First Look: How The Google Glass UI Really Works

What is Google Glass actually like to use? Finally, we know. And there’s no augmented reality to speak of.

Google Glass has arrived like a piece of sci-fi memorabilia sent from the future. But with all the talk about wearing the Internet on your face and whether or not these glasses can ever be fashionable, the most obvious and important story has gone untold: What is Google Glass actually like to use?

In a 50-minute presentation at SXSW, Google’s Timothy Jordan walked developers through what the Google Glass "Mirror" API and interface looks like today. And if we were to sum it up in just a few words, it’s a multimedia twitter feed for your eyeballs. Here’s how that actually plays out:

The Basic Controls

The Glass screen sits out of view, and it’s usually off, just like your cellphone screen. Its frame is essentially a trackpad with three main gestures. Tap once with a finger to select. Slide your finger along the temples to scroll. Swipe down to dismiss a screen.

To start things off, tap the frame with a finger (or nod your head), and you end up at Glass’s home screen. From the home screen, you can do a few things:

  1. Swipe your finger down on the frame to dismiss the screen and go about your day—it’s basically the same thing as the Android’s back button.
  2. Tap again and say "OK Glass" to issue a command, like "take a picture" or "Google how to use Glass"
  3. Slide your finger back along the frame to view a few Google Now-esque "cards"—like the weather report.
  4. Slide your finger forward along the frame—and this is the heart of the experience—which takes you through a "timeline" of everything, from the photo you just took, to a search you just made, to a video you were sent to a notification you received earlier from the New York Times. This is how Glass is much like Twitter, or may be, assuming you subscribe to several services for updates.

Some Cards Are Really Bundles

So, you have cards—essentially your simplified app experiences. Now say you subscribe to the Times. They might send you a card (a headline and a photo) every hour.

Now you can ignore it, or you can tap Glass to explore more.

Because some cards aren’t just cards. They’re bundles. Any card with a pagefold in the upper right hand corner is hiding its own timeline. So to cycle through stories within that Times bundle, you swipe through just as you would your main Glass timeline.

More Options

So here you are, sliding through a bundle. You reach a card, maybe it’s a news article, and you wish you could hear more. Well you can. You tap the card, and you’ll be presented with a timeline of options, like "read aloud" or, theoretically, "share."

If you were in email instead, tapping on that card would bring up "reply."

If you were in Path, tapping a card might allow you to swipe through your reaction choices: smiling or frowning.

So It’s All About The Timeline!

Glass is essentially several layers of timeline.

  1. You have your main timeline. Kinda like your twitter feed of things you’ve done and received.
  2. You have a timeline with information (or cards) hiding in bundles.
  3. You have a timeline of options (share, reply, etc.) hiding in cards.

Yes, it’s still a little bit complicated to understand, because surprisingly there’s still no one video presented by Google that drives the idea forward. But most work flows will involve tapping something you’re interested in, then sliding through cards, then tapping a card, then sliding through options.

Lost? Just flick downward to get the heck out of there, like an Android phone.

It’s All About Limiting Information and Options

Google understands Glass’s biggest potential downfall, that a world of messaging and media distracts us from the world in front of our face. A deeper look into their interface logic reveals how they’re encouraging developers to deal with it: Push the simplest of updates to a user. And give them either one piece of information, or one option of what to do with that information, per screen.

So far, so good. Assuming your finger can buff up enough to slide around on Glass’s frame fairly often, you’ll be able to do a lot quickly on the platform. But at the same time, Google is admitting that Glass won’t do everything. It’s not providing the info-dense content we have on laptops, or even smartphones. And at least according to this presentation, the interface isn’t really geared at all toward creating immersive, augmented-reality applications.

Truth be told, Glass may seem a bit less ambitious, once you break down its UI architecture. But often, restraint takes as much ambition as anything else. Glass needs to aspire to be usable, first and foremost. And that’s exactly what it’s going for.

See the video here.

[Hat tip: The Verge]

Note: I did my best to accurately summarize and present the work flows in the video presentation. It’s possible, probable even, that I’m using some terms a bit differently than Google at times, or that I even screwed something up. We’ll all know more once the Glass Mirror API goes public.

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  • Markius J. Scales

    I just found this article and it sucks that I missed out on applying for Google Glass.  But this is such a great and innovative idea.  I can not wait until these are available.  This is giving more than just a new way of sharing life with the world, it's getting the world involved with designing our future.

    Hopefully these will be made waterproof, Surf videos would be so cool to make using the Google Glass.

  • Ann J Taylor

    As someone who is not into many gadgets or devices,  I think Timothy Jordan gave an excellent presentation on a very exciting development.  I would love to use it.

  • Emily Leahy Thieler

    "Glass may seem a bit less ambitious, once you break down its UI architecture. But often, restraint takes as much ambition as anything else. Glass needs to aspire to be usable, first and foremost. And that’s exactly what it’s going for." I love that you called out this sensibility which seems to be what Google is about at its core - a single field on a page as a gateway to an extremely powerful search engine. It also reminds me of Da Vinci's "simplicity is the ultimate sophistication." Thank you for a really smart analysis of the UI.

  • John

    To me the only killer app for these things is face-recognition so that I will never forget someone's name again. Other than that, I'm distracted enough without a twitter feed taking beaming into my visual cortex non-stop, thank you very much.

  • Stephanie S. Beecher

    It seems like the device is too close to the eye; I
    don't wear glasses but I do wear sunglasses and it's extremely distracting when
    a smudge appears on the lens, much less a bevy of timeline feeds I am supposed
    to read. It makes me physically uncomfortable just thinking about it. 


    I imagine that if this catches on we will also see
    more distracted walkers -- much like those YouTube compilation videos
    chronicling people texting and walking into poles and such. 


    Maybe I am just being cynical...But, this device
    doesn’t excite me. It makes me sad that we feel the need to be even more
    connected virtually, just because we have the technology to do so. What about
    living in the moment IRL?

  • Irene Velveteen

    Pretend you're wearing them and yell commands wherever you go. It will have the same effect. I can't wait for these to NOT be released. Hands-free phone calls will mean nothing and I fear for my safety.

  • Thomas Wooldridge

    i'm just worried that it might make you cross eyed.  Anyone seen the Steve Martin's Movie "The Jerk"  you will know what I'm talking about