URBANA — Over the last few weeks, A.J. Christensen has been exploring technology straight out of a Robert Downey Jr. superhero flick.
Google Glass — the augmented reality device, or wearable computer, that resembles a high-tech set of eyeglasses — allows its fortunate few owners to surf the Internet, get directions, make phone calls, send text messages, record ... and see all the information on a tiny display in front of their right eye.
"It's sort of the 'Iron Man' idea of having information about the world you're looking at streaming in front of your eye," said Christensen, a visualization programmer at the eDream Institute at the University of Illinois.
Now, if you were hoping to find a pair under the Christmas tree, forget it. Unless you're one of the developers who received a special invitation from Google, the only way to get the highly anticipated gizmo is by applying to be a Google "explorer" (think: technology test pilot).
If accepted, you'll still have to pay the same amount consumers will when Glass hits the open market sometime next year — $1,500.
The eDream and Illinois Informatics institutes, both at the UI's National Center for Supercomputing Applications, each own a Glass.
They're being used mainly by students now, but researchers at both places plan to incorporate the device in digital arts and performances.
The first place could be Krannert Center for the Performing Arts on Feb. 24. That's the date of "The Demo," a performance inspired by a breakthrough day in 1968 when Stanford researchers shaped modern computer technology. Composer/performer Mikel Rouse might wear the device during the show, with what he sees being projected to a screen onstage.
Rouse would be able to do so without using his hands — Glass is operated by voice commands that always start with the two words, "OK, Glass." The only time users even need to lift a finger is to swipe the touchpad on the right temple. That takes care of functions like turning Glass on or off, or going forward and back through your personal timeline.
But one of the most talked-about personal devices since the smartphone isn't perfect.
Christensen wears eyeglasses and finds it awkward to use Glass over them. Online reviews have slammed Google for the device's short battery life.
"Google Glass is still very much in its infancy," said James Balamuta, another Google "explorer" at the UI. "The amount of capabilities Glass has out of the box is limited. However, the creative uses Glass can be put to are endless."
Balamuta, a Ph.D. candidate in statistics, hopes to develop new apps for the Glass — like many of the other nearly 10,000 explorers who have gotten a Glass since October. He's a fan of the "remarkable point-of-view experience" the device's front-facing camera provides.
That raises another common criticism of Glass — that a wearer could secretly record someone. Glass doesn't default into camera mode, though; a wearer has to actually turn on the recording device, Balamuta noted.
And, despite what you may have seen in sci-fi thrillers, Glass can't yet scan a face in the crowd and bring up information on that person.
"There is no doubt in my mind that is coming," Christensen said, "but I haven't heard of it existing for Glass yet."
5 things to know about Google Glass
1. It's expected to go on sale to the public in 2014. Beyond that, the company isn't saying anything. Some techies predict it will happen during Google's summer tech conference; others think the date may be pushed to 2015 because the price of hardware hasn't come down enough.
2. The current cost for users invited by the tech giant to try out Glass: $1,500.
3. The cheapest price to buy a device put on eBay by one of those select users: $1,749.99 as of Sunday night.
4. With it, you can: record what you see (hands-free), share what you see (live), say take a picture (to get a picture), and do many of the same cool things you can on a smartphone.
5. You cannot: film for long durations. The battery lasts for about 30 minutes, even on a full charge, and the device has been known to heat up considerably.