What it’s like to go grocery shopping with Google Glass

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In February, Manny Almagro penned a 108-character poem that ended up costing him $1,500. It went like this:

#ifihadglass I would wear them, the tech is so hot. If I had glass – I would build apps for people who shop.

Almagro’s two-line Tweet landed him the option to buy a pair of Google Glass/es. (The jury’s still out on plural vs. singular). Around 150,000 entered the #ifihadglass contest to become one of Google’s Glass Explorers; Almagro (pictured at left) was one of 8,000 who made the cut. If Glass Explorers were a college, it would be the most selective in the nation. And at $1,500 a pair, it wouldn’t be that much cheaper.

When he wrote about building apps for people who shop, Almagro wasn’t just waxing poetic. As the senior vice president of digital technology at TPN Retail, a marketing firm whose clients include Tropicana, his job is to understand how people buy stuff, and then design technology that makes shopping easier. He holds a patent for a software platform that delivers digital media into retail locations (like digital menu boards, and in-store digital signage).

Last week, I met Almagro at the Whole Foods at 1522 N. Kingsbury to see how the ballyhooed Google Glass might alter the way we shop for groceries.

Almagro wears Glass about five hours a day, including every time he goes grocery shopping. When he doesn’t know if the chicken is too fatty or the avocados are ripe, he video-chats his wife, who can then see what he sees. “She’s the planner,” Almagro says. “I’m the hunter-gatherer.”

I try the Google hangout capability in front of a selection of greenish bananas. Almagro patches me through to Marc Lapides, a former coworker of Almagro’s at TPN. I can see him okay in the top corner of the lenses, but I can barely hear his advice as I hold up different hands of bananas.

Lapides is now the director of marketing at Cosi. I asked him the next day whether Cosi might be interested in designing its own Glass app. “We don’t see any really good business case to build something for Google Glass,” he says. “It needs to go beyond novelty.”

Grocery stores don’t seem to be nursing big plans either. Whole Foods says it hasn’t thought much about Glass, and Mariano’s says it’s not on the radar. The earliest interactions could well be antagonistic. Like many grocery stores, Mariano’s doesn’t allow customers to take pictures in the store.

In addition, grocery stores may not welcome the prospect of a more educated consumer, which supermarket analyst David J. Livingston says Glass will produce, citing potential for instant comparison shopping. “Now, you’ve got another tool to kind of get one up on the store,” Livingston says.

Almagro steers me from the produce section to the liquor shelves, where I use the voice search capability to ask for a whiskey that’s made in Chicago. The Wikipedia page for Koval Distillery appears, telling me it’s the first distillery in city limits since prohibition. Lo and behold, there’s a Koval white whiskey, one row down, $33 for a fifth.

And when we come upon a Thanksgiving display, Almagro instructs me to touch the frame and say, “OK, Glass. How many calories are in cranberry sauce?” Eighty-six in a one-ounce serving, it tells me.

I look at the label on the back of a jar, which says 90. I’m impressed, but wonder why, in a store full of FDA-mandated nutritional facts, I’m double-checking calorie counts.

Glass is clunky. It’s hard to hear through the earpiece, especially in a place with as much ambient noise as a Whole Foods. Users and designers alike often struggle to explain how many of the problems Glass solves were problems in the first place.

We put a man on the moon 45 years ago. Since then, innovation has not kept pace with our imaginations; Hubert Humphrey reckoned by the year 2000, humanity would have an unmanned outpost on Mars and wield control of the weather. Instead, we have global warming and Snapchat.

But when Almagro shows me Word Lens, an app that translates signs within a few seconds of registering them, the gadget momentarily lives up to its potential. A boatload of use cases immediately start swimming around. You could use Glass to translate pharmaceutical regimens and electoral ballots. It could widen the province of ethnic groceries. And if it can scan text so easily, how hard would it be to build an inventory of products that contain trans-fats? Products with traces of nuts? A glossary to explain what exactly is partially hydrogenated peanut oil?

“Glass will take the control out of the retailers hands and put it into the consumers,” says Almagro. “It exerts pressure to be more transparent and healthier.”

For now, this is the magic of Glass 1.0. Not what is, but what could be.

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