Saturday, December 14, 2013

Google Glass Impressions

So I just got done trying out Google Glass at a marketing event in Austin.  Here are my impressions.

The event itself was held in a downtown art gallery.  Coffee and sodas, various snacks, gallery staff dressed in black walking around, handlers from Google ready to answer questions and swap out units that weren't working correctly (about halfway through the event, my unit lost its wifi connection).  I signed a waiver that lets Google use all the images and audio recorded at the event for marketing purposes, but I doubt any of you will be seeing me in an ad any time soon.  I think they mostly wanted to cover their asses since there were about a hundred walking video cameras in that space.

As for the hardware itself, Glass is awkward.  It responds to voice commands fairly well, even in a crowded gallery with a bunch of people talking around you, but a lot of the navigation has to be done using the touch interface on the right side of the glasses, just behind the display.  This would be fine on occasion, but during the thirty minutes or so that I was using it, I was swiping and tapping that little touch-sensitive area every 15-20 seconds.

The display is better than I expected.  On the New York Times' website, I was able to see probably about ten lines of article text on the screen at any given time, which was more than I anticipated based on the video demos I’ve seen.  But again the awkwardness of the interface got in the way - you scroll through the page by sliding your finger along the side of the glasses.  In several places in the operating system menus, you can scroll through things by tilting your head, which would have been a lot more convenient.

I was a little surprised by how quickly my eyes got tired looking up and to the right like that.  It would be okay to glance up at it from time to time, but trying to use it for anything sustained really just isn't practical.  Another thing that caught me off guard was that I couldn't read the display without my glasses on.  I'm nearsighted, so I thought the fact that the display was literally an inch from my eyeball would make it unnecessary to use my glasses, but whatever optical illusion they use to make it look like the display is a foot or two in front of you apparently also triggers pre-existing vision problems.  The unit itself has no lenses – it’s just a headband with nose rests and a display – so I was able to put it on over my glasses, but again, it was awkward.

The bone conduction speakers work, but not really well.  Initially, I couldn’t hear anything at all, and my friend had to ask one of the Google handlers how to get sound.  It turns out the solution is to put your finger in your ear.  Again – awkward.  *Really* awkward.  Once I plugged my finger in my ear, though, I could hear okay.  The sound is tinny, with very little bass, but that’s not really surprising; the sound from an external iPhone speaker is of higher quality, but not by a lot.  I listened to a piano piece, the THX noise, and a rock song (Strange Television by Deadboy & the Elephantmen, if anyone wants to know), all on YouTube.  It was adequate; if I’d listened to someone talking, I’m fairly sure I would have been able to understand what they were saying.  The sound comes through the hardware mounted on the right side of the glasses, so obviously it’s not in stereo.

The map application was solid.  It was able to give me directions to nearby restaurants and movie theaters with no problems, though I had to scroll through them by swiping the touch area.  The accelerometer did an excellent job of tracking where my head was pointed and swiveling the map to match my movements.  If I were blindfolded and dropped into a strange city with Google Glass, I could get around about as well as I could with a smartphone (assuming I didn’t get mugged for wearing a $1600 piece of hardware on my face).

Taking photos and videos is pretty clearly one of the main things Glass is designed for.  It really is just as simple as saying “Okay Glass, record a video.”  The camera was mostly pointed wherever I was looking; I didn’t have to adjust my head position much to get things framed clearly.

My friend ran into a problem, though – he has vision problems in his right eye, and they didn’t have any units with the display mounted on the left side.  He played with it for a couple of minutes before taking it off.  One of the Google handlers hooked a Glass unit into his smartphone via Bluetooth and showed what the display looks like.  Once the device hits the market, though, I assume there will be “lefty” models available.

And that’s about it.  Overall, I wasn’t tremendously impressed.  It’s a cool concept, but this isn’t going to replace your smartphone any time soon.  Part of the problem is the display – it’s not designed for extended use – but the biggest issue I had was the interface.  Glass relies far too heavily on the touchpad for navigation and control.  That’s a software issue, though, so it will get better with time and third party developers.  I wouldn’t buy this when it hits the market, but Glass 2.0 or 3.0 may be worth the money.

I think I covered everything, but I’m happy to answer any questions.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Toldja So

Toldja so.  That is all.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012


I wrote this post 364 days ago.  Nothing that has happened in the last year has changed my mind about the outcome of this election.  I bought the champagne last month.  Obama wins in one week.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Dammit, SpaceX

Yet another delay in the SpaceX launch.  The politics driving the privatization of spaceflight have been on my mind for a while, but the last few months of SpaceX flops have started to get under my skin.  To their credit, SpaceX is getting closer to the actual launch window with each iteration before calling things off.  This time, the announcer actually said "Liftoff!" and had to correct himself. 

The repeated failures of the SpaceX vehicle bother me not because I think they demonstrate incompetence.  I'm quite aware that this is an astoundingly complex feat of engineering.  It's literally rocket science.  I don't expect it to go right the first time, and SpaceX was absolutely right to scrub the launch.

What makes me crazy is that we really need SpaceX to get things right.  The shuttles are museum pieces, and without them, America has no way to put a human in orbit.  The best we could muster in a pinch is the X-37B, which is a military mini-shuttle designed to carry surveillance equipment, not passengers.  If there were a catastrophic failure of the Russian program, the last 15 years of work we've put into the International Space Station could easily go out the window.

Come on, SpaceX.  I'm rooting for you, but this is starting to get ridiculous.


