Bruce Burke spent the summer wearing, testing, talking up and imagining the potential of Glass, Google's new eyeglass-mounted computer.
Before visiting with Burke a few days ago, I admit I was reminded of the hype in 2001 surrounding super-inventor Dean Kamen's latest product, codenamed "Ginger," that would revolutionize transportation.
"Ginger" was actually the two-wheeled electric Segway, which is cool but far from revolutionary. Twelve years later, the few I still see on a routine basis are Segway tours for tourists in downtown St. Petersburg.
So after a thoroughly entertaining and provoking couple of hours spent with Burke and his Google Glass headset, which will it be, cool or revolutionary?
"This could be a Speed Pass for your life," says an enthusiastic Burke. "People are looking for ways to make things more seamless."
As chief marketing officer of Mize Inc., a Tampa startup, Burke is a rare breed. He's one of just 10,000 people chosen nationwide to get their hands on a "beta" or test version of the Glass headset this summer, long before a refined version hits the consumer market.
Google picked Burke in a Twitter contest after he finished the tweet: "If I had Glass … " His Twitter response: "… I'd see things differently."
He forgot about the contest only to hear three weeks later he could participate in Project Glass. On July 5, Burke flew to New York, where he was fitted for his own headset at one of Google's three "base camps" dedicated to Project Glass.
Burke does have skin in the game: He had to buy his test headset for $1,600. But the Tampa Bay native says it's some of the best money he's ever spent. His Glass not only gives him a preview of how information might enhance daily living, but also made him a bit of a rock star in the local tech community and with the media.
After six weeks of digesting the possibilities of Glass, Burke says we may soon witness a quantum leap in how people use wearable, hands-free technology to help streamline our complex day-to-day lives.
I won't spend much time describing Glass features. Stories already abound that it acts as a phone, can take photos and video, and links continuously with the Internet. It projects information on a small screen in the upper-right corner of the right eye frame, and offers clear if not loud audio through a small speaker in the frame. A rechargeable battery lasts about four hours with steady use.
When I tried on Glass, the small screen was blurry because I am nearsighted and would need my own lens prescription to get a crisp image. Otherwise, it was a comfortable fit.
At 54, Burke is an acknowledged technology geek, light-years ahead of this luddite in using and understanding digital and social media.
Burke sees Glass as a next-generation breakthrough — the kind that can engage people and enhance their daily lives. Smartphones, iPads, laptops: "People have grown apathetic to these slabs" — as Burke calls them — in part because they are cumbersome to carry and force users to turn their heads where the device is, not where they want to be looking.
Glass solves that, Burke suggests. The headset moves with the user's head. It can be voice-activated for hands-free use (like the command: "Glass: Take a picture"), or fine-tuned by directions delivered by the right index finger stroking the eye frame.
Burke shares his observations about the device on his blog: Experience Google Glass (socialmobileengagement.com). As the social media marketer for a startup, Burke is also busy imagining how Glass or a similar device could assist his own company. Mize provides an online platform to help companies stay better connected to consumers who purchase their products.
Burke is about to travel to Boston for a conference and will use Glass to create a video record of his trip.
Another benefit of owning Glass? Burke's fast-rising public profile. He has enjoyed being in demand to speak to technology groups that want his insights about the device, and giving interviews with local TV stations and, yes, newspapers. As Burke notes, those with a Glass headset currently make up just 0.003 percent of the nation's population.
So: Cool or revolutionary? The answer is: both. Social, tech, privacy and even legal ripples over Glass are just beginning. Google Glass has been banned by casinos in cities in Las Vegas, Atlantic City and elsewhere over worries that it can help gamblers count cards. States like West Virginia are already talking about banning drivers from wearing Glass. And companies like money manager Fidelity, auto giant Mercedes and the entertainment business WWE (World Wrestling Entertainment) are among the early business adopters working on their own online applications for Glass.
But after all this buzz, is Glass tomorrow's Segway?
No way, Burke argues. Segway was not backed by the likes of Google, a remarkably innovative and powerful business that dominates the global Internet. Google's market value of about $286 billion is bigger than Walmart or General Electric and dwarfs the likes of GM, Boeing or Duke Energy.
Glass may be the start of something dramatic.
Robert Trigaux can be reached at [email protected]