(DES MOINES REGISTER) -- Slater native Steve Lee understands the hesitation some folks have about Google Glass. When he saw an early version of the concept, a pair of augmented reality glasses users could wear to enhance their everyday lives, he thought it was crazy.
The specs were bulky. Uncomfortable. Not very stylish.
But that did not stop him from jumping to the Glass project three years ago. The Iowa State University alum, who had worked on the tech giant's first mobile applications including Maps, now directs the Glass project. Lee oversees the product and its testing as it develops.
"It seemed a bit crazy at the time," Lee, 40, told The Des Moines Register. "But I saw a vision that this could be compelling. I could see how it could become a whole new way for people to interact if we could achieve some technical feats."
Those technical feats have started to appear, and Lee, the director of product management for Glass, has a new vision: a day when consumers buy the specs from store shelves. He also says the device will someday revolutionize various industries, including health care and education.
In fact, some teachers and developers who have paid the current $1,500 price tag have already started showing off what might be possible. Others, such as the leaders of Iowa State University's virtual reality program, say they cannot wait to see what is possible when students build products for the wearable computer. Glass is similar to a smartphone in that developers can build applications for it.
However, privacy and security concerns must first be addressed for the product to gain approval of government bodies. For now, users turn on Glass by using a simple head motion or tapping on the device. They can then record or snap a picture, among other things, using a voice command.
Because of this, some government officials have kept a close eye on Glass, aiming to determine security and privacy violations that nonusers may face.
In May, eight members of the U.S. House of Representative's bipartisan Privacy Caucus sent Google co-founder Larry Page a letter with a handful of concerns, including the potential of facial recognition technology to expose nonusers' personal information; Google's ability to collect user information; and how privacy comes into play with third-party application developers.
U.S. Rep. Dave Loebsack, D-Ia., a member of the Privacy Caucus, did not sign the letter. "The congressman believes the letter raised many legitimate questions about an incredibly innovative product that could pose significant privacy concerns," said his spokesman, Joe Hand. "However, since the letter was sent before the product had even been released, the congressman felt that Congress weighing in at that point could do as much harm as good, especially given their current track record."
Lee said the device's design negates the concern that users will take pictures or video of nonusers without consent.
"When recording with Glass, the display is always active," Lee said. "Observers can see the light is on. (Also), you have to stare at people to record them. In reality, it's very socially awkward to record people with Glass versus other cameras."
Lee said Google's team has taken security and privacy seriously while developing the product. In addition, Google's Explorer program will put thousands of the devices into the hands of early adopters, providing valuable feedback on potential applications and obstacles.
"They will meet hundreds if not thousands of people who are curious so they will learn things about our design," Lee said.
Lee said the best applications would likely be those he has not even thought of.
The Google Glass Explorer program sold the device to about 2,000 developers who attended Google's annual I/O developers conference.
After that, the device was offered to about 8,000 Twitter users whose selection was based on a contest in which they described what they would do with Glass using the hashtag #IfIHadGlass.
The program has created a diverse base to test the device in many real-world settings. While some people may be uncomfortable wearing computers on their faces, the experience is not nearly as off-putting for those who have grown up around technology.
Allistair Lee in Ames received his set shortly after attending the developers' conference in May. Now, he said, he barely notices the device.
"People are going to be skeptical," the 26-year-old Iowa State student said. "With new technology, people are always trying to adapt."
Lee, who is pursuing a master's degree in crop production and physiology at ISU, said Google Glass's possibilities are endless.
"Technology is evolving," said Lee, who has attended I/O the last four years. "We are probably just scratching the surface. There are a lot of different things you can do."
Jim Oliver, director of ISU's Virtual Reality Applications Center, sees many possibilities for Glass.
Oliver said manufacturers such as Boeing could see benefits. The specialized instruction for customized parts could be delivered instantly to workers, Oliver said.
"It could be used by surgeons to show any extra instruction," Oliver said. "In fact, any manual training, where you are using your hands and working with what is in front of you, augmented reality has a tremendous potential to enhance."
The center has been tinkering with wearable technology and augmented reality for about 20 years. However, mechanics have been cumbersome.
Google Glass could be the first to come to consumers and, by extension, appeal to many businesses that have dabbled in the technology.
"The idea is not new, but it has finally made it to where the technology has been made acceptable," Oliver said. "I have been dying to try one."
Oliver said optical challenges must be resolved, such as resolution, quality of display and how far a display can comfortably sit from a person's eye.
In fact, Oliver said, he's more excited to see what happens to Google Glass in its second or third generation.
Meanwhile, the virtual reality program's partners such as manufacturers are excited because the product will be relatively cheap and accessible, he said.
The virtual reality program will have about three devices at its disposal, and its associate director, Stephen Gilbert, will travel to New York for training this month. In addition, Oliver said, students will be encouraged to build applications for the headset.
The excitement keeps Lee, the Google project manager from Slater, going forward on a project that has received some negative press.
Apple co-founder Tim Cook recently took a swipe at Google Glass, saying at a conference: "I wear glasses because I have to. I don't know a lot of people (who) wear them that don't have to."
"I have a great respect for Apple's products," Lee said. "But it gets back to our focus, which is on building a great product and thinking about customers. If we build a great product, we'll be in good shape."
Lee, one of Fast Company magazine's 100 most creative people in business in 2012, considers Google Glass a startup company within the huge tech giant Google.
Lee said he has worn Glass to many functions and venues, including Disneyland, sporting events and even a pizza-making class. He's able to share intimate moments immediately with others.
Aside from the high-minded educational applications of Google Glass, users will be able to send messages immediately, with a notification appearing in front of a person's eyes. Notifications, as with smartphones, can be turned off, as well.
"We designed Glass to get out of your way when you don't want to use it," Lee said.
No timetable has been established to get Glass on store shelves, but Lee insisted it's "definitely not a five-year timetable," indicating that it should be far less.
The devices remain open to those who receive offers, such as those Twitter users and developers. Lee said the group includes DJs, dentists and people from many other walks of life, so some pretty nifty uses should emerge in the next few months.
Before the devices do hit store shelves, Lee's Glass team must convince the public of the product's benefits.
"It is educating the world and letting them know that, even if they don't buy it, it's a good thing for the world," Lee said. "They should not fear it. They should embrace it."
Written by Marco Santana, Des Moines Register