How Vice Hacked Google Glass To Tell Crisis Stories

Vice’s Tim Pool is using a hacked Glass to report from flashpoints around the world. Co.Labs spoke to Pool about taking Google’s face-mounted camera into clouds of tear gas, through mobs of pissed-off cops and protestors and straight into the future of journalism.

When I spoke with Tim Pool on the phone, the Vice reporter and media innovator (first to pioneer the use of drones for reporting on demonstrations, for instance) was having a typically busy week. Just after coming back from working in the United Kingdom, Pool was now in Las Vegas getting ready to visit Def Con and Black Hat–the world’s two best known cybersecurity conferences, which both take place within days of each other in Las Vegas’s searing summer heat. Pool was interested in the reactions from Las Vegas tourists, many of whom likely had no idea that thousands of computer hackers and eccentric tech geniuses were about to disrupt their vacation.


He was, however, more interested in sharing his findings from using Google Glass as a journalist. Using Glass, Pool shoots livestreaming footage for and takes pictures from the midst of volatile demonstrations and other newsworthy events. It also helps him see his producers from thousands of miles away, speak to locals who don’t understand English, and even allows him to instantly access his home computer in the middle of a revolution.

The Biggest Thing To Happen To Journalism Since The iPhone

In our conversation, Pool said Glass was the biggest change to his reporting toolkit since the iPhone. After being accepted as a member of the Google Glass Explorer program, he began tinkering with Glass in order to add functionality useful for him as a journalist. Using Launchy, an Android app launcher program for Glass OS, Pool quickly added livestreaming, voice translation, and remote access capabilities to his headset. Using a Bluetooth mini-keyboard, Pool is able to access his desktop from volatile points in the field, see his files displayed in his field of vision, and bring up any file he might need to consult on background.

While Pool notes that Glass currently has technical obstacles–it can be constrained by bandwidth, the battery life is relatively poor, and, as he notes on his Google+ page, it is surprisingly susceptible to tear gas, he considers it a huge asset to his reporting. Most important, it seems, is the safety and non-distraction factor. While it might be ironic given all the talk of Google Glass bans, he swears that wearing the headset saves him from distraction during demonstrations where there’s risk of harm. To give one example, Pool says wearing Glass helped him keep his cool during a volatile demonstration in New York City over the Trayvon Martin verdict. Pool was able to film protesters being detained while focusing on avoiding arrest or injury, thanks to Glass. Using his headset, he shot the below footage.


Pool’s Crisis Reporting Toolkit

Pool, who joined Vice in early 2013, is best known as the co-creator of Occupy Wall Street’s iconic livestream. His organization, The Other 99, used everyday technology such as Samsung mobile phones and a modded Parrot AR.Drone quadrocopter to feed 24/7 footage from Zuccotti Park to tens of thousands of viewers and major media organizations worldwide. Because Pool works with small organizations with limited layers of bureaucracy, the journalist has been able to experiment with tools and feature sets that the entire industry, in my opinion, is bound to adopt.

What Glass Needs To Be A Complete Storytelling System

During our conversation, Pool was quick to note that Glass isn’t an all-in-one tool. Instead, the headset is part of his toolkit alongside an HD camera. He says that the headset takes decent quality footage whenever there’s a volatile situation where using a standard camera would be imprudent. “I shoot photos and video with Glass, and b-roll shows up immediately,” Pool said. “When I film, one of my phones livestreams footage, and another camera films in HD. GoPro can be inconvenient when I have to be on the ground for 13 hours; Glass streamlines things.”

“Glass allows me to keep my focus–When I’m running, having my hands free is particularly important. When things get intense with plastic bullets, I don’t want to stare at a camera, I just hit record. It puts me more in the moment when I have a POV shot.”


Since joining Vice, Pool has used Glass to cover demonstrations in Istanbul, Brazil, and New York, as well as Cairo in the days leading up to the Egyptian Army’s coup in early July.

The Surprising Potential Of Google Glass GIFs

Pool has been quietly experimenting with turning his Glass video feed into GIFs on his Google+ page. The self-professed “media hacker” stumbled upon one of Glass’s most intriguing uses: Quick GIFs of breaking news events and interesting things a Glass wearer sees… all assembled on the fly. One sample is below, and we’ve scattered others throughout the story.

In the below clip, Pool filmed himself doing a little parkour at New York’s Union Square subway stop.


How To Tweet From A Riot

One ingenious hack Pool made to his Glass was setting up Twitter integration through IFTTT. Using an IFTTT formula and a dummy email account, Pool can instantly tweet photos or text from his Glass with no hands required.

Glass Auto-Translation–And Other Technical Tricks

In Istanbul and Cairo, Pool found that his modded headset’s translation functions came particularly in handy. Using a voice translation app, Pool was able to have words and simple phrases in Turkish and Arabic fed to him. This could be as simple as sussing out how to say “Where is the bathroom?” in Arabic or, alternately, to know the right word to ask a store owner when you’re trying to get a receipt for your brand-new gas mask. (Pro tip: Pool says the word in Turkish for a receipt is “makbuz.”)

However, Pool noted that this functionality was crippled somewhat in Brazil due to bandwidth issues.


Using Glass To Remote-Work With Editors And Producers

Pool is particular enamored with Glass’s integration with two existing Google products–Hangouts and Google+.

Using Hangouts, any journalist wearing Glass in the field can see and hear their producer or editor in a heads-up display. As long as bandwidth is cooperative, the two-way conversation between producer and content producer lets them collaborate to cover breaking news or event-specific events in a way that’s unimaginable with mobile phones. The way Pool describes it, it’s almost science fictionish–his producer’s webcam shows up on his horizon as the two discuss story angles during Turkish riots where vans are being set alight.

More important for Pool, any pictures taken via Glass are instantly ported to Google+. This deep integration with Glass appears to be part of Google’s secret sauce for the well-designed-but-relatively-devoid-of-users social network. Any time Pool snaps a public picture with Glass, it’s instantly posted to his Google+ account–making assembling articles for the Vice team much easier. It’s the equivalent of a news agency getting a live feed of every single picture taken with a reporter’s camera.


The heads-up display also works marvelously in other cases, such as when Pool decided to take footage of Cairo via Glass on a rooftop.

The Future Of Glass-Based Reporting

Although Pool is part of the Explorer program, his Glass use is relatively unsupervised. He has been in touch with sympathetic engineers at Google, but his efforts to push Glass’s boundaries for journalism and newsgathering have been done largely on his own.

For Vice, the results are a coup de grace: Glass livestreaming alone, especially with the GIF integration shown above, gives a flexibility for covering breaking news that Skype, Vine, Instagram, and Twitter can’t match. As for the other uses… once Glass opens up to the general public, I’m sure we’re going to hear a lot more about them.


[Slideshow Images: Vice & Tim Pool]

Correction: An earlier version of this article mistakenly said Glass does not shoot HD video. According to Pool, Glass does shoot 720p HD.