We’re still not entirely sold on Google Glass, but it does seem like it will be useful in two specific cases: capturing first-person, highly experiential video and displaying streams of useful data in a passive way that doesn’t distract from something you need to pay attention to. This story is about the latter.
NYCycle is the first Glass app for New York City’s Citi Bike program, and it was built by a team led by Marc Maleh, group director of interactive agency R/GA’s Prototype Studio. Not only is the app hopping on two of the hottest trends in tech right now—wearables and bike sharing—it’s actually surprisingly useful, tapping into Citi Bike’s real-time data to help bikers find open bike ports, navigate to landmarks, and remember to return their bikes on time.
"One of the best benefits of Google Glass is actually the handsfree aspect of it," says Maleh, whose team got their hands on a Glass explorer unit over the summer, just as Citi Bike was launching in New York. "We knew [Citi Bike] had an open data platform, so we were like: Hands-free. Open data. Cycling. Awesome."
Let’s face it: Unless you already know your way around a city, navigating on a bike is hard (even the hot Hammerhead bike navigation system seems to be designed for experienced riders). You can use a phone or a GPS device designed for a car, but stealing a glance at a handheld screen while trying to stay balanced is difficult and dangerous. You can enter a route on your phone before you get started, plug in headphones and try to rely solely on audio directions, but navigating without visual cues isn’t easy. Plus, blocking out the ambient sounds of potentially hazardous cars and trains can be just as dangerous as taking your eyes away from the road.
Increasingly popular bike share programs like Citi Bike add to this problem by putting more inexperienced riders on the road and forcing them to deal with the stress of a 45-minute time limit to return bikes to an open slot. If you live in a city with bike sharing, you’ve probably seen novice riders dressed in formal business wear pulled over at full stations, frantically searching on their phones for the nearest open slot. It’s easy to laugh at the sight until the first time it happens to you, when you realize just how bad phones are for navigating with two wheels.
Although the team at R/GA stresses that bikers still shouldn’t interact with Glass while they’re moving, pausing at the side of the road and simply reaching up to your forehead is a much better experience than digging through a pocket or bag for your phone while seated. Plus, once you get directions, they stay with you.
"That could be an opportunity where it's tough to get your mobile phone out, especially when you're trying to get directions and follow directions," says Michael "Pickles" Piccuirro, the owner of R/GA’s Glass unit and developer of the NYCycle app. "What's nice about this is it shows you the bike stations, it shows you how many bikes are available and you can tap it and get directions. You're getting audio and video cues outside your main field of view that you could follow."
In addition to directions to bike stations with real-time availability data, the app also includes a list of New York landmarks curated by the prototype studio team and a timer that reminds you to return your Citi Bike after an interval of your choosing, automatically pulling up the nearest station with open slots when your time is up. In terms of raw functionality, it’s one of the most fully realized and truly useful Glass apps we’ve seen, which is surprising given that it was built as a demo project by an interactive agency.
Why did R/GA choose to build a Glass app? According to Maleh, clients are already asking the agency to explore the potential of Glass and wearable devices in general, and the best way to learn about new devices is to build something with them that could see real, widespread use.
"This is a new way of people interacting. It's not a mouse and a keyboard, it's not an iPhone, it's not an Android phone. We really wanted to trial that. Even watching somebody put Glass on for the first time and seeing the expected interaction was really influencing what we were going to do with it," says Maleh.
The studio’s initial impressions of the device, taken from using their own app and watching other people learn to interact with it, have been largely positive. Piccuirro believes wearables will become "a huge thing," and Maleh says that Glass’s interaction model, although not without its flaws, isn’t too hard to learn.
"I think similarly to cell phones, how you got used to using your iPhone or Android phone, now it's second nature. I think wearables in general will eventually become second nature. There is going to be a little bit of a learning for people, but I think that's totally acceptable," Maleh explains.
According to Piccuirro, the main problem with the device right now is its "very limited" SDK. One of the major limitations he discovered (in addition to the lack of custom voice commands) is that Glass only sends location information to applications once every 10 minutes (presumably to save battery life), meaning that a biker could move miles down the road in between location updates. This is also the reason why magical real-time navigation apps like the one first teased in the 2012 Google Glass concept video "One Day" have yet to materialize in the real world.
Piccuirro deals with this problem in the NYCycle app by displaying the time since the last location refresh in the corner of the screen and automatically pulling down fresh location data when it becomes available and updating the device’s display. In practice, the time delay is annoying, but not a huge problem: The display still shows routing data and uses the last known location to display nearby bike stations. Neither Piccuirro nor Maleh are concerned. They view Glass as just the start of the wearable era, and believe early adopters will be willing to deal with the initial limitations.
"When the first iPhone came out and they had Pandora, you couldn't run it in the background. You could listen to it but if you got an email or something it would stop. I kind of look at it like this," says Piccuirro. "We're going to get it out there, see if people use it, maybe get some feedback, adjust it, maybe the platform changes. It's a beginning, it's not an end."
If you don’t live in New York, don’t fret. If wearables and Glass become as big as Maleh and Piccuirro suspect, the NYCycle app could move to other cities. According to Maleh, the app was designed with expansion in mind.
"The data is only one portion of this platform," he says. "In theory, with other bikeshare programs out there, we can do the exact same thing for, say Montreal, Chicago, or San Francisco, and really all we're doing is swapping out the data feeds. You can get different landmarks, get different bike shares."
It’s in R/GA’s best interest to expand the app, too, which is why they made it so practical. As Glass becomes more mature and moves closer to market, client interest in the device will only become more intense. But the devices are so few and far between (R/GA only has access to Piccuirro’s) that they need all the feedback they can get to learn before it hits the shelves.
"People who have Google Glass out there, they'll be able to come to the site and they'll be able to actually install it," explains Maleh. "We actually want people to tell us: 'This is good. This is bad. Why did you go down this path for this interaction?' That's part of the innovation process, wanting to really learn from how people are using things. With this, it's so new, so few people out there have it, that we want to hear the feedback from people."