Google Glass is missing in action, but ChipSip, a small Taiwanese company, is hard at work on an alternative. Available to select developers who are willing to apply and pay $550 for a dev kit, the SiME Smart Glasses provide a single lens that sits above your right eye and, unlike Glass, runs full Android 4.4 with any app you want. With a stock Android interface that's not tailored for eyewear, an uncomfortable design and a nonadjustable screen that's hard to see, the SiME dev hardware has a long way to go before it's ready for the masses.
To be fair, the SiME is only a developer kit that requires you to register with ChipSiP to even get the option of buying one. The final version of the headset will look and feel a little different from both a hardware and software perspective, a ChipSiP representative told Tom's Guide. Still, if a dev kit is supposed to show the world just how revolutionary a product can be, the SiME doesn't leave a great impression.
SiME promises that the consumer version of its glasses will be optimized for everyday users, but the dev kit model is one of the ugliest gadgets I have ever reviewed. The glasses themselves are a white, blocky, comically oversized set of frames that Curtis Armstrong would have found over-the-top for Revenge of the Nerds. As soon as I put them on, even I wanted to beat me up for my lunch money.
The screen itself is attached to a bulky protrusion in front of the right eyehole. The nosepieces are incredibly tight, and not adjustable. The earpieces are not adjustable. The screen position is not adjustable. If the screen is not situated ideally in front of your face by default, it never will be.
The SiME lacks external speakers, necessitating a large attachment with a single earbud that plugs into the microUSB port on the left earpiece. It's an inelegant solution to a real problem. (ChipSiP informed us that the next version would have more traditional headphones built in.)
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Users can access a touchpad on the outer right arm, which lets them navigate the tiny Android-powered screen. Even though the frames are very large, the pad feels too small, especially in terms of verticality.
The SiME features a dual-core Cortex-A9 processor, 8 GB storage and 1 GB RAM, and supports all major Wi-Fi except for 802.11ac. Compared to Google Glass (which has a TI OMAP 4430 processor, 16 GB storage and 1 GB RAM), it has a much less powerful processor and half as much storage space.
Because of its inflexible design, the SiME felt uncomfortably tight against face. The problem stems from the fact that the screen is, for many people, in the wrong place. As mentioned above, it's not possible to change the screen's position. For me, that meant that the left half of the screen was completely outside of what I could see, unless I rested the glasses diagonally on the bridge of my nose and closed one eye. Walking around like this is exactly as ridiculous as it sounds.
Worse still, there's a reason why if you wear glasses (like me), you're supposed to conform the nosepieces just so. If you don't shape them to your nose, they will dig into your skin much more severely than you'd expect from two pieces of plastic. After a few hours of wearing the SiME glasses, I had an ugly red welt on my nose where the nosepieces had rubbed the skin raw. Remember: It was either that, or not see half the screen.
I handed the device off to a number of co-workers to see if my experience was universal, and found something surprising: How well you can see the screen seems to be dependent on your race. The Caucasian members of my office all found the screen similarly difficult to see, but my Asian co-workers said that the screen showed up in front of their eyes as promised.
I did a little research and found that there are indeed morphological differences between Caucasian and Asian faces. People of East Asian ancestry tend to have lower noses, more pronounced cheekbones, and shallower eye sockets compared with faces of Caucasian descent. This could help explain why the glasses fit Asian consumers better than their Caucasian compatriots, and makes sense for a product from a Taiwanese company.
Even so, developing a product that will fit only one ethnic group seems counterproductive. Giving the SiME a more flexible frame and nosepieces would have helped it fit almost anyone. ChipSiP may address this criticism in the product's final version.
Most Android phones come with an extremely intuitive setup process before dropping you off at the main menu. The SiME skips the setup process entirely and assumes you'll be able to figure things out on your own. Setting up a Wi-Fi connection, downloading a software update and syncing the device with your Google account is not overly difficult (in theory), but don't expect any guidance, either.
In practice, setup is time-consuming, thanks largely to the inefficient touchpad. On a computer or smartphone, entering e-mail addresses and passwords takes a few seconds. On the SiME, dragging the cursor to select one letter at a time and tapping very gently (but not too gently!) to select it is a laborious experience, and you're likely to make mistakes. It took me no less than 10 minutes to log in to the office network, thanks to frequent typos (which I did not notice, because I was too focused on typing the next letter) and eye strain from closing one eye and squinting with the other one. Entering my email address and password for Google was similarly time-consuming.
Content and Interface
The biggest selling point of the SiME is that it runs full Android. Not even Google Glass can make that claim. If there's an app you want, be it augmented reality, social media, video or even gaming, you can probably get it on the SiME.
I spoke with a ChipSiP representative, who informed me that the company is currently working with about 30 developers to create SiME-optimized apps in fields ranging from health care to video conferencing to sports. Users will also be able to control features like music and videos from their phones. These features are all theoretical at the moment, though.
Most current Android apps work better on a tablet or phone. Given the tedious cursor controls, navigating social media or surfing the Internet is a pain. Listening to music is frustrating, since you can only hear sound through one underwhelming earbud. Videos look minuscule and transparent (there is no way to control screen opacity). Forget about games, especially ones that need precise touch controls.
The SiME could be great for running augmented reality apps, but the current crop are optimized for smartphones or tablets. I tried out Google Goggles, which is supposed to let you photograph products to look them up online, or even translate foreign words in real time. The app was sluggish, inaccurate and prone to freezing. Google Glass is far from perfect, but it handled these tasks much better than the SiME. Hopefully, developers will optimize some AR apps for the SiME before it ships to consumers.
Google Glass is the obvious point of comparison for the UI as well. The big difference between Glass and SiME is that Glass is optimized for a small, portable screen in front of a single eye, whereas SiME just takes a regular Android interface and shrinks it. The Android OS, which is such a joy to use in a smartphone or tablet, feels extremely cumbersome and clunky here.
Voice navigation could help mitigate the SiME's UI issues, but there's not much support for them yet. The SiME has a decent microphone and supports Google voice commands, but at the time of writing, there is no comprehensive way to control the device with your voice. Searching with your voice is not that useful when sifting through the results is still a tedious process.
Navigating and typing take a long time, and even an action as simple as scrolling down or opening your notifications can take multiple tries. The touchpad has trouble differentiating taps from drags, and I found myself clicking the same letter over and over to no avail, or scrolling across a keyboard and hitting two or three random letters along the way.
The camera on the SiME is simple to use, but captures poor quality images. You can take pictures at 800 x 600 resolution, then post them online. You can't simply extract photos by hooking the glasses up to a computer, which can make it obnoxious if you want to share or catalog more than a few at a time.
The photos I took were a little blurry and dull, but otherwise unremarkable. Taking a photo is an admirably simple process: Just click a button next to the lens, and no matter what else you're doing, the camera will supersede it. Taking video requires you to operate the camera app manually, and looks equally bland.
On a full charge (which takes between two and three hours to achieve), the SiME gets about one hour of continuous use. It can last a little longer if you use it on-and-off (as is probably the more realistic case), but don't expect more than a few hours out of it. To be fair, our experience is in line with what ChipSiP claims. For comparison, Google Glass gets about five hours of on-and-off use.
When we saw the SiME glasses at Computex and IFA, we remarked that their ability to run full Android could give the system unparalleled versatility. This is still true, but the physical design we saw on the dev kit needs a major overhaul, while the interface and apps must be optimized for a single-eye, heads-up display. As it stands now, the SiME dev kit is difficult to use and uncomfortable to wear, leaving a lot of room for improvement when a final version eventually ships to consumers.