured. And a single shooter could operate a second camera while wearing the glasses, we found.
Instagram just added video-sharing function, but unfortunately for Glass wearers, it only applies to videos that are shot within the app.
John, who had been testing the limits of Google Glass’ video recording system, noticed that “the voice of the person wearing Glass is very distinct, even when speaking in a quiet voice,” he said, but “the perspective is wide and captures exactly what you’re seeing. I foresee a myriad of uses for showing others how to do something or sharing amazing first person point of view videos.”
For photography, however, “the camera field of view takes a little bit of getting used to. You currently don’t have a preview of the capture area when shooting a photo. Right now I hold still and shoot an image, it appears on the screen, and I adjust my head to frame the photo differently if needed, and take another photo. Video capture is easier because you have a live preview on the display. I love shooting with Glass. The 5mp images and 720 video are pretty good quality, for a tiny camera sitting on my head.”