Glass half empty

Travel Weekly editor in chief Arnie Weissmann wears Google Glass as he speaks about innovation in tourism at the University of Anahuac in Mexico City last May.
Travel Weekly editor in chief Arnie Weissmann wears Google Glass as he speaks about innovation in tourism at the University of Anahuac in Mexico City last May. Photo Credit: University of Anahuac
Arnie Weissmann
Arnie Weissmann

It was with a sense of great relief that I opened an email last week from Google telling me that they were closing the Google Glass Explorer program on Jan. 19.

As one of 10,000 "Explorers," I've traveled widely with Google Glass over the past 10 months. I wore it on the streets of Sao Paulo, Beijing and Mexico City. I climbed Diamond Head on Oahu, rode horses at a Texas dude ranch and searched for restaurants in the ethnic neighborhoods of Queens.

In other words, I was frustrated by its limitations all over the world.

So, is Glass not ready for the world, or is the world not ready for Glass?

Since most of Glass' utility as a travel aid depends on being connected to the Internet via WiFi or through a Bluetooth connection to one's phone, it's cost-prohibitive to simply use it while walking down a foreign street.

When I pointed this out to a Google representative, he basically put the blame on ... the world. "It's ridiculous that free WiFi isn't universally available, isn't it? That day will come."

Worse still for international travelers using Glass, it won't connect to any WiFi system that requires both a user name and password, which rules out most hotel WiFi. There is a workaround: You can connect your phone to the hotel WiFi, and then pair Glass to the phone via Bluetooth. But isn't technology supposed to simplify one's life rather than create extra steps?

(I found there were often workarounds for problems and, notably, more problems for iPhone users than for those with portable devices running Google's Android platform.)

Limited Internet access abroad is particularly frustrating because one of the presumed travel benefits would be the ability for Glass to assist with audio translation.

There is a translation app, Word Lens, which provides visual translation of signs or other written language ­-- remarkably, rendered in the same typeface -- without an Internet connection. The translations are sometimes a little funky. I viewed some Cyrillic letters above an Uzbekistani restaurant and expected to see a translation of the establishment's name. Word Lens gave me: "East affairs matter responsibly."

Both the still and video cameras function without Internet connectivity, but one soon finds this is a camera with serious limitations. It has a fixed wide-angle lens, no zooming capability and no viewfinder. Vertical shots are not possible. And Glass' screen doesn't accurately show what is being photographed; as a result, one must take a few shots to get the composition right, correcting by changing the angle of one's head or moving closer or backward.

Almost everything Glass does can be done with a smartphone, but two functions are specifically designed for wearables: a setting to turn Glass on by tilting your head up slightly and the ability to take a photo by winking. It's a great hands-free solution to discreet photography, but I found it can create problems in a machismo culture like Brazil's, where turning Glass on and taking a photo can look like you're giving a "come hither" head gesture, followed by a wink. I realized how handy it would be to have a quick audio translation of "I am not trying to pick up your girlfriend" in Portuguese.

Glass' potential did become clear when I was on horseback in Texas, with the device paired to a MiFi in my pocket. I went by a prickly pear cactus.

"OK, Glass," I said, voicing the command that precedes a request, "Google prickly pear cactus." A voice in my earphone soon read the Wikipedia entry about prickly pear cactus to me, which was enlightening.

I saw a live oak tree.

"Okay Glass, Google live oak tree." My screen came to life and I saw images of live oak trees -- not what I wanted. (A Google representative told me later that what you get depends upon which result comes up as the top response in a Google search.)

My most satisfying Glass experience occurred in Mexico.

For the most part, I felt that Glass was a barrier to human interaction, putting distance between me and other people. But in Mexico City's Frida Kahlo Museum, I found myself in a room with a young man in a wheelchair. "Is that Glass?" he asked.

I offered to let him try it on, and that led to a long conversation. The man, whose legs had been amputated, had participated in the Winter Olympics in Sochi a few months before as a "mono-skier," representing Mexico.

That conversation was a true benefit provided by Glass. But, given that in most respects Glass disappointed me, would I view it, on the whole, as an innovation for travelers?


Ubiquitous WiFi is, in fact, likely to become a reality in the not-too-distant future, and that will resolve many of my issues. But mostly, I know it's an innovation because it had me thinking about hundreds of ways it could be more useful. Its flaws actually expose its potential, and I'm guessing that developers within and outside Google are being similarly inspired.

Travel is already a robust area for Glass apps (called "Glassware"), including one from TripIt, though I found most of them needed a lot more work to be as efficient as what's currently available on smartphones.

I should note there is another, somewhat frightening travel possibility. Among the FAQs packaged into Glass hardware is "Can I use Glass while driving?"

I would have thought the answer was "Hell no!" Glass is frustrating enough even when it's the center of your focus.

But users were advised, in essence, to follow state laws and "Don't fail to pay attention to the road."

Of course, Google could be looking forward: Glass could indeed be useful in a car, as long as it's a Google driverless car.


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