By Thomas Rhodes and Samuel Allen
Against all things holy and sacred, we wore Google Glass to live arts performances to test its functionality, as part of Google’s trial program in 2013. A form of head mounted display—a computing device intended for the user to wear on his or her head—Glass projects an augmented reality onto the real world via an optic prism and a mini projector that is situated just to the upper right of the user’s field of vision. The resulting projection is comparable to that of a 25-inch HD television viewed from about eight feet away. Affixed to this display is a camera that allows the user to take photos at 5MP resolution and 720p videos, as well as a microphone for audio recording. The projector, camera, and microphone unit is mounted to a 12 GB computer, which also houses the battery charging port.
Neither ushers nor fellow audience members stopped us from wearing Google Glass inside the theaters and concert halls we visited. Our tests met with fairly positive results and surprisingly little resistance when respecting traditional theater etiquette. When active, the prism display did not emit enough residual light to distract surrounding audience members, even in a pitch black theatre. This lack of residual light is perhaps the greatest advantage that Glass has over tablet style devices, which are so bright as to grievously annoy almost everyone in a darkened theater. Nor does the video camera on Glass have the blinking red light common on other devices. Instead, the prism display is active whenever the camera function is in use.
The recording capacity of the camera in a performance setting resulted in poor quality recordings due to user head movement and camera quality (yes, we know it is wrong, but we destroyed the recordings immediately). This function poses the most significant difficulty for the performing arts sector, as performance recording restrictions and audience capabilities continue to evolve in conflicting directions—a topic requiring further research.
The bone conductivity transducer that transmits audio to the user’s ear does emit significant sound bleed, about equal to the sound bleed from a mobile phone. Both mono and stereo earbuds decrease the sound bleed significantly, but at top volume these small speakers can be highly distracting. With very few audio tests, it was clear from the beginning that Google Glass will face less resistance in a performing arts setting when used as a visual display only, as opposed to an audio or recording device. The actual distraction to non-users sitting next to a Glass user was significantly decreased when refraining from using audio.
Voice and gesture activation are perhaps the second most distracting feature of the device, although one can be discreet when using gestures. We hope that Google will integrate a non-illuminated handheld keypad/control for the device that operates much like a remote control. Otherwise, when Glass is in use, the physiological distraction to a non-user can range from mild interest to annoyance and even fanatical fascination. In one instance, a young child was hopelessly mesmerized by the device while his parents showed equal portions of polite disregard and resentment. These reactions will most likely decrease as society adapts to the device. However, when the user is wearing the device in standby mode, running applications such as incoming phone calls or emails can disrupt the performance experience.
In the future, each performing arts venue will have to decide whether to allow Google Glass and other head mounted displays (HMDs), or actively to discourage their use. Good reasons exist for either choice. Our first publication on the subject, Through the Looking Glass:
How Google Glass Will Change the Performing Arts, examines issues on both sides of the debate, and offers performing arts professionals information to consider when making decisions on whether to adopt or reject these devices. You can read the paper in its entirety at amt-lab.org/audience-engagement.