What Ever Happened to Google Glass?

The Goal of Google X

Just over a decade ago Google began cooking up several new tech projects under the highly secretive Google X program. This taciturn research and development tech firm, led by computer scientist Sebastian Thrun, actively seeks to find ways that improve the human condition by a factor of 10, rather than a mere 10%. In fact, Google X firmly believes it is actually easier to make something 10 times better than it is to improve it by 10%. When working to improve something by 10% it is nearly impossible to avoid using existing tools and assumptions. It is also highly likely that lots of other people using those same tools and assumptions have collectively spent a very long time considering many possible solutions. This leads to slow and incremental improvements with a high investment of time, labor, and money. On the other side of the coin, shooting for a 10 fold improvement leads to more brave and creative decision making. It allows people to think outside the box with completely original and unique approaches. It can be a bit more risky, but a single breakthrough can make it all worth it. It is that kind of freedom and courage of thought which allowed man, both literally and figuratively, to walk on the moon. 

Fly Me to the Moon

Google X (who have since rebranded simply as ‘X’) pursues this ambitious goal through a series of massively challenging projects dubbed ‘moonshots’, a nod to the 1960’s herculean task of walking on the moon. These ventures are so difficult and large in scope that they fall somewhere in-between utter science fiction and foolhardy pet project. The Google Glass was one such moonshot. The idea is simple, pack the power and general functionality of a cutting edge smartphone into a set of wearable frames. In mid-2011, before the Glass was ever even announced, Google engineered the first prototype unit which weighed in at a hefty 8lbs. Less than two years later they had managed to shrink the Glass down to a regular, wearable size where it actually weighed less than the average pair of sunglasses.

Futuristic Tech

X’s first attempt at ubiquitous computing included a 5 megapixel camera capable of taking both still photos and 720p video. A small heads-up display in the upper corner of the right lens displays information in an easy to understand smartphone-like format. The entire device is hands-free and allows the user to communicate with the internet via simple voice commands and hand gestures. There is also a small touchpad on the arm of the glasses which allows complete control via the use of a few taps and swipes. Take and share POV pictures and videos on the fly, send and receive text messages, have live video calls using a built-in speaker and microphone, navigate using embedded Google Maps GPS tools, and have conversations in foreign languages using on-the-fly translation. These were just a few of the possibilities that Google showed off during its announcement back in April of 2012.

Mounting Excitement

The initial response to Google’s unveiling of the Glass was overwhelming. The highly advanced and wearable tech looked like something out of a Mission: Impossible movie. It grabbed the attention of not only the general public but also technology futurists who saw the Glass as one of the first wearable technology devices that could impact countless aspects of daily life. Unfortunately, Google quickly found itself caught up in a storm of its own making. Riding on the initial wave of excitement, they sought to capitalize on the hype and potential of the product rather than marketing the reality and limitations it might face. The $1,500 price point for the entry-level model didn’t help things either. Google had expected the high price tag and exclusive waiting list to reflect the true nature of their futuristic prototype technology, when in reality it gave the impression of a highly desirable, ultra premium product.

Supplementing vs Augmenting

A key fault in the marketing and design of the Glass was the implication that it augmented reality. Google’s 2012 promotional video showcased everything from skydiving, skiing, biking, and even acrobatics. These activities were augmented through the instantaneous appearance of relevant, user-friendly data which directly enhanced their experiences. Sadly, these enhancements required advanced image recognition software and powerful, compact batteries that simply didn’t exist at the time. On top of that, the Glass could chew through massive amounts of data as it continuously scanned the environment and displayed information. The initial release of the Glass in 2013 sported a battery life of two to three hours maximum, and allowed users to check text and voice messages, view photos, and search the internet; a far cry from the futuristic tech demo showed off a year earlier. It was clear: the Glass supplemented reality, not augmented it. Google Glass was also competing with other devices that sported superior hardware, faster software, and larger storage capacities.

Privacy and Security

As consumers started to question the overall value of the Google Glass itself, other privacy and security concerns began to emerge. Would users really be comfortable wearing a camera on their face on a daily basis? “No one could understand why you’d want to have that thing on your face, in the way of normal social interaction,” a keen and telling observation made by the MIT Technology Review. Beyond that, what about the people on the other side of the camera? Many people expressed their discomfort with the idea of potentially being recorded at any time by anyone in the vicinity wearing the Glass. Many bars and restaurants put limitations on, or outright banned, the device in its entirety. It even spawned a new pejorative term, ‘glasshole’ -someone who wears the camera in socially unacceptable situations and is often accused of rudely staring off into space for extended periods of time.

Driving the Divide

As the initial investors began to get their hands on the Glass and test it for themselves, they began to realize that their hyper-advanced $1,500 device didn’t do any particular thing exceptionally well. Smartphones at the time were selling for roughly half that price and boasted more features and better performance. The high price and limited waitlist seemed only to drive home the social and economic divide between the haves and the have-nots. It’s no secret that some people spend vast sums of money on luxurious items with which they find value through identity. Google Glass was severely lacking in that department. Put plainly, it wasn’t necessarily seen as a ‘cool’ device.

Can’t Buy Cool

Google desperately tried to rectify their image problem by partnering with a number of eyeglass frame designers. They bought up advertising space in fashion magazines and even got themselves featured prominently during New York Fashion Week. Unfortunately for Google, this came off as a cheap attempt to buy coolness. As the Harvard Business Review put it: “Cool is not an equation. It’s mysterious, ineffable. An art, not a science.” Art and technology don’t always see eye to eye, and it can be an extreme challenge to get consumers to view your device as something sleek and desirable.

Re-evaluating

As Google became inundated with unfavorable reviews, they quietly went back to the drawing board and began working on the next generation of Glass devices. In July of 2017 Google announced that the next iteration of the Glass project would be the ‘Enterprise Edition’. This formally marked Google Glass’ transition away from general consumer product and towards industrial usage. Companies such as Boeing, Samsung, Volkswagen, General Electric, and Trinity Health began to adopt the Glass for business purposes. The Glass has been significantly more successful in these settings and continues to see increasing usage, particularly in the healthcare field. 

It is clear that at this moment, Google Glass is not meant for mass consumption. Perhaps as technology advances and Google fine-tunes their approach we will see the Glass available for the average person. For the time being, us tech nerds will have to simply fantasize about what the future of Google Glass and other wearable tech will hold. 

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At Lithios we value outside opinions. This blog was written by one of our guest bloggers.

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