Google Glass gets a makeover before reintroducing itself to the public

Google’s announcement of the public sale of Glass and last night’s release of new Glass features and an upgrade to Android KitKat is big news for the wearable community.

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There is a subculture of wearable technology enthusiasts and developers that has been buying Glass, following Glass, chasing invitations to buy Glass, and tracking Glass’s developments on RSS feeds and Google Plus. This group has been abuzz with the news of the public sale of Glass for more than a month.

So if you just learned of today’s public sale of Glass and plan to buy one, you fit into one of two categories: you are either a wearable technology enthusiast/software developer who has been cut off from the world without an internet connection for the last month, or you’re rich enough that you don’t have to think twice about a $1,500 impulse buy to something that you don’t know much about. Both are pretty small groups. Google’s announcement of the public sale of Glass and last night’s release of new Glass features and an upgrade to Android KitKat is big news for the wearable community.

At wearable tech conferences, where it seems that one in four attendees are wearing Glass, one thing is clear – Google Glass is the ultimate wearable because its category is not yet bounded; it is a wearable work in progress. The other two - smartwatches and fitness bands - are well understood. Smartwatches are wrist-worn peripherals to smartphones and fitness bands let the wearer measure where he or she stands on the continuum between couch potato and triathlete.

Fitness bands and smartwatches will grow in absolute terms. Market researcher Canalys predicts that 5 million smartwatches will ship in 2014 and 17 million smart bands, including fitness bands and smartwatches, will ship in total during 2014. But wearable enthusiasts and developers looking for the next big thing are really looking for a platform on which they can deliver innovation.

Google has recently accomplished a lot to advance Glass as a platform since its announcement at Google’s annual developer’s conference two years ago. Last month, Glass was upgraded to fashionable from utilitarian when Google struck a deal with Luxottica, which owns popular eyewear brands like Ray-Ban and Oakley. For those needing corrective lenses, the choice had been to wear Glass over another pair of prescription glasses or don’t wear them at all. Two weeks ago, VSP, a vision insurance vendor, signed on to make prescription lenses for Glass that are partially reimbursable under vision care plans.

And last night, Glass took a step forward with its KitKat update. KitKat is a big advancement. It’s important because it is the latest release of Android that adds all the newest Android developer features to the just-released Glass SDK.

KitKat also brings a much-needed improvement in battery performance. It is designed to be optimized for devices with limited RAM, limited processor speeds, or both. Although Google might surprise with a hardware update announcement at any time, right now Glass, with just a dual-core 1 GHz processor and 682 MB of RAM, will benefit from the KitKat tools that help Google and independent developers optimize the OS and apps to make the battery efficient.

It almost seems like the Glass team has collaborated with the designers and developers of the Moto 360 smartwatch to solve the biggest user interface challenges of wearable technology – giving users what they want right now without relying on a rectangular display and touch screen. The photo bundles organize images to shorten the time to navigate and display an image, and voice commands sort the growing list of commands by frequency, making it easier to see and access the commands you use most often from the touch menu. This is very similar in concept to the work of the Moto 360 team.

Also released were Photo Replies in Google Hangouts. This lets the Glass wearer reply to others in the Hangout discussion with just a tap, and push a photo of what they are looking at to others on the call. This is a really important feature for a lot of industrial and professional applications, but it would be better if it were completely hands-free so someone whose hands are occupied, such as a surgeon, can send a photo reply.

Video calls were eliminated for what Google claimed were quality reasons. Glass has just one forward-facing camera, so it can only send video of what is in the wearer’s field of vision. Like photo replies, pushing a video in professional and industrial Glass applications could be very useful, and developers of apps for this segment can be expected to add this capability back in. But given the privacy controversy, protests, and assaults on Glass wearers by luddites that actually believe that there is such a thing as privacy in the digital age, it will benefit acceptance of Glass to remove the perceived threat of video surveillance while improving the quality of video calls.

Glass has undergone a complete makeover in just a couple of months, making it stylish, improving the navigation of its completely unique user interface, giving developers more flexibility, optimizing battery life, and addressing privacy. With the public sale, more people will start exploring the ultimate wearable, bringing it closer to a full-scale consumer release.

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