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Jesse Vincent

Google I/O 2013 & Google Glass

7 min read

[crossposted from Google+]
[tl;dr $300 Android wearable computer with a HUD. Has been shipping for quite some time]

Growing up and hanging out near Cambridge, MA, I was always fascinated by the "mediaborgs" - the folks around the Media Lab who were building and using wearable computers. I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how I could get myself a rig. At the time, the $1000+ for a heads-up display was more than I could pull off. I played around with sticking the tiniest laptop I could find (and even a bit of PC104 kit) in a bag and using a Twiddler and Emacs with T.V. Raman 's  emacspeak to have a walking-around computing environment with an audio interface. It was pretty neat, but incredibly clunky. I never really got the hang of it. 

Over the years, I made a bunch of half-hearted attempts to get my hands on head mounted display that was functional enough to use and small enough to actually wear. I'd occasionally look around to see if anyone was selling something that seemed workable. Occasionally, I'd poke at http://tekgear.com/hmd.html to see if there was anything that looked reasonable. Generally, though, the cheap options cost around $1000 and are really intended for immersive video or gaming experiences. (Or they're upwards of $10,000 and intended for defense and industrial applications.) 

Needless to say, Google Glass somewhat piqued my interest. Google aren't yet making Glass available to folks like me who played the game. It sounds like they're just getting a handle on the initial production run for folks who were at Google I/O last year.

I got to try Glass pretty early in the conference. The friend demoing it for me was pretty happy with his, but the functionality he was able to show me was...very basic. To a first approximation, all you can do with the current "Mirror" API is to push snippets of text or HTML+CSS to be displayed in the upper-right corner of the wearer's vision.

At one of the early Glass talks at I/O, the speaker mentioned that a "GDK" to allow native development was coming soon. Glass is, indeed, Android under the hood. (4.0.x for now) Suddenly, this was looking a little more interesting.

A couple weeks ago, +Jay Freeman (@saurik) made news by finding an exploit that allowed him to gain root on his Glass. Since then, there's been a bit of a of a hacker scene growing up around Glass. At dinner on Thursday, I  saw a demo of a patched version of Glass Home running on an Android phone. I've heard reports of a homebrew Glass lock-screen app with an improved guest mode, too.

The one session at I/O that I was not going to miss was +Hyunyoung Song  & +P.Y. Laligand  talk on "Voiding your warranty: Hacking glass" ( Linked below, since I can't figure out how to inline it in G+.) Having been shut out of a few over-full sessions earlier in the conference, I went and sat second-row center at the previous session in the same room -- and learned a bunch of useful stuff about what's coming in Google Analytics. (During the GA session, I was seated next to a guy who looked to be trying to get his new Chromebook Pixel into developer mode. I...tried to be helpful. I was a little bit embarrassed to realize that  he was none other than +Liam McLoughlin  (@hexxeh), who, uh, knows a little bit about ChromeOS. 

Getting there early was a good call. The session was packed.  Really packed.

H.Y. and P.Y. demoed how to use adb to push a launcher app and a settings app to your Glass and how to pair a Bluetooth HID device (which just works) and talked a little bit about what one can do by treating Glass as just a "regular" Android device. Porting +K-9 Mail  looks incredibly plausible. I'm really glad we never gave up on QVGA support.

Then they got into the good stuff. How to unlock and root your Glass. It's.. really easy. And exactly how you'd assume you'd do it. 
https://plus.google.com/118132270929426815661/posts/4MyjGZhN575 is cameraphone shot of the slide from their deck.

To explain just how far one could go, H.Y and P.Y. demoed that one could use one of the Linux Installers on the Play Store to install an Ubuntu chroot on Glass. They said that they'd gotten the idea for the demo from +Greg Priest-Dorman  who "does his development in Emacs on Glass." 

The world of computing is a very small place. I remember corresponding with Greg when he was at Vassar in the late '90s. If I recall correctly, my friend +Dave Barker mentioned to Greg that I had a Twiddler I hadn't fallen in love with. He was hoping to get to try out and I was a flaky Wesleyan undergrad, though I'm pretty sure we met and he showed me his wearable when I finally got up to visit friends at Vassar.

Chatting with a few other Googlers, it sounds like there's a fair contingent of Glass developers who use emacs (and possibly emacspeak) on Glass.

So yeah, after the Hacking Glass session, I..really, really want to get back to wearables stuff. As soon as I can get my hands on a Glass, I will.

I think I've found something to tide me over.

On more than one occasion, Artur Bergman has told me how amazingly amazing his ski goggles with a heads-up display are. They have a bunch of skiing-related sensors. I just sort of assumed that they had some little microcontroller and a custom OLED superimposed on the faceplate.

I was wrong. The folks who make the goggles, http://reconinstruments.com,  were exhibiting at I/O. Their next gen product, "Jet",  is a Glass-esque setup with (not-see-through) HMD, an HD camera, bluetooth, wifi, a gigahertz ARM chip running what they say will be a fully unlocked build of Jellybean capable of running regular Android apps. It's going to ship "later in 2013" for "less than a thousand dollars."

So, that's pretty cool. But I can't have one today. As I talked to them a bit more about their existing product, I found out that it was...not quite what I expected. It's a QVGA (320x240) display that they say looks like a 14" screen 5 feet away. It's powered by...a device running (the slightly dated) Android Gingerbread. (In a previous version of this post, I accidentally said it was running Froyo) 

Me: "So, I could buy a set of your ski goggles for $449 and rip them apart and get a wearable computer running Android with a heads up display."

Guy from Recon: "Well, you could.The HUD is designed to be taken out of one set of ski goggles and put in new goggles when you upgrade. Bu
t, that's kind of a pain in the neck. It'd be easier and cheaper just to buy the HUD from our webshop as a standalone unit. It's $300."

Me: "..."

Me: "..."

Me: "And this is shipping? I can order it today and you already have them in stock?"

Recon: "Oh yeah, I mean this is the old model. It's been out for a while. We've actually discounted it from $400 to $300. It's running Froyo. The new one is much nicer and will be out later this year."

Me: "Please take my money"

So yeah. $300 wearable Android device. Has been shipping for quite a while. You can buy one today. I ordered mine before blogging about it. I'll report back once I've gotten to play with it.

To answer the obvious question:

Yes, I will be building a version of K-9 Mail for heads up displays.

To answer the other obvious question:

Yes, I'm going to be playing with building a Bluetooth input device or two for Android wearables.