Therese Willkomm test drives the long-awaited prototype and considers its potential for individuals with disabilities
Thank her for this sneak peek... Google Glass is not exactly in your local assistive technology (AT) demonstration/loan program. To get her hands on it, Therese Willkomm, PhD--that app-happy professor at the University of New Hampshire who is passionate for both high and low-tech solutions--applied for the privilege to pay $1,500 to purchase Google Glass (plus tax!) And once found worthy, she traveled at her own expense to Glass headquarters in New York City for training, fitting, and "free" Champagne. Why did she go to all this trouble? Initially to "enable virtual participation for persons with disabilities" (to quote her 50 word beta-tester application).
But first, just what is Google Glass? If you haven't heard, it's basically your smartphone migrating to your head. The display is not yet implanted in your eyeball, but it's making moves to get there. Worn like eyeglasses, Glass enables you to keep your head up while using your device, to access the Internet in new hands-free ways, to share and experience the world ...annotated (check out Google's vision, What It Does). Although this is consumer tech, the wearable platform holds promise to inspire a new volume of apps from independent developers for persons with disabilities, including students. Willkomm--who loves her iPad--wanted to see if this could be AT's next "big thing."
Key specs and features
Low-profile wire frame (without lenses) supporting a small, transparent, high-resolution display in the upper right field of vision (Google has plans for integration with prescription eyewear);
Wifi and Bluetooth connectivity (to connect with wireless Internet or your phone's hotspot)
Bone conduction transducer (a speaker that does not go in your ears);
Camera (5 MP for photos, 720p for videos)
12 GB of usable storage (synced with the Google cloud storage)
Touchpad at the temple for simple gestures;
Built-in voice commands to record video, take a picture, send an email, launch a Google Hangout, get directions, and search the internet (more are enabled with the MyGlass Android app or from the Web site);
Head-tilt gesture to wake up the display.
What caught Willkomm’s attention
Before purchasing Glass, Professor Willkomm had mounted an iPhone 5 on a bicycle helmet for use with Facetime. Her goal, she explained to Friends of ATIA, was to make possible realtime, virtual, community participation for a woman in a nursing home. With help from a helmet-wearing partner, this nursing home resident could go shopping (and make selections off the shelf) or kayaking (and choose the fork in the river). "The problem" Willkomm says, "was the helmet made the partner feel like a dork." So when Glass was announced, with its sleek design and head-mounted camera, she knew she had to give it a try.
As is often the case with beta technology, Glass is a combination of the best of times and the worst of times. Below is Professor Willkomm's take on the new hardware and apps platform, cast through her own lens as an AT professional (and user).
Realtime sharing? Err… never mind
Although Google's promotional videos seem to emphasize Glass's capacity for realtime video sharing, Willkomm found her original motivation for acquiring the headset quickly sidelined. Realtime virtual travel is not, it turns out, Glass' strong suit. And while a Google Hangout could theoretically take up to ten people on an adventure, the experience is made or broken by the quality of the poorest connection speed in the Hangout. "And virtual travel is no fun when the audio arrives seconds before the video." Another problem is the legality of plans. Bringing her Hangout to Wicked at the Boston Opera House proved impossible. "They made this blanket statement before the curtain went up banning any and all recording devices, like they saw us Glassholes coming!"
Speedy for sharing videos and pictures
What works well, however, is the speed and ease Glass provides for taking and sharing pictures and videos. This benefit quickly overshadows deploying live Hangouts. She found she could share media with everyone in a Google Circle with the swipe of her finger and that everything is automatically backed up to her Google + account. The downside is a risk of accidental sharing. "You have to be very careful with your gestures!"
As a college professor who frequently makes videos for instruction, Willkomm is finding Glass a helpful tool. On the fly she can record instructions for creating one of her low-tech AT solutions and instantly share it with students and colleagues. Or she can record video without connecting to the Internet and Glass will back up her work once it senses a connection (she never has to plug into her computer). The disadvantage is that the camera is not good for distances closer than four feet; also she must maneuver the frame on her nose to center the lens for demos.
Further AT potential
- Glass voice recognition is superior to Siri (on iOS devices). Willkomm says Glass understands her better than her iPad and is quickly responsive. This, coupled with how easy Glass makes sharing content, could turn it into a powerful tool for individuals with limited dexterity who use speech to communicate.
- The hands-free capacity of Glass is also promising. Willkomm imagines a student in a power chair snapping images on the playground to complete an assignment (such as finding shapes in their environment for Everyday Math).
- Glass has significant potential for use with video modeling. Individuals (with autism, traumatic brain injury, etc.) could create custom videos--filmed from their own perspective--of themselves accomplishing tasks and routines for later review or as reminders and prompting. Also, Willkomm notes, students with autism could use Glass to work on social skills by recording their interactions with others (to review and learn from facial expressions and reactions).
- There is potential for image recognition and even face recognition. Glass has the capacity to use the Google image database to match and help identify objects for persons with visual impairments (as with Google Goggles). Face recognition may be accomplished by third party developers, but is not something Google is pursuing, according to Willkomm. For persons with prosopagnosia (an inability to recognize faces), face recognition software could be life-changing.
- Glass's bone-conduction speaker (behind the right ear) means it does not rely on the ear canal for conveying sound. For individuals with hearing impairments due to damage to the ear canal, Willkomm suspects this may have an advantage. The speaker is not as loud as in-ear buds, however, for most users.
- The battery life is too limited. Willkomm found that when used for her purposes, the battery lasted about 3.5 hours before needing a recharge. This is a major hurdle she sees for Glass's successful deployment.
- Privacy is a central concern. How will people know when they are being videotaped? Willkomm anticipates this will be a problem for schools and limit the adoption of this technology in K-12 environments. Google designed Glass with voice commands for taking pictures and video, but a third party developer has already devised an app for snapping pictures with just a wink. Also the face recognition potential of Glass raises a host of privacy and security concerns.
- The right temple heats up! Using Glass for extended periods is uncomfortable and concerning.
- Glass requires Google accounts. Not much is new here in the hardware wars, but Willkomm was annoyed to have to make sure those she shared with had Google accounts. She notes, however, that apps for other services will be forthcoming.
- Glass is yet more Wi-Fi-dependent AT. Although college students might be a great market for Glass, Willkomm notes that the Wi-Fi readily available on college campuses, like UNH, often allows limited-use access only (such as Web browsing). Glass cannot configure to the UNH high-speed wireless network to accomplish other tasks (like uploading). It's the same problem UNH students are having with their Livescribe Sky pens. Also, Willkomm notes that access to broadband with adequate bandwidth is a problem for many regions of the United States, and the more AT assumes this availability, the more locked-out of potentially transformative technology individuals with disabilities will be in poorly served communities. Willkomm reports that bandwidth problems are a primary and defeating experience when trying to use Glass.
- Willkomm still feels like a dork. Okay it's not a bicycle helmet with a camera, but she admits she hasn't worn her Glass as much as she'd thought she would. She says she feels like a billboard for new technology and that at this point, wearing Glass becomes an invitation for anyone to stop her to talk (and she does not have time for this!)
Coming Soon… an Assistive Technology Industry Association (ATIA) webinar on Glass
Willkomm, however, will offer an ATIA webinar January 21st, 2014 on her experiences with the new Glass technology. So if you see her wearing her Google Glass, ignore her and consider signing up to get all your Glass questions answered!
Thanks to Therese Willkomm for sharing these insights!