Google Glass is one of the more innovative computing devices we’ve seen in the last few years. As the name implies, the concept takes the frame of a pair of eyeglasses and adds a tiny display in the upper-right corner of the right eye, with an onboard Google Android-powered computer, integrated battery, camera, microphone for voice control, and bone conduction earphones.
Designed and developed by engineers at Google’s X Labs — also responsible for the self-driving car — Glass has been in testing for around two years. Prototypes started appearing in public in April 2012, but access has been tightly controlled until the last few months, with hands-on accounts and the Google Glass Explorer program seeding the device around the world.
Google recently ran a #ifihadglass competition on Google+ and Twitter, encouraging applicants to post about what they would use Glass for. Responses ranged from the obsequious to the obscene, but eventually the company picked winners, along with 2000 Google I/O attendees, to be eligible to purchase the Google Glass Explorer developer edition kit for around US$1,500. The first devices have been in early adopters’ hands for a few weeks now, but they’re still extremely hard to come by. If you want Google Glass, you’re going to have to wait.
If you don’t want to, there’s an alternative.
Nathan Myers is a technology enthusiast, working in IT support by day and wielding a soldering iron by night. He’s a self-styled Tony Stark, even going by the handle @tonystark23 on Twitter. Dabbling in electronics over the years, he’s a proper tech-head: he tends to “flick between everything”, running a dual-booting Windows and Linux desktop PC alongside a Mac Pro running OS X, and switching between his iPhone 5, Sony Xperia Z, Samsung Galaxy Note II, Nokia Lumia 920, and the “crown jewel” of his mobile collection, a rare HP Pre 3, whenever he feels like it. He’s built a few PCs in the past, but by his own admission doesn’t have a great deal of experience in electronics or design.
His most recent project is far more ambitious than anything before it. Inspired by Google Glass's design, its wearable computing concept, and its scarcity — he had a go at #ifihadglass, but couldn’t get one — Myers decided to build his own.
Called Flass — that’s ‘Fake Google Glass’, with a tongue-in-cheek logo not too dissimilar to Project Glass's own — Myers has been cobbling together various off-the-shelf, 3D-printed and repurposed components into a glasses-mounted, completely wearable, home-made Google Glass simulacrum.
The evolution of FLASS
Version 1.0 of Flass came about in February of this year, although Myers first came up with the conceptual idea “around a year ago”. Running an external glasses-frame mounted display from an external video source like a smartphone, the initial prototype used an iPhone 4 and centred around the display from a pair of MyVu Solo goggles — although an accidentally-broken connector quickly sent that to the trash-can.
Myers changed Flass’s display to one pulled out of the top-of-the-line MyVu Crystal 701. The Crystal 701 headset proved hard to find — the MyVu Corporation, which made “personal media viewers and eyewear products... for viewing broadcasted and downloaded entertainment”, apparently closed between 2009 and 2010, although its founding CEO, Mark Spitzer, is now at Google X Labs. Myers eventually found one of the elusive MyVu head-mounted displays on eBay UK.
Version 2.0 of Flass was a basic prototype using the display from the Crystal 701, running off a Nokia N9 — this version was the proof-of-concept Flass breadboard, largely held together with cable ties and electrical tape. It was bulky and didn’t look particularly sturdy, but it worked.
Version 3.0 moved the majority of the electronics for the display further back, out of Myers’ field of view, leaving only the display itself and a slim frame visible. With this iteration he also swapped to an Android device, using a Samsung Galaxy S running the Android 4.2 Jelly Bean operating system, and abandoned the traditional glasses for a flexible plastic band, wrapping around the back of the wearer’s head.
Version 4.0 retained the Android-powered Galaxy S, but redesigned Flass’s layout to be independent of whatever frame it was mounted on. Myers wanted to be able to use the display on both his eyeglasses and sunglasses without problems, so the new prototype was able to be attached to any glasses frames’ arms with a couple of cable ties. This version of Flass is the most recent complete design, although it is still being further refined.
Flass uses Android apps Utter and Tasker for voice commands, letting Myers use it almost hands-free. It's not a patch on Google Glass's functionality or usability, but he's confident of hacking away at Android to get closer to the real thing.
The next Flass prototype, Myers says, is built on a 3D-printed glasses frame he ordered from Shapeways. The frames’s layout was originally based on Google Glass, although he is tweaking it to better suit his home-grown design. The next version of the head-mounted display will include a camera module, and changes from the Galaxy S to an Android- and ARM-powered BeagleBone Black mini-computer for more flexibility in programming and lower power requirements.
Myers told PC World that he intends to refine Flass further, and eventually show it to Google or another “big technology company” as evidence of his skills and innovation. “My eventual goal would be to see this one day become an actual product to rival Glass. The difference between Flass and Glass is the fact that mine is so much more universal and designed for the technically-minded. Not everybody wants to be locked to a pre-made OS that can't be changed — some people may want to run Linux, someone might be bold enough to run Windows.
“My goal is to allow wireless display technology into it, like Miracast, WiDi and Airplay. I have already done a proof-of-concept for Airplay — having an Apple TV plugged into Flass, and then wirelessly displaying the screen from my iPhone. The biggest problem is power consumption, and I am working on getting to use as little as possible.”
Myers’ big vision
Nathan Myers says Flass is a “rather bold move” for him. “Flass is the biggest step towards a product or concept I have ever made, and it is amazing to think of its possibilities. I really haven't done anything else on this kind of scale before, building a PC was about the limit.”
The actual creation of the device itself was “a little more simple than people would think”, but still needs more refinement before it’s ready for mainstream use. “Google Glass is this amazing piece of technology, that puts whatever information you need right in-front of you at all times. Flass replicates this, but on a bit more of a complicated level — I don't have millions to spend on R&D, [or] a team of 100 trained engineers and software people.
"The biggest problem I have encountered is the fact that nobody has ever tried something like this with Android at this level, so you have to work by yourself on problems and make up solutions for yourself. Flass from conception to prototype has been far from what I had expected — I became limited by money, time and what equipment I have. I would have liked to own a 3D printer, to build a proper mounting frame.”
He admires the concept of Google Glass, and thinks that wearable computing is about to take off in a big way. Myers points to the Jawbone UP and Nike Fuelband as pertinent examples of the evolution of wearable tech, as well as Glass. “I think wearable technology is already here in every way — we are about to go into an era where this technology is extremely accessible, and it will boom into one of the next big things for the technology industry. I think we will see more smartwatches before we see things like Glass on the market, but by the end of this year I can see the technology being at a reasonable price for anyone to afford.
“I think within 5-10 years we will have perfected the technology into something like contact lenses or implants that will allow [it] to work better, faster and more efficiently.”
Some quotes in this article have been edited for grammar and clarity.