In the summer of 2014, we developed a version of Zombies, Run! for Google Glass. Glass was discontinued in January 2015, but the lessons we learned from testing it still serve as a useful caution for those working with heads-up displays.
A common use case for Glass was fitness and exercise activities such as running and cycling, where it might be useful to see a map or speed/distance information:
Running with Glass for just a few minutes, however, belied Google’s claims; instead of seeing a large rock-solid, perfectly-focused display as seen in their promo videos, you get a bouncy, hard-to-focus-on screen that’s just as likely to cause nausea than inform you of your split times.
As we tested and developed on Glass further, we discovered yet more problems, big and small. Some will be easy for Google or other manufacturers to address, and some may be inherent to heads-up-display technology for the next few years:
- It’s not waterproof. This may be OK in California, and it may even be OK in London if you’re just walking around with a handbag or backpack — but not if you’re running.
- While running, Glass bounces up and down, making it hard to focus on the display. I’m told that if you press the nosepads in hard, you can reduce the bouncing, but this can be uncomfortable.
- The voice recognition was uneven and unpredictable.
- It was embarrassing to use the voice recognition while outdoors and running.
- Being out of breath while running is not conducive to accurate voice recognition.
- The trackpad was unintuitive, and also very conspicuous/embarrassing. I often ended up taking photos when trying to do something else.
- Using the trackpad while running was inconvenient and error-prone, since Glass was bouncing all over the place.
- Trackpad gestures, and the Glass UI in general, was baffling. Even after using it for several runs and trials, I still ended up accidentally closing apps or navigating to the wrong spot.
- The ‘nod your head’ gesture to wake up Glass was unreliable, despite my many efforts to calibrate it properly.
- The Glass display requires you to focus at infinity. This can make it tiring when you need to regularly switch focus between the path ahead and the screen.
- The display can be difficult to view when outdoors and in the full sunlight.
- The display, contrary to widespread belief, is not that large, and it floats in the top right of your vision. That means you can’t show much detail — only a few short lines of text and graphics.
- Glass must be tethered to a phone to work. I like my gadgets, but it’s another thing that can go wrong while running.
- The SDK was under rapid flux and many things didn’t remotely work as well as they should. That’s to be expected in a prototype product, but not when we were racing to develop for a deadline (the UK launch of Glass)
- The built-in speakers and earpiece were too quiet and uncomfortable.
It wasn’t all bad, though. Glass showed promise in a few areas which should give hope to other HUD manufacturers:
- It was genuinely useful and interesting to see a live readout of my speed, distance and pace at a glance. Despite all the issues mentioned above, it’s still safer and more convenient than looking at a watch or phone.
- Since my runs are usually only one or two hours, the relatively short battery life wasn’t a problem at all.
- Glass has an accelerometer and gyroscope. Since Glass is always worn on the same position on the body (unlike a phone), these can be used to track certain types of gestures and exercise reps pretty accurately. We didn’t do this, but other apps did.
Overall, Glass was a flawed prototype, marketed in an extremely confusing way. There are plenty of hurdles before HUDs will be worn by the same number of people who run with smartphones, including weatherproofing, interface, bounciness, better SDK — but it will happen in the next 5–10 years, I think.