Anything Google Glass Can Do, Your Smartphone Can Do Better

Innovation, the Internet, gadgets, and more.
May 16 2014 6:43 PM

Obstructed Reality

Smart glasses are more distracting than smartphones.  

(Continued from Page 1)

The effect is magnified on a busy street, where you’re tempted to keep walking while using Glass. Unless everything goes right—which is rare, in my experience—you end up having to repeat voice commands and swipe repeatedly to back up and toggle through results, all while glancing nervously back and forth between the screen and the sidewalk in front of you. You’d almost certainly be safer just stepping out of everyone’s way, using your smartphone for a minute, and then putting it back in your pocket so you can return your focus to the world around you.

(An observation: When I’m without my smartphone for some reason, I feel anxious and incomplete until it’s safely back on my person. With Glass, it’s the opposite: Whenever I’m using it, I feel anxious and distracted until I take it off.)

Tripit, an on-the-go travel app, makes a slightly better case for Glass’ utility, if only because the airport is one place where you’re likely to have both hands full of luggage. You can use it to double-check your rental car reservation or get an alert about a gate change for your flight without breaking stride (provided you don’t trip over anyone else’s bags while you’re glancing up at the screen). Again, though, there are bugs to be worked out, and you can only do so much with it before you have to dig out your phone. For instance, if your flight is late, there’s an option to see a list of alternate flights to your destination. But you can’t select any of them, or call to change your reservation: They’re just displayed on a static card.

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Google Glass isn’t bad at everything. It’s a great improvement over smartphones for a few specific purposes, like snapping a photo on the fly or shooting video while your hands are occupied. It can also be helpful in its capacity as a heads-up display—e.g., for glancing up at a recipe while you’re cooking

And one app that Google showed off on Thursday looks genuinely great. It’s called Word Lens, and it’s the niftiest translation tool I’ve yet encountered. Say you find yourself on a street in Russia staring at a sign that you can’t understand because you don’t speak Russian. Open Word Lens, select “Russian to English,” and then look at the sign again. As if by magic, Word Lens replaces the Russian words with their English counterparts right before your eyes.

The translations aren’t perfect. They’re actually just one-to-one transliterations, and the mistakes can be comical. Presented with a sign that read “Joyeria del Barrio,” it tried “Jewelry of Mud” and “Jewelry of Barrel” before (mostly) correctly settling on “Jewelry of Neighborhood.” But surely they’ll continue to improve. And while Word Lens has been available on smartphones for a few years now, it’s the rare app that works significantly better on Glass, because you can just look at the word you want to translate instead of having to aim a camera and read a screen.

Apparently it isn’t lost on Google that Word Lens is a potential killer app: Google announced on Friday that it’s buying Quest Visual, the startup that makes it.

Word Lens dictionary smartphone app.
Word Lens dictionary (smartphone version).

Screenshot via QuestVisual/YouTube

It’s a reminder that, as underwhelming as Glass might be today, the technology is still in its infancy. Google—and the rest of us—are still just beginning to figure out what smart glasses can and cannot do. Glass is likely to be judged harshly upon its release, thanks in part to the high bar that Apple and other consumer-electronics companies have set for mobile devices over the past decade. As a replacement for—or even a supplement to—a smartphone, smart glasses today simply aren’t worth the trouble, let alone the price.

Still, let’s give Google and its rivals a few years before we give up on smart glasses. In the meantime, maybe we can start appreciating our smartphones a little more. As distracting as they can be, at least they still spend most of their time hidden away in our pockets.

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