fish out of water

What Google Glass has taught us one year in

April 15, 2014
April 15, 2014

Google opened up its now iconic Glass for sales to a limited number of “Explorers” just over a year ago, and is allowing the general public to purchase Glass for $1,500 for one day only today. Like any substantial piece of technology that becomes pop culture, Google’s face computer has been the butt of jokes, subject to bans, spawned its own epithets, been blamed for attacks—and been the subject of awe from technology enthusiasts. One year on, what real impact has Glass had, beyond stirring up pro- and anti-technology froth?

Our expectations around Glass, in part set by Google itself, have raised the bar too high for heads-up and wearable computers for the moment. Despite the aura of wonder—and level of fear—around Glass, the device itself has relatively limited capabilities. Google recently, rather weakly, downplayed some of the presumed functions of Glass in its own “Top 10 Myths of Google Glass,” pointing out that it doesn’t always record (which would require far more bandwidth, storage, and power than it’s capable of), isn’t a polished experience, and can’t do things like facial recognition. Granted, Google didn’t put all of those thoughts into the heads of the public, but it certainly set a high bar through its overall rhetoric around Glass and related technologies, including taking pains to point out that Glass emanated from Google X, it’s so-called special projects arm that also spawned self-driving cars, internet-by-balloon from Project Loon, and a glucose-testing contact lens.

Google doesn’t seem to know—or isn’t saying—where Glass’s sweet spot is. The company has tried to position Glass as a technical or professional tool, a couture accessory, something for the cool kids, and has even held a few open days for the general public to try Glass, one of which I attended last fall. The experience of seeing the Glass team approach a broad public group with Glass was awkward—more like watching a demo of a new juicer at a mall. Generally uncomfortable, flimsy, and a bit confusing on first use, Glass is almost too different of an experience to find a natural usage fit initially, leaving it simply to look intriguing/slightly alienating. Lacking a natural context, Glass is kind of a fish out of water for now, and hasn’t found a natural constituency outside white, male technologists. The Tumblr wouldn’t be as funny if it wasn’t painfully true.

If Glass itself hasn’t been a world beater, it’s opened the door for other wearables. Glass both helped kickstart the public conversation about wearable technology, and provides a foil to less awkward and more clearly functional new products. The real boom in the wearable growth curve began around the time Glass launched, perhaps pushing both Google competitors into a suddenly hot market, and sparking consumers to think about the wearable category more seriously. Glass helped make a case that personal technology could go somewhere else besides your pocket or belt—it could be worn on most other parts of the body, and probably without the social issues that come with sticking it at eye level. Glass created conditions where dozens of Kickstarter-ers and Indiegogo-ers could shout “fuck yeah technology!” and roll out their own crazy ideas.

Glass at least helped fire Silicon Valley’s imagination around augmented reality. Would Facebook have purchased Oculus Rift for $2 billion if Glass hadn’t existed? I’d argue no. Even though Oculus is a different technical animal and had been in development since 2012 as well, as with the non-facial wearables mentioned above, Glass helped push the idea of augmented vision into mainstream public discussion in ways that older smartphone apps and other augmented reality attempts hadn’t quite. And once a meme starts in the Valley, the money follows, rightly or wrongly. Somebody convinced Mark Zuckerberg that people want to see the world through digital eyes, and that somebody was probably rival Google. It’s not an uncommon theme, be it around goggles, phones or drones.

Glass pushed the conversation about technology, surveillance and privacy onto the front burner. The mere idea of a face-mounted camera sold by Google sparked heated discussion and debate about the intrusiveness of such innovations. For the first time since the cameraphone, and in a much more visceral way, businesses and privacy advocates both paid serious attention to the possibilities of surveillance and sousveillance on their turf. Only months after the launch of Glass, through Edward Snowden, the world found out just how extensive and intrusive various governments’ surveillance efforts have been and remain, and the focus has stayed sharp on these issues. Glass, and subsequent introductions of technologies such as Google’s Moto X and Now, are seen in a different light now that we’re at least having discussions about the ethics and dangers of products that surveil. It also hasn’t stopped new products coming to the fore that test the boundaries of intrusion.

Glass has already lost its central place in discussion of wearables, faceables, and surveillables as the scramble to be the next big thing ubiquitous computing continues apace. Looking back, Glass may be the Motorola DynaTAC of its age: expensive, socially complicated, and dorkish, but ultimately definitive for its role in setting a wider industry—and cultural discussion—in motion.

Follow Scott on Twitter @changeist. We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com.

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