I'm generally not one to take an alarmist position on pending legislation, but this is truly creepy.  This quiet little amendment to the defense authorization bill would roll back, among other things, a law passed in the wake of WWII which was designed to protect the American populace from America's foreign propaganda campaigns. 

There has been little communication from the cosponsors on this so far, but the rationale here would seem to be that in the information age, it's not really possible to target exclusively foreign audiences.  If you put up a "Voice of America"-style podcast or a website designed to depose a dictator, that material is accessible to a domestic audience, which effectively makes it illegal to put pretty much anything on the internet.  Okay, fine, that needs to be fixed.  I imagine it's a tricky problem and I may not agree with your solution, but yes, go ahead and amend the law.

Coverage of the issue is mostly spotty opinion journalism based an an anonymous Pentagon whistleblower.  However, this amendment seems to remove the protections altogether, and that is foolish in the extreme.  More on this when I have time to find the actual text of the amendment; digging through the legislative history of a defense authorization bill takes time.

EDIT:  It looks like this bill died in the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.  We may hear from it again, but probably not any time soon.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Problem with Google

It would be easy to just post this article on Google's seeming intellectual property grab with the comment "don't be evil" and leave it alone, but it really looks like a good faith attempt to preserve Google's ability to manage its services without getting tied up in a nightmare of lawsuits.

I agree that it's probably drawn a bit too broadly, but it's really not that big a deal.  The legal team overreached a little.  Roll it back.  Move on.

And this is the problem with Google

"Google's mission is to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful."  There's an inherent tension between that mission and the rights of individuals to both their private data and their intellectual property. 

A good example of this would be Google's ill-fated attempt to digitize millions of books and make them available online.  This would be fantastic news for bibliophiles like yours truly, making literally billions of pages of rare or out of print books available online for free.  It's perfectly in line with Google's mission statement, and it has the added bonus of democratizing information flow.  And it's terrifying for anyone who makes a living on books.

Another example is the recent "slap on the pinkie" fine Google got for collecting sensitive information, including web histories and passwords, from personal wifi networks with its StreetView cars.  A national wifi map would be an incredibly useful thing to have, especially if it's constantly updated by a roving fleet that just happens to be out there mapping roads anyway.  Google only snooped on networks which weren't password protected; it's not like anybody got hacked.  And it's terrifying for everybody who owns a router.

There are plenty of other examples.  Plenty.

A company built on information management requires trust to continue being successful, and small missteps, even those made in good faith, reverberate when made by a company so intricately tied up in our daily lives.

The problem with Google is that there are too many small missteps made in good faith.

Wednesday, April 04, 2012

Incentivizing Intrusion

I just saw this article on yet more warrantless electronic surveillance.

What surprises me here isn't that police officers are tracking cell phone locations without warrants. What surprises me is a little throwaway piece of background information:

"The practice is so common that cell phone companies have manuals for police explaining what data the companies store, how much they charge police to access that data, and what officers need to do to get it.... Costs can range up to several hundred dollars for each request."
(Emphasis added, internal link omitted)

On the one hand, it makes sense for the government to reimburse business owners for records requests. It takes time and company resources to track a cell phone.

But on the other hand, this seems to create a profit motive for cell phone companies to encourage more records requests, and to look the other way when the requesting officer doesn't have the appropriate authorization.

If you look at how the fees are structured, it certainly seems like the cell companies must be making money from these requests. They charge activation fees, per use fees, premium fees for access to data and voice traffic, and on and on. T-Mobile charges $100 per day for access to a customer's location data. That's more than my smartphone bill for an entire month.

If cell providers are making money giving out customers' data without legal authorization, that's a serious problem. I want a lot more information about the profit margins on these fees, and now I'm curious about industry lobbying groups' involvement in the underlying regulations, too. This doesn't smell right.

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Super Tuesday Status Quo

Santorum and Romney are running neck and neck if you count the number of states each won, but if you look at the numbers right now, Santorum doesn't seem to have have any *big* wins.

Romney has Massachusetts (predictably) with 72% and Idaho with 68%. By contrast, Santorum's best showing of the evening so far is North Dakota, with 39.7% His new theoconservative focus seems to have kept him relevant for the moment, but just barely. His support is soft.

I'm calling it for Romney again, although I will say that two months ago, I didn't expect Santorum to be the one playing the spoiler in this race.

Monday, January 16, 2012

American Science Funding

Just encountered a really good article about the sorry state of American science funding over at

Sunday, January 15, 2012

SuperPAC Schizophrenia

This is fun. For those who haven't followed this particular political mini-drama, the Newt Gingrich super PAC, "Winning Our Future," has been running a "documentary" excoriating Romney for the time he spent at Bain Capital, a company that bought businesses, fired their workers, and sold off their assets for a profit.

Repurposing the assets of failed or failing businesses is a necessary task in a free market economy, but it makes Romney look like he got rich(er) by firing people, so the Gingrich camp is using it to reinforce the anti-populist image of Romney that they (and the other candidates) have been trying to build in their attack ads.

This is where it starts to get good. Since he legally can't "coordinate" with it, Gingrich publicly called on the super PAC (which is populated with his former staffers and business associates) to stop running the ad. And....

Wait for it....

They refused.

So now Gingrich gets to have his cake and eat it, too; he can run attack ads while publicly denouncing attack ads. What can poor old Newt do if these scallywags insist on running ads he doesn't approve? The law says he can't "coordinate" with them, so he just has to sit there and watch helplessly as his good friends drag his opponents through the mud.

Poor, poor Newt.