Bio alumna one of first Purdue Google Glass users

Author(s): Tim Brouk
Photographs by: Tim Brouk

Google Glass

Bio alumna Jessica Ridilla with her Google Glass.

The lobby of Lilly Hall was buzzing. Dozens of undergraduates poured in and out of the glass doors. Just about every table and ledge –– anywhere that could hold a resting student –– was full. It was the beginning of another semester at Purdue University.

Since the first exams were still a few weeks away, most of these young scholars were fixated on their smartphones, tablets or the old-school standby, the print edition of the Purdue Exponent. There was time to kill before their next classes or labs.

Though absorbed into their small screens, a few eyes shot up to look at the young woman casually wearing one of the most talked about pieces of technology that is marked for a 2014 release –– Google Glass.

In July, Jessica Ridilla, a 2012 PhD graduate in biological sciences who stayed on as a postdoc, became one of the first few Indiana residents to score the new, white headset, which features a glass prism in front of the right eye. With a series of voice commands, head movements and finger swipes, Ridilla can check email, snap pictures, surf the Internet, see weather forecasts, shoot video and answer phone calls. Though Google “basecamps” where Glass is obtained exist in New York and California, the Google Glass users are few and far between in the Midwest.

“People think I have something wrong with my head when they first see me,” laughs Ridilla, who is now a postdoc in cell biology at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass.

Ridilla was among 6,000 nationwide winners of the Google Glass after she entered an online contest through Google+. She had to complete the sentence “If I had Google Glass, … .” Ridilla’s response was concise yet impressive to Google executives: “I would make scientific discoveries faster and more often.” The biologist did have to cough up $1,500 for the Glass as well as pay her expenses to pick up the technology in New York.

But it’s been worth it, she says. Ridilla wears Google Glass every day and she became used to the technology after just a couple of hours.

“I wear glasses normally so I don’t know if that expedited the process. Where the little glass prism is, that is where the frame of my glasses would be,” Ridilla says. “They’re not that distracting. The only distraction is from people wanting to know what it is and wanting to play with it.”

Most of the function is on the right side of the Glass. The prism screen is attached to the control center, which rests on the wearer’s temple. The technology is touch-sensitive and enables the user to scroll and swipe through options, texts and email. A button that rests near the ear uses vibration for sound. There is no speaker.

“You’re using the vibrations from this device to hear. People who are deaf have been able to hear for the first time using Google Glass. There are a lot of medical applications for this technology,” says Ridilla, who received her undergraduate degree in biology from St. Lawrence University. Her master’s degree is from the Department of Forestry and Natural Resources at Purdue.

An Android application allows others to see what she sees through the Glass on her smartphone screen.

Ridilla used Google Glass all summer while working in Prof. Christopher Staiger’s lab. The more she wore it, the more she could see how Glass can help educate in a lab environment.

“I think one of the hottest areas a person could use Glass for would be videotaping your methods,” Ridilla says. “If you have a method you want to show someone, it’s going to be so much better to just show them using Google Glass. It’s literally what you see. From the way it’s designed and set up, it’s exactly what you’re looking at without having a bulky camera in the way. You can show people exactly what you’re doing.

“If you’re trying to teach biology undergrads how to do a technique, it could be cool for them. Our lab also does a lot of high-end imaging so you can look at your computer screen, record a really quick video, and then instantly upload and share with people.”

Ridilla’s research at Purdue focused on actin cytoskeletal dynamics. Actin is a protein that is filamentous and is conserved in organisms from plants to humans. Ridilla looked at how the actin was used in how plants defend themselves from microbial or fungal pathogens.

“There are hundreds of proteins that regulate how the actin in a cytoskeleton works,” she explains. “We studied a lot of these proteins to see how actin changes. Specifically, how rapidly the actin filaments move or turn over, or if changes to the single filament dynamics leads to more general changes in cellular actin architecture, either more filaments or more bundled filaments.”

During the summer, Ridilla’s co-workers reacted positively to her Google Glass acquisition, but others were a little apprehensive with the new technology.

“There is that concern that people think I’m constantly recording them but there isn’t enough hard drive space on the Glass or even online on the Google Glass server to be constantly uploading things,” she says.

Fellow bio postdoc Jiejie Li recalls watching an online video on Google Glass just days before Ridilla walked into the lab sporting the new tech.

“The Glass does make her look like a cyborg,” Li quips.

Li agrees that Google Glass has applications in the lab. For her, taking quick, easy pictures of her plants for database purposes and recording point-of-view video for training would be useful now. She hopes to obtain her own Google Glass once the price drops.

As Ridilla’s career advances, her Google Glass will be along for the ride. She foresees more apps to be created for Glass to give it more flexibility in use. When she obtained the Glass, only 10 were available.

Eventually, Google Glass will become as common as smartphones, Ridilla says. But Purdue may need a little more time.

“I think like anything, it takes awhile to get used to it,” Ridilla says. “In reality, Google Glass can do anything a smartphone can do.

“A lot of people are excited to embrace technologybut I think there is still a stigma behind wearing a headset, even though I think it’s cool and futuristic and like Star Trek or something.”