Barry Burd, professor of computer science, isn’t out to steal your soul. At least he says he’s not, and there is no reason to disbelieve him.
For about a year, Burd has been using Google Glass, the face-mounted computer that has many of the capabilities of a smartphone, but which looks like a pair of glasses. Users can see a one-inch square display by glancing up, and can control it with voice commands and eye movements. Its most controversial feature is its ability to take pictures.
Many people are disconcerted by the idea of someone recording them just by looking their way. “One of the questions I always get is, ‘Am I being filmed?’ Burd says. “The answer is always, ‘no.’ Google Glass has a little red light that goes on if you are taking a picture. There is a privacy concern here. ‘Is my soul being stolen by you wearing Google Glass?’ No. I have more interesting things to do.”
If it’s not good for stealing souls then, what is it good for? Burd says Google Glass is great at one thing: attracting attention. Everywhere he goes with the wearable computer, he is bombarded by people asking him what the device can do (and whether or not he is taking their picture.)
If you are interested in exploring Google Glass’s capabilities for yourself, Burd will give a talk at the Princeton PC Users Group Tuesday, July 22, at 7 p.m., at the Mercer County Library in Lawrenceville. Burd will demonstrate Google Glass and give people who come to the free event a chance to try it for themselves.
It remains to be seen whether Glass is the next iPhone, or whether it’s the next Segway — a curiosity that is fun to use, but which finds only a specialized market.
Google itself doesn’t seem to be completely sold on Glass. The device was hyped relentlessly when it was first introduced in 2012 at Google’s I/O conference. Parachutists wearing the nifty new gadget jumped from a blimp onto the roof of the conference center, streaming live video to attendees.
At the time, Burd was intrigued by the new technology, and he eventually signed up to be one of the first Google Glass “explorers,” that is, early adopters who use the thing and help iron out bugs. He has also found it invaluable, since he teaches a class at Drew University on developing software for Google Glass. (It runs Google’s Android smartphone operating system, and can connect to Android phones via wireless Bluetooth.)
Today Burd is one of a few thousand people who paid $1,500 for the privilege of being a Google Glass Explorer. However, he has noticed that the device was featured less prominently in the last few I/O conferences, where Google debuts new products, and he speculates that may be a sign they are waiting to see if it is viable for consumers before committing to a full scale launch.
Google Glass is essentially an eyeglasses-mounted smartphone, but with a very different user interface. The main difference is its hands-free operation, which allows for new applications, but which is limiting in other ways.
Burd has discovered many limitations of the Glass during his year of using it. For example, suppose you are in a public place and you want to use a Web service that requires a password — for example, signing into a social media account, or a wi-fi network. Normally, you enter text by speaking it, but you don’t want anyone to hear what your password is.
That problem still hasn’t been solved. There are complicated work-arounds involving QR codes, but the base software still lacks a good way to enter a password. Burd and his computer science students have hit upon several ideas, he says, which he is encouraging them to publish.
For anyone who wants to go into business developing apps for Glass, the trick is figuring out what the glasses could be used for. Burd sees enormous potential in the idea of a hands-free computer where you can see the screen at a glance. One of his favorite apps is merely a digital level — it projects a line on the user’s vision that is parallel to the horizon. Although it serves the same purpose as an old fashioned tube of glass with a bubble in it, it has the enormous advantage of being hands-free. “How many times when you are using a level do you need both hands to do something else? That’s the kind of thing Glass would be perfect for,” he says.
Despite the limited number of people using Google Glass, artists have found ways of integrating it into performances in innovative ways. On June 19 an opera company in New York gave a performance of Pygmalion in which operagoers could see English subtitles on their Google Glass screens.
Burd has made an app for Glass to help him learn language. “It drills me with Yiddish phrases at random times so I can learn them without paying attention,” he says.
Burd has also used it as a navigation device while driving, and found it much less distracting than using a map or a cell phone. “I would rather take a quick look up to see what the route is than to turn my head to the side to stare at a GPS device,” he says.
Glass does have its limitations, however. Its small screen — about 300 by 600 pixels — prevents users from viewing full web pages. The interface is the most pressing challenge, since there are many situations when people would not want to use voice commands.
“Imagine a room full of people, and somebody is using Google Glass and talking to it. It’s just not good,” Burd says.
Burd grew up in Philadelphia, where his father was a pharmacist. He got a PhD in mathematics from the University of Illinois. There Burd became fascinated with computers. He began teaching at Drew University in 1980, and has taught math and computer science courses there ever since. He has written several books in the “For Dummies” series, mostly on programming for Java and Android.
Burd’s take on Google Glass so far is that it is interesting, but not yet ready for prime time. He has encountered problems during his demonstrations with the device overheating. He believes that and other glitches will have to be ironed out if Google Glass is to become a mass market item instead of a weird curiosity.
In the long run, will they catch on? “I just don’t know,” he says. “I can take a guess, but whatever guess I make, I’m usually wrong.”