Read o’er this paper while the glass doth come.

–William Shakespeare, Richard II (1595)

Getting Glass

Back in February of this year, Google commenced with a kind of contest. They were seeking Explorers for their next step into the future of interactivity. This was Project Glass. To enter, you needed only to communicate in a way you were already. Via Twitter, send a message out into the ether describing just how you would use Glass. Oh, and don’t forget the hashtag (#IfIHadGlass).

So I did.

Wait, what?

I should explain. My career is in user experience. Since 2005, I’ve been an information architect, a usability specialist, a user experience architect, a UX advocate and a UX strategist. I think about human interaction for a living. But in my spare time, I run a theatre company. For about as long as I’ve been in UX, I’ve been directing productions of outdoor Shakespeare. I’m pretty good at it, having been nominated for a couple of local drama awards. In 2012, I won. And part of my peculiar craft is framing up scenes with a DSLR camera. This helps me to see in rehearsal what an audience will see in performance. The trouble is, a snapping shutter can be distracting.

So I tweeted. And nothing much happened until eventually I started to notice a few mentions on Twitter. The selecting had begun.

I was not among the first chosen. And perhaps my idea wasn’t as original as I thought. Maybe it was too obscure. Regardless, I wasn’t picked for the team and to be honest, that was cool by me. I knew at least one person who was selected and some initial research into availability and cost had me convinced mostly that perhaps I was better off.

But five weeks after my initial tweet, a reply appeared from ProjectGlass.

I was in. They even said “Woohoo!”

I … won?

But the situation hadn’t changed all that much. At the predicted cost, there was no way I was going to make the purchase on my own. I’ve been a technophile for most of my life, but rarely have I crept out onto the bleeding edge. When the iPad was first introduced, I won one in a random drawing at a UX conference. I was happy to have it, but I didn’t open it. I carried it carefully through the TSA line at LaGuardia, then brought it safely home. Over the course of travel, I’d decided to sell the iPad on eBay and use the proceeds for a couple of Kindles. Because to me, the first generation iPad was a lot of potential, but wouldn’t come into its own until the 2nd or 3rd. So I don’t quite fit the first adopter demographic.

But this is where MRY comes in.

I was chosen, but what if I let MRY (my award-winning place of employ) pick up the bill? They’d own the device, effectively, but I’d be its advocate, its keeper. In return, I’d do write-ups (like this one), do research and learn the ins and outs of this revolution-in-the-making. More than anything else, I’d determine how to propose user experience for Glass and the devices inevitably to come in its wake.

So that’s what happened.

(It was a longer process than just a simple sentence, but let’s go with the short “that’s what happened” version.)

The Pick Up

It’s worth talking about the experience of picking up Glass. For one thing, it was done in person. No shipping and handling here. If you wanted Glass, you were going to have to take your pick of Los Angeles, San Francisco or New York City, then come and get it. I went with New York, because MRY has an office there, and because any excuse to be in New York is a good excuse, even briefly.

After an afternoon of meetings, I made my way from our 19th Street office to Google’s presence above Chelsea Market. On a typical day, this would be five or six blocks of nothing much, but I’d selected the Hottest Day of 2013 as far as Manhattan was concerned. I’d arrived just early enough to stumble into the Market and park myself under one of those glorious ceiling fans, at least long enough to stop seeing mirages. Cooler than I’d been, I took the elevator and stepped out at the eighth floor.

A bouncer-esque security guard diverted me quickly to a pair of receiving Google Guides. Seems security guard had seen enough of my ilk in the last few weeks and he wasn’t having any unnecessary questions. But no matter, as my name was taken, my ID was asked for, and I was checked against a list of appointments for the day. Not only had I selected just where to make the pick up, but what date and time. I was told to take a seat under a quite attractive carving of the Glass logo.

The waiting reading material was perfectly staged and likely had never been touched. Who wants to read a magazine when the future is only yards away?

Or write a letter home, for that matter?

But I didn’t need to concern myself with reading or writing, as my name was called and I met my Guide. I followed him into a room of stand-up table-desks, each with a pair of stools. The far wall was nothing but window. It was open and a little echoey and very impressive. Also, it was full of people, from other Guides to new Explorers like myself. The very definition of hustle and bustle. My Guide asked if I wanted to try any of the other colors before seeing my particular Glass. I’d made up my mind when I ordered, but I tried on a grey pair to be polite. No, I was good to go with the black, thanks.

Black seemed safest, as it is near impossible to wear Glass without announcing to the world at large: “Hello, I have something unusual on my head, please look at it.”

And in my particular case, I’ve something on my head already. I wear glasses. I’ve a number of different frames that I will interchange on various days. After an abortive attempt at contacts in high school, I’ve come to accept and appreciate my spectacles as practical accessories. And while I’d heard of other Explorers going with contacts prior to picking up their Glass, I decided to just go with it and wear what I’d usually.

