BLACKSBURG — Tam Ayers got a little embarrassed when he tried to take inventory of all the tech gadgets he brought along to an interview outside a Starbucks. Of course, there was the reason for the meeting: the Google Glass headset that sat unobtrusively — yet still conspicuously — on his face. But he also carried a bag with an iPad Mini, iPhone, two Android smartphones, Chromebook laptop, programmable stickers called TecTiles and a Pebble “smartwatch” around his wrist.
“I can see how this article is going to make me look,” he laughed . “I’m known for having way too much stuff.”
Ayers admits he has the kind of personality that is almost addicted to early-adopter status. He’s exactly the kind of person Google was looking for to test out Google Glass, its next-generation product that’s best described as a cross between a pair sunglasses and a smartphone.
The company didn’t initially sell its futuristic glasses to just anyone willing to camp out at Best Buy for a night. Instead, it gave an elite group of about 10,000 “explorers” the privilege to be some of the first to buy it. A handful of Southwest Virginians made the cut, but only a couple could stomach the $1,500 price tag that came with the honor.
Ayers, a recent Virginia Tech graduate and consultant with Richmond-based IT firm CapTech, and Jeff Rowberg, a Roanoke engineer, both said they just couldn’t pass up the opportunity. For them, it was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to be some of the first with wearable computers — an emerging technology trend many are calling the next big thing in computing.
Glass fits snugly on the bridge of your nose like a pair of glasses, but it doesn’t have any lenses. Instead, a transparent screen hangs in front of the corner of your right eye. You can surf the Web, send and receive text messages, navigate Google Maps and shoot photos or video without needing to look down at a screen. Most functions operate via voice commands, but there are a few buttons and a touchpad for those who want to do things the old-fashioned way.
A bone-conduction speaker on the earpiece of the glasses broadcasts audio through your skull behind your ear. To the wearer it sounds like it’s coming from a normal speaker, but no one else can hear it.
Rowberg said he uses Glass for most of the functions his smartphone used to handle. The benefit is that now he doesn’t have to reach into his pocket to check email or answer a phone call. The screen is constantly in front of his eye, waiting to light up when it hears the voice command: “OK Glass…”
The device has become an Internet phenomenon since testers started getting theirs and sharing experiences around May of this year.
It hasn’t been all positive.
Glass’s ability to seamlessly take photos or video has raised privacy concerns and the gadget has already been banned from some businesses that don’t want to be secretly filmed.
Ayers said some people jokingly say they won’t talk to him when he’s wearing the headset, but at the end of the day everyone does. He’s never been refused entry to any store in Southwest Virginia.
“I go everywhere from bars, to school, to workplaces, to clients, post offices, banks. I went through TSA [airport security] with them on,” Ayers said. “That whole [banning] thing, I think is just hype.”
On the contrary, Ayers said everywhere he goes he hears more jealousy than mockery. He’s made connections, been invited to attend a technology summit and got a taste of celebrity life just because he wears Glass. He said it has been a strange attraction that gives him instant credibility everywhere he goes.
“It’s great for picking up girls. Girls come up to you like crazy,” he said. “Which is funny because all my friends who are girls are like, ‘No girl is going to come up and talk to you because you’re wearing them.’ You would be surprised. It’s always a conversation-starter. If I walk through a bar wearing them, literally you’ll hear the whispers behind me. ‘That guy is wearing Google Glass.’ That happens all the time.”
Ayers joked that he has considered carrying around wet wipes because so many people ask to try them on.
He takes the glasses out almost every day and has used the camera’s unique, first-person perspective to film himself driving a jet ski, playing racquetball, throwing darts.
Ayers’ favorite experience was when he wore Glass across the stage at Virginia Tech’s graduation in May.
His grandmother couldn’t make it from South Carolina for medical reasons, so he live-streamed the ceremony to her iPad.
As Ayers walked across the stage, he said, he could see her face on the screen watching him accept his diploma.
“For her to be able to experience that, that’s when the whole idea of intimate technology … came to life,” he said.
“You can really capture that emotion. … It’s one thing for my dad to sit up way high and film me walking across the stage. But every single time I re-watch that video, I relive like I’m actually there.”
Worth the $1,500?
Google hasn’t announced an exact date when Glass will be available to the general public, but it said it will keep expanding the explorer program this year and will offer “broader availability” in 2014.
By then, rumor has it, the headset will cost as little as $300.
Ayers said he’ll be waiting in line to get one of those so he can put his Explorer Edition in the closet to keep as a collector’s item.
As for whether the experience has been worth the $1,500, both Ayers and Rowberg responded without hesitation: absolutely.
“I will readily admit that the Glass device, as it’s designed right now, is really not worth $1,500 just for what it does,” Rowberg said. “But to also have that early developer access, to be potentially part of the feedback that will allow them to improve the real public release — whenever that occurs — that’s what made it worth it to me. … I am not sorry.”
An exclusive club
For years this kind of technology belonged only to science fiction writers, existing in an imaginary future that never came any closer to reality. Similar devices have shown up on a number of popular TV shows, most notably “Star Trek.”
There have been some attempts to introduce the world to wearable computers, but nothing has caught on strongly enough to be considered a trend. Now, however, with the growing spectacle of Google Glass, wearable computers seem to have arrived.
Apple CEO Tim Cook hinted earlier this summer that his company is also interested in the idea and could be coming out with a product of its own in the future. Cook didn’t offer any specifics, but he did say he isn’t a big fan of computers you wear on your face.
These companies have to walk a delicate line because they’re not simply trying to launch a new product — they want to upend fashion. Google is asking people who don’t need traditional glasses to wear a wiry frame around all day.
For some, it conjures up memories of Bluetooth headsets that have been the butt of endless jokes. Others have called Glass the ultimate nerd apparel.
“Yes, yes I do [feel dorky],” Rowberg said. “Part of it I don’t mind; part of it does make me a little bit self-conscious. But I’m not wearing it to look cool. I’m wearing it because I think it’s cool. Some people give me occasional sidelong glances with raised eyebrows. Sometimes I wonder if they think it’s an ocular implant or something. But it hasn’t been something that is enough to keep me from wearing it.”
The buzz around Glass has been growing since the product was first demonstrated at the annual Google I/O developers conference in San Francisco last summer.
Ayers was lucky enough to land a seat in the room for the demonstration. Afterward, everyone there was able to sign up to be one of the first 2,000 people to buy a beta version.
Google has since used online contests to let more people into the exclusive club of owners, which is how Rowberg got on the list. Today, about 10,000 people have a pair. By comparison, Apple sells about 10 million iPhones each month.
A handful of people in Roanoke and Blacksburg won a contest making them eligible to buy Glass, but most chose not to actually make the purchase.
Jill Elswick, a Virginia Tech public relations specialist, Crystal Hubert, a Roanoke author, and Brandon Carroll, who works for a Blacksburg social media marketing company, each turned down the offer when they saw how much it would cost.
They said another barrier was that Google doesn’t ship the headsets, so they would have had to fly to pick them up at one of the Glass “basecamps” in New York or California.
Carroll said the model out now reminds him of some of early camera phones that were exciting but had terrible battery life. He expects to wait about a year to get Glass once all the bugs are worked out and the price comes down.
Others decided the opportunity to be one of the first to try the revolutionary technology was just too enticing to pass up.
“There’s people who would cut off their left arm to be able to just wear these once,” Ayers said. “So I’m like, ‘Well I have to buy those.’”