By Eliot Van Buskirk of Evolver.fm.
Google is arguably the only company with the cash and moonshot moxie to release something like Google Glass — those funny glasses with the screen in them that some people like to make fun of, while others can’t wait to get their face in one.
Here’s the main thing to understand about Glass: It actually represents a step back from everyone staring at their phones all day, from Google’s view anyway. Technophobes surely dislike the Glass — but ironically, its underlying purpose is to make technology less “in our face.” Instead of digging out a smartphone to access an app, you simply tap the Glass near your temple and say what you want. Technophobes might not like the idea of wearable computing, but ultimately, its goal is to liberate apps from smartphoness.
For music fans (and the music industry), Google Glass offers a strange new range of possibilities for how we will interact with music. To find out more, we demo-ed Google Glass’s as-yet-unreleased music features at one of three nationwide “Google Basecamps,” in New York, to see what it’s like to use Glass to listen to music and identify it in the air around us — and we got the guy from the back to bring out the one device that already had the music playback feature enabled.
Google plans to issue a firmware update to add this new music playback feature to Glass soon — it’s main function is as a voice-search front-end to your free 20,000 Google Play music locker and/or your $10/month Google Play Music All Access subscription.
I enjoyed playing around with Glass’s officially-unreleased music player, but one thing became immediately apparent: Search (Google’s strength on the web) works in a completely different way, when you don’t have a keyboard or pointing device. When I searched for Javelin, their song “Beyondce” immediately started playing — in other words, there are no search results. The importance of good search and recommendation engines cannot be underestimated when it comes to Glass and other wearable interfaces that evolve computing past the smartphone.
So, it works — you can tell Glass to play any song, artist, album, or playlist in your free Google Play locker or, if you have a subscription, from Google Play All Access. From our experience, the playlist is going to be the best medium for this, because it doesn’t rely on search results (album search works well too). To access your jogging playlist, you’d say “Listen To jogging playlist.” Once the music is playing, you can tap the Glass frame to Pause, Skip, and so on. Google might build out voice actions for these controls, to be added in one of Glass’s monthly updates.
The other killer feature at this point: “What Song Is This,” which uses Google’s audio fingerprinting to identify the song that was playing. This worked too, using Google Glass’s regular voice search function.
Crucially, playing music on Glass does not activate the little light that tells other people you are doing something with Glass. We say “crucially,” because otherwise, people on the subway would think you were filming them when you were simply rocking your rock-solid jams.
Finally, we got to try Google’s as-yet-unreleased stereo earbuds for Glass, which have a micro-USB connector, so you can’t use your own headphones. Still, we were sort of shocked by how good the sound was — clear, and strong in the bass frequencies, even though they don’t completely form a seal with the ear — a decision Google made in keeping with its overall Glass philosophy, which is that this technology shouldn’t block the physical world around you, the way some other personal technologies do. And they stay lodged in the ear pretty well, thanks to little loops that push against your ear, undetected.
That’s it for Google’s own music features in the next version of Glass. We also discovered a bit about how the experience will likely change in the future, as third-party developers build their own “Glassware” music apps (some, like MusixMatch have been doing so since January), although there is some developer uncertainty about the app scene.
“The real potential is apps,” said Google X operations specialist Matt Egbert during our demo. “Without apps, Google Glass is like the iPhone without apps.”
Indeed, Google is counting on developers to unlock much more functionality with Glass, including around music. Egbert said app developers have full access to Google Glass’s “Listen To” speech command and all other audio controls through the GDK, at least for use with music from their own apps. For access to Google Play lockers and All Access music, he said, developers would have to go talk to the Google Play team about that (which might be tough, because Play lacks an API).
Still, the door is wide open for developers to make their own music apps for displaying lyrics, tagging songs, and doing whatever else they can think of with to do with a Google Glass device connected wirelessly to an Android (as they all are, meaning that if Glass takes off, it could be good for Android marketshare). This includes third-party subscriptions like Rdio, Spotify, Rhapsody, MOG, and the others, should they build for Glass.
Google Glass is currently available for $1500 to anyone, now that the developer invite-only stage is over, and that price should eventually come down. The stereo headphones will cost $100 when they go on sale in the next couple of weeks or so. Again, the music player should be available in a couple of weeks too, but Glass owners can apparently sideload it now by following these directions.
Android Police had uncovered Google Glass’s upcoming music playback feature on October 16, then the New York Times provided another preview on November 12. In addition to the “Listen To” and “What’s This Song?” voice commands we tested for this review, other upcoming options might include “Learn a Song,” “Tune an Instrument,” and music search results.
As a parting aside, Egbert made a great observation: One musical implication of a world where people wear Glass or something like it is that music fans would be able to record concerts without holding their smartphones in front of all the people behind them. Finally!
Photo of Eliot Van Buskirk: Matt Egbert, Google.