More on this in a minute …

The presentation is like that of joining a secret society. Or perhaps just more like a Jedi picking up their first lightsaber. The box is huge for a thing so relatively small. And while my preconception was that the device would be fragile in the extreme, the construction is remarkably solid. The metal band is of titanium, including the thin padded supports meant to rest on your nose. It comes with a flat charging cable, a box of replacement nose pads, a clear shield, a dark-tinted shield and a plastic-reinforced drawstring pouch.

What I went through next was, for all intents and purposes, a fitting. No different than a trip to the optometrist’s to pick up a prescription pair. I was told to try them on, over my glasses and without a shield.

So how is it with prescription glasses?

Not nearly as uncomfortable as you might imagine. This experience is largely frame dependent, as it turned out the frames I wore that day were fairly well aligned with the titanium band. The spindly nose pieces didn’t quite rest on my face, but the band rested atop my frames. After adjusting the tiny monitor (hinged to bring it near and away), I was able to see the current time and the words “OK Glass.” This is the Glass homescreen, there to keep you from being late and to remind you of the starting phrase for any voice command.

After a brief setup for wifi, Google search is introduced and with good reason. Because when search on Glass works and works well, the result is fantastic. A simple voice command is all it takes to get information immediately and directly. “OK Glass, Google what is the weather in Manhattan?” And like that, the temperature appears on the tiny prism of a screen and a voice vibrates into your right ear saying the temperature and current conditions.

(Note: Glass did not reply, “The temperature in Manhattan today is that of being mere inches from the surface of the Sun,” so I have to dock it for accuracy.)

After a walk-through of the accompanying website — which necessitated a return to my mostly unvisited Google+ profile — and a few other firsts (first photos, first videos), I was presented with a shopping bag and sent on my merry way. I’d intended on taking Glass for a maiden voyage up Ninth Avenue to my hotel, but the heat of New York Summer hadn’t relented.

I took a cab instead.

Symphony of No

It has been made very clear to me that there are situations where Glass is not wanted. How clear? Quite. “You do understand that you are not going to wear Glass while we hang out, right? A whole opera of no. A symphony of no. Backed by numerous orchestras of mocking.” An exact quote, I might add. And while it might seem hyperbolic to have such a reaction, there are a few facets of Glass that do much to encourage wariness.

Let’s be honest for a moment. Glass is a decidedly peculiar look.

Author Neil Gaiman has even gone on record saying he would never wear them. Why? Because “they look very, very silly.” And this is from the man who gave his most famous creation, Morpheus, the strangest headgear in all of comic book history.

In this way, Glass is not subtle. As much as it wants to keep out of the way, there is no denying that there is indeed a small and glittery prism hanging over your right eye. And if the Explorer went the extra mile of selecting a more colorful model (as was suggested to me), that prism is suspended on an arm of orange or blue or white. But beyond this, there is the concern that perhaps the wearer isn’t paying all that much attention to the humans around them actually. As someone who has caught no small amount of grief for glancing at my iPhone once too often, the lure of a possibly constant stream of new information is quite effective.

As of this writing, I’ve the option to select feeds including my own Gmail (though only my primary), Facebook, Twitter, Google +, the New York Times, and Elle magazine. With time, one can imagine only more options will arrive and compete for that limited and choice real estate. I’ve had friends joke about an over-interested Glass user stepping into traffic or meeting a Stop sign head-on, but with so much information only a blink away, it might not be far from truth.

But in addition to concerns over aesthetics and politeness, but there are other, more pressing matters. For one thing, there is no obvious indication that Glass is actively recording a video. There is no “On Air,” to borrow from network news. While it is likely that a given subject would hear the Glass Explorer utter the magic words (“OK Glass, Record a Video”), a simple press of a button turns the default 10 second record window into a span as endless as there is storage remaining on the device. The effect, albeit mostly psychological, is akin to having a conversation with someone who never stops aiming a camera at your face.

So How Are They?

I’m still early days into my personal experience with Glass. A technology so new and different requires attempts at integration. Rehearsals commence for the play soon, so I’ll give them a try there. Additionally, I’m going to be taking Glass to various places around town, not only to see how they work in the field, but to get a feel for how they’re being received live.

When I picked up my Glass, I asked my Google Guide (who was wearing his own Glass at the time) if he found himself staring into the Middle Distance more often than he’d ever before. He cocked his head a bit and answered, “Um, I … I don’t think so?” He’d gotten used to them. To him, they were a new normal.

So there is a chance that time is all one really needs. Time to get used to this infernal device that fetches answers from thin air and delivers them right into your eye. Time to blend in with the crowd.

So let’s start exploring.