Google Glass: Who's bringing the apps?

Software is coming, but the field is so small that even the slightest gains feel like big leaps. From cops with privacy-busting Glass to tricky hacks that empowered Winky, developers and their investors are all over Glass.

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When Jonathan Gottfried developed a Twitter app for Google Glass called GlassTweet, he did so because he wanted a way to tweet photos from his Glass headset. Now it's looking as though he's onto something, although no one would characterize his user base as big -- yet.

"There's at least 10 people using GlassTweet," said Gottfried, who is a developer evangelist for Twilio. "The group that's using it is extremely active and vocal," and includes uber-early adopters such as the all-Glass, all-the-time Robert Scoble and LeWeb founder Loic LeMeur .

"I certainly call it a work in progress, but so far it's been successful," Gottfried said. What other term but "work in progress" could you use when an app's number of users is in the low double digits, and the overall population of people with the device probably hasn't even cracked four figures?

Such are the wild, uncharted waters of developing apps for Glass, a product that few people have but plenty are excited about. It's too early to know if Glass will take off, of course; the leap to wearable computing in the form of eyeglasses is a big one. Consumers might balk at the whole idea when the high-tech spectacles from Google finally hit the market sometime in 2014. Yet app development for Google Glass is growing quickly, spurred in part by some big Silicon Valley investors looking to back startups making Glass apps.

"We already have a huge number of proposals," said Mike Abbott, a general partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers who wouldn't disclose specifics.

The early Glass app efforts are rudimentary. Some port existing services to the device, like Gottfried's Twitter app or Beam, which posts videos shot on Glass to YouTube . Others are more innovative; some are even a bit sardonic.

Winnie Tong, a senior software engineer at Sunnyvale, Calif.-based SimplyHired, created Glassagram, a tongue-in-cheek response to Glass and its glaring lack of the photo filters that make Instagram so popular. "It kinda started off as a joke. I'm an amateur photographer, and most photographers hate Instagram," she said.

But, she confessed, "I don't have such strong feelings...The camera on Glass is not a digital SLR, so I wanted to do something that was more fun and more similar to what you can do with a cell phone camera." Glassagram crops photos with a 1:1 ratio, applies filters to the image, then lets you share it.

Tong said she likes learning to code for Glass, but points out that the first crop of Glass apps are almost like experiments. "I don't expect any of this to work when Glass becomes available to everybody to buy," she said, because the Mirror API that powers Glass is in developer preview. In other words, she said, none of this is production code.

Mike DiGiovanni, a developer in cutting-edge tech like Google Glass for digital marketing company RoundArch Isobar, noticed that Glass was missing something vital. Internet-enabled eyewear, he said, ought to have support for an obvious control gesture: winking .

"I figured out a way to enable winking to do stuff," he said. "Google seems to have done some work on winking," he explained, but the company had made it hard to activate. "They made sure that if you enable wink gestures, [the wink gesture itself] would disable wink gestures," he said.

His solution, as he described it, was to circumvent that loop before it began and allow the wink gesture to be interpreted by Glass. Think about that: Google developed a wink-based gesture for Glass, disabled it, and then DiGiovanni hacked at it until it worked. Overcaution from Google? Creative developer looking at new hardware's unrealized potential? Glass may be developer- and hacker-friendly, but that doesn't mean it'll be easy to manipulate.

That so many developers are getting into this before a product is even on the market is unusual. Remember that the iPhone had been out about a year when Apple finally opened it up for outside developers, igniting the app economy and marshaling an army of investors. This time, however, the backers don't want to wait. Which is why Kleiner Perkins recently teamed with venture firm Andreessen Horowitz and Google Ventures to create an investment group called Glass Collective .

Step 1: Enable the Winky hack for Google Glass, to take photos by winking. Step 2: Close your eyes like a proper gentleman when you kiss your wife goodbye in the morning. Step 3: Receive photo of her forehead from Winky-enabled Glass, which mistook your eyes closing for a 'wink' gesture. Step 4: Share with CNET. Mike DiGiovanni

"What we really wanted to do with the Glass community is jumpstart development," said Frank Chen, a partner at Andreessen Horowitz. "Historically, developers have waited until a market is big enough. We wanted to break through the chicken-and-egg thing and let the developer community know that we're open for business."

So what are the VCs looking for? "If we're excited about the [Glass app] idea and team, that's good enough," Chen said. "You're getting the same sort of enthusiasm from the people who used Facebook for the first time, something that fundamentally transforms how I interact with the world."

It didn't take long for dogs and retro-filters to land on Google Glass, thanks to Winnie Tong's tongue-in-cheek Glassagram. Winnie Tong

Chen rattled off a list of possible killer app opportunities for Glass entrepreneurs. Imagine interacting with your computer in the holographic-yet-tactile way that Tony Stark does in the "Iron Man" movies, or being able to communicate in, say, Shanghai because of a real-time translator. Other uses he suggested included creating on-the-go facial recognition and expression analysis for police officers and first responders, or using those same features for business advice when dealing with new clients.

The divining rods that Chen and other Glass investors are holding are not entirely based on gut feeling. To get a sense of how the camera aspects might be developed, for instance, he's looking at how other recording devices such as GoPro and ActionCam have built their products. "The economics make it possible, and the creativity of the developers make it accessible," he said.

But just because you make a great Glass app doesn't mean people will want it, let alone pay for it. Or the market could end up a narrow one, suitable for only select groups.

It's important to recognize, however, that Glass developers don't exist in a vacuum. Glassagram maker Tong may have started with her tongue planted firmly in her cheek, but she said that she finds Glass to be a comfortable fit for her lifestyle. "Other than the fact that there was a computer on my face, I was interacting with my surroundings much more naturally than with a smartphone," she said -- which is exactly the kind of response investors and Google itself want.

CNET Executive Editor Paul Sloan contributed to this report.

 

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