Google unveils prototype ‘smart’ glasses

Last updated: June 28, 2012 12:51 am

By Tim Bradshaw and Richard Waters in San Francisco

Google sought to leapfrog rivals such as Apple and Microsoft as it unveiled a prototype of a pair of “smart” glasses designed to carry out many of the functions currently done on a smartphone, such as sharing pictures and accessing information.

The move came Wednesday as the search company also joined the hardware wars that are rocking the consumer technology industry, showing off the first tablet to carry its brand and a living room entertainment device designed and built by the internet company from the ground up.

Google said that an early version of its new glasses would be shipped to a limited number of software developers early next year, adding weight to the company’s attempts to reposition itself as an innovator at a time when its size and bureaucracy is under attack from smaller, more nimble companies including Facebook.

Sergey Brin, co-founder, said he hoped the glasses would go on sale to consumers less than a year later.

Google Glass, which has been in development for two and a half years, boasts a tiny display, worn like regular spectacles but sitting just above the right eye, to show information gathered from the internet. A bundle of sensors, microphones, speakers, cameras and wireless connections allows the wearer to both send and receive sound and images as they go about their daily lives.

Mr Brin showed off the device in a demonstration to thousands of developers at a Google event in San Francisco. Skydivers wearing the devices jumped out of an airship to land on the building, then abseiled down its side, transmitting video as they went.

The prototypes are to be sold to US-based attendees of the event for $1,500 for delivery early next year.

The bombastic demonstration of a device that has been shown to only a select few in recent months signals Google’s hopes of bringing sweeping changes to the way people use technology to rival the advances made by Apple.

“What is the next form-factor of computing? We are definitely pushing the limits, we’re asking that question,” Mr Brin said.

Two developers of Google Glass said on stage that they hoped the technology would “work for many people in most situations” to “catch fleeting moments in your life that would otherwise be lost”. The device uses a lightweight, “scalable” design that can fit over normal spectacles or sunglasses. A marketing video also showed a mother’s viewpoint of her young baby in a normal domestic situation as Google attempted to humanise this sci-fi product.

“I really personally am really excited about Glass,” said Mr Brin. “There are all kinds of things that this can capture and share. But obviously capturing images and videos and sharing video is only part of what a wearable computer can do … This developer community is going to be key to us.”

Announcing the Google Glass Explore Edition, Mr Brin invited developers to “help shape” this “really new technology”.

“You have to want to be on the bleeding edge and this is really what this is designed for,” he said, apologising for the fact that unspecified “regulatory stuff” meant Glass would only be sold in the US at launch.

About 80 per cent of the things that people do on a smartphone could be handled by the glasses, making users “less of a slave to [their] device”, Mr Brin said.

Google has tested email, texting, turn-by-turn navigation and video chat on its Google+ network, he said.

Despite predicting that the project would soon result in a consumer product, Google engineers admitted that they still had significant hurdles to overcome. These include devising a way for users to call up and respond to information and images, as well as to write or input information.

They also said that the glasses would force changes in social etiquette, since users would be able to photograph or video people they meet automatically, or access information out of the corner of their eye while conducting a conversation.

Vic Gundotra, the executive in charge of Google’s social network, said Glass and its risky stunts showed the company had a “healthy disrespect for the impossible”.

Developers lined up to order the device, although some dismissed it as nothing more than a wearable camera.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2012.


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