Gadgets

How Google designed its wearable Glass gadget (and why)

Above: Babak Parviz

Image Credit: Dean Takahashi

PALO ALTO, Calif. — Babak Parviz, one of the creators of Google Glass wearable headsets at Google, told an audience at Stanford University why his company embarked on the journey to create wearable computers and what will come next.

When Google set out to create Glass, it was looking for the next big platform for communications and computing, he said in a talk at the Hot Chips engineering conference at Stanford.

The first prototype was not impressive. Smartphones weigh around 135 grams, but the first Glass prototype required a backpack and weighed 3,350 grams — 7.4 pounds.

Glass is a sophisticated computing platform in that it takes pictures and videos, recognizes your speech commands, and delivers sound to you via a bone conduction method. It has a dual-core processor running at more than a 1Ghz. And it has a three-axis gyroscope, a three-axis accelerometer, a magnetometer, and global positioning system location information. These devices give sensor information on your location and positioning.

The device is not symmetric, with two Glass elements covering both eyes, because it’s much more complex. It doubles the weight, increases power consumption, and distracts your other eye from the real world.

“Comfort is very important because we want people to wear it the whole day,” Parviz said.

The device can transfer data via Bluetooth and Wi-Fi radios. At the moment, there is no plan to add cellphone service or a data modem. If there is an overriding mission of Glass, it’s to deliver information fast.

“As I talk to you, this is how fast I can access the computer,” he said. “The camera sees the world through my eyes. It lives with me as I live my life. This device is intimately aware of what I see.”

One of the advantages of the form factor is that you can use it to perform tasks much more quickly than even if you were pushing buttons on your smartphone. It responds to touches or to voice commands, and it delivers sound directly to the bone in your head, rather than into your ears.

Google Glass can also be more immersive, as the screen can be closer to your eye and make you feel like you are immersed in a computing environment. Smartphone screens can do that, but they are already getting too big.

“This is possible now because of you guys and what you enable in the electronics industry,” Parviz said. “We have also take advantage of the smartphone and the infrastructure it created.

He noted smartphone camera resolution has risen from virtually nothing in 2002 to more than 16 megapixels today. That’s a huge leap that paved the way for Glass.

“It produces a beautiful image, and it costs a few dollars,” he said. “That is mind-boggling, and it is an example of why this device was not possible 15 years ago.”

As to why Google embarked on this task in the first place, Parviz noted how it is the next logical step in the expansion of knowledge.

“This device significantly expands my knowledge base,” Parviz said. “This is why we created Google Glass. The answers are just a question away.”

Today, the company is selling its first Google Glass units for $1,500. Over time, that price will come down. Parviz described it as an interesting first step.

“As we released it to a number of people, and they tested it; it was amazing to experience their lives through their eyes,” he said. “We noticed if you have an electronics device all day, it should not impede any of your other senses.” His eyes and ears are still open and hands are free. “That was very important,” he said. “You can get very rapid access to technology when you need it.”

Parviz said, “Now you use a huge amount of computing power for a fraction of a second. You ask a question, and it gets back to you.

On the road ahead, Parviz wants technology to disappear. That’s why he likes Microsoft’s Kinect motion-sensing system. You don’t even know it’s there.

“It should be the least intrusive,” he said.

He said this will require advances in optics, photonics, miniaturization, transducers, computing power, and ultralow power designs. Since the device is on your body, it can’t generate much heat. That puts a lot of constraints on design.

“We are very excited about this platform, potentially as the major next thing in computing and communication,” Parviz said.

He said the team takes security very seriously. Everything is pushed from the cloud, and an app cannot be installed and run on the device itself. That might change in future versions, and that will introduce implications for security.

Asked what he thought of the privacy issues as Glass technology becomes more invisible in the future, Parviz said, “That’s already an issue with smartphones. Back in the 1880s, when the first camera came out, and it became possible for someone to take a picture of you, it made people uncomfortable. It took some time for society to figure it out. The trajectory for a device like this is something similar.”


Mobile developer or publisher? VentureBeat is studying mobile app analytics. Fill out our 5-minute survey, and we'll share the data with you.