First glimpse of Google Glass apps shows what headsets can really do

Google Glass headsetReady to wear a computer on your face? Google thinks you are. The company’s Glass headset seeks to bring wearable computing into the mainstream – but what will the average person do with it? There are privacy fears, but a sneak peek at some of the first Glass apps gives a glimpse of how useful the device might be.

Glass debuted in May last year at Google’s annual developer conference, Google I/O, but it was only last month that designers and developers finally got their hands on the device. At the latest I/O, held in San Francisco last week, Google showed developers how to play around with Glass to come up with exciting new uses.

Glass consists of a fingertip-sized transparent prism display that sits at the top right corner of a user’s field of vision. This prism is attached to a body housing a camera, eye movement sensors, a touch-sensitive sidebar and a number of other sensors, including an accelerometer, gyroscope and compass. It has Wi-Fi and can be paired with a smartphone via Bluetooth to access things like GPS or data over a 3G or 4G connection.

So far, the apps that come with Glass simply adapt familiar online activities, like emailing or taking pictures with a voice command. Other official apps come from third parties, like news headlines from The New York Times.

But as developers who have tried the device are discovering, Glass is about more than just adapting familiar activities to a new interface. Nelson Blaha, a web developer in Dallas, Texas, has had Glass for about three weeks now. He says it is perfect for subtly adding context to the background of one’s normal activities.

Blaha’s BirdsForGlass app displays pictures of and information about birds that have been sighted near a Glass-wearer’s location. It draws on Cornell University’s eBird birdwatching database, which collects sightings from all over the US. “If you had to use a birdwatching book, you’d have to go through all the species that may not be in the area at the time,” says Blaha. “But something like this uses your location to keep track of what birds are likely to be around you at that moment.” Users are also able to look up a bird’s entry without taking their eyes off the bird itself – impossible with a book or smartphone.

Other Glass apps adapt and enhance familiar smartphone tasks. For example, a program called Glassnost, created by Boston-based developer Erik Johnson, lets users share images online, then receive feedback from their friends directly in the Glass display. This kind of interaction is more cumbersome on a phone, says Johnson. With Glass, the camera is always out and ready, and the Glassnost app shows comments as they come in.

Johnson thinks this might change the way we use photo-sharing services. “Say you’re at a store and you want friends to help you decide whether or not to buy something, you can push photos to the web and get feedback very quickly,” he says.

Another app, called ThroughGlass, developed by Los Angeles-based engineers Andrew Skotzko and Drew Baumann brings this kind of “always on” social networking to Facebook users. It allows users to take photos and videos with Glass, upload them to Facebook and update their status using voice recognition, as well as “like” their friends’ posts.

“You think your phone is always with you? Try putting on a pair of glasses that are connected to the internet,” says Skotzko.

Glass also makes activities that you would not want to do with a smartphone more desirable, such as facial recognition. It would be embarrassing to hold up your smartphone camera to try to identify someone who you’re not sure whether you’ve met before. But an app for doctors called MedRefGlass, developed by Lance Nanek in New York is more subtle. It takes a photo, then uploads it to an online analysis and recognition service called BetaFace. This matches the picture against the faces of previous patients and, if it recognises it, serves up medical information about the person.

Until last week, Google gave app developers no option but to use a programming interface called Mirror, which did not give access to the camera or other sensors. Some found a way around this by putting Glass in a special mode that allows it to be programmed just like any device that runs Google’s Android operating system. Now Google has told all developers how to do this hack, which opens up the possibilities. In this way, developer Mike DiGiovanni created an app called Winky that allows Glass wearers to take pictures with a wink rather than a voice command.

Investors are taking an interest. A start-up incubator called Stained Glass Labs and a venture-capital fund called Glass Collective were recently founded to support companies developing Glass apps.

With greater control over the device, developers are more likely to hit on a killer app. DiGiovanni thinks there will be many. “Everyone doing a job probably has something that would benefit from them having a lightweight hands-free device always on them,” he says.

See also: Eyes on Android blog

Syndicated content: MacGregor Campbell, New Scientist

An eye for gamingVirtually everyone plays games on their smartphones these days. They might soon be doing the same wearing Google’s Glass headset. One of the first games for the device is an augmented reality (AR) game called StarFinder, developed by dSky9 of San Francisco. Players compete to identify constellations in the night sky. Another game, called Icebreaker, matches two Glass wearers near each other who must follow directions to meet and snap a picture. Players earn points based on the people they meet. Glass would also work with Google’s AR game Ingress, in which players compete to “take control” of real-life landmarks. Glass has been built to support multiplayer gaming, although no such games exist for it yet.
Tags: average person, Cornell University, google, movement sensors

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