Google Glass and its rival smart glasses: everything you need to know

Google Glass is a snapshot of the cyborg-esque future, but there are alternatives on the horizon – or already here
Google Glass

In 2013, all the big guns have been shooting towards wearables - particularly smartwatches. For many they're the next step towards our tech-dependent lives, as early promise from Pebble and Sony's Smartwatch 2 showed. But wristwear isn't where it's all at.

The next wearable territory to conquer is smart glasses, which is so far virtually owned by Google's Glass - a thoroughly 'beta' device only available to a select few. However, if the various rumours and patents are to be believed, they'll not be the only viable option for long.

If you've missed the hubbub surrounding Google's own goggles (and frankly, how could you have done that?), then here's what you should be expecting from them and other wearable wannabes:

  1. An augmented reality experience that lays useful information over your world view using some form of head-up display
  2. Connectivity (3G, 4G, Bluetooth, GPS) either via a smartphone or independently to give you real-time notifications and route guidance from a range of platforms and social media
  3. The ability to make calls and use voice commands to dictate messages to your contacts
  4. The ability to take photos and / or video (and thus have no-one ever trust you while you're wearing them)
  5. The ability to make you look like a future cyborg

Here are the main contenders on the block as of today.

Google Glass

Google Glass

Dominating the smart eyewear category is Google Glass.

Google first revealed Glass to the public in 2012, with developers and "Explorers" gaining access to the smart specs from February 2013. Those lucky enough to gain access to the Explorer program – initially by appealing to Google itself, though latterly Explorers have been able to invite friends – will have to pay US$1500 for the Google Glass hardware.

That gets you a frame with a unit mounted on the right-hand side, containing the internals, a 5MP camera capable of recording video at 720p, a bone-conducting speaker and a head-up display. The device also contains 12GB of useable storage for pictures and videos. The head-up display sits in the top right corner of the field of view, giving users the perception of a floating image in front of their right eye. Glass can be controlled using voice commands  prefaced with the phrase "OK Glass" – and a touch panel on the side of the device. A recently-revealed patent also indicates that Google is considering introducing gesture control to Glass.

Google Glass connects with an Android or iOS smartphone using Bluetooth, allowing you to control searches, music playback, navigation, and a range of notifications – plus a selection of Glass-specific apps. It's worth noting that iOS users get slightly fewer options – turn-by-turn directions don't work, and you can't send text messages, only e-mails. 

Stuff's had a play with the Glass headset, and has pronounced it "pretty freaking awesome" – though not everyone has been impressed. Privacy advocates have raised concerns about people running around with cameras affixed to their faces, while the UK Department of Transport is already mulling a ban on the device in cars. 

Still, that hasn't stopped Google forging ahead

Google Glass 2.0

Google Glass 2.0
Google Glass 2.0 prescription version

Despite the fact that Google's Glass is not available to the masses yet, it's already released a second-generation model. The changes are relatively minor – its bone-conducting audio is now supplemented by a conventional mono headphone, while a version that plays nice with prescription specs will also be available.

Google says it will offer compatibility with conventional spectacles and sunglasses, and will an optional earbud for audio as well as the bone-conducting tech. There will no doubt be more minor hardware improvements to boot.

As with the original, for now you'll have to be accepted on to Google's Project Glass Explorer program and be prepared to stump up $1,500.  If you happen to know someone with Glass right now, you might want to start sweetening them up as they'll have the chance to dish out three invites each to prospective explorers. Hopefully 2014 will see the project become available on a wider scale, and across the pond here in Europe.

Samsung Galaxy Gear Glass

Samsung's wearable technology

Where would any gadget category be without a device from Samsung? In recent years, the Korean company has been notorious for taking the best of what other companies offer, then adding buckets of extra features.

It comes as no surprise, then, to see Samsung reportedly considering face-mounted tech. Mobile Review founder Eldar Murtazin recently tweeted that Samsung was prepping its own Glass competitor, set to fall under the same brand as its Galaxy Gear Smartwatch. This was then followed up by some patent digging from the Wall Street Journal, unearthing a prototype with a 'sportier' focus – it would allow the user to keep in the virtual loop whilst out on the morning run.

'Galaxy Gear Glass' is something of a mouthful, but there's sense in Murtazin's speculation and we'd expect to see something official in the first half of 2014 - perhaps alongside a Galaxy S5.

Apple iGlass

Apple iGlass patent

Inevitably, the moment the wider world became aware of Google Glass, speculation mounted as to when long-term rival Apple would launch its own smart specs.

The Cupertino company has already filed patents for a similar head-mounted display – the patents cover "Methods and apparatus, including computer program products, implementing and using techniques for projecting a source image in a head-mounted display apparatus for a user". That points strongly towards some kind of Glass competitor from Cupertino.

Don't expect Apple to be anywhere near the front of the queue of head-tech, though – historically, Apple has tended to let others pioneer technology before bringing its own version to market. Although Apple CEO Tim Cook has commented that the wearable tech market is "ripe for exploration," he's also specifically noted that Google Glass is "…probably not a mass market item [and] more likely to appeal to certain markets." 

Cook's comments that "the wrist is interesting" point to Apple's focus being on an iWatch rather than an iGlass – and a wrist-mounted companion to the iPhone could well land in 2014.