With the late Monday leak that Baidu, China’s biggest search engine, was developing what looked like an early prototype of Google Glass (link in Chinese), the wearable device craze and the ongoing drama of the Baidu-Google rivalry converged, whipping the tech media into a frenzy.
For one, a new entrant in the race to dress people in computers seemed a sign that sartorial electronics might become commercial sooner rather than later. Meanwhile, the China Daily USA, the country’s state-run international press, hailed Baidu’s reported foray into wearable computing as “the latest effort by a Chinese company to follow the lead of US tech giants,” though it didn’t report the news in Chinese.
As everyone following this news now knows, some of that turned out to be untrue. But a lot of it didn’t.
LCD, image recognition, Mandarin-language voice control technology, bone-conduction audio—all of the product specs turned out to be pretty accurate, based on Baidu’s subsequent public confirmation of them. Even the working name of the project and the photo above were confirmed (at least that the photo was of Baidu’s office). So Baidu Eye doesn’t seem to be, as Mashable and TechCrunch reported, an April Fool’s Day prank—at least, not on the scale of the Taco Liberty Bell or anything.
That doesn’t necessarily mean Baidu is gearing up to compete with Google Glass, though, says Kaiser Kuo, director of international communications for Baidu. Because the gadget is still in internal testing, it would be “premature at this point to say too much” about commercialization, says Kuo.
But more than fueling speculation about its possible competitive threat to Google, Baidu’s tinkering with an eerily Glass-like device also fed another narrative. The leak supported the view that the Chinese search engine’s modus operandi is ripping things off of Google and other tech companies, a theme that we’ve explored before. “They bit Google’s design sensibilities and maybe now their Glass,” captioned TechHive. Even Chinese commentators saw Baidu Eye as a copy of sorts. “The touchstone of innovation still reverts to Google,” wrote China Economic Times (link in Chinese).
Baidu’s Kuo challenges those assumptions. “Call it what you want, but knowing what I now know about it I’m reasonably confident that it’s no mere ‘ripoff’ of Glass,” he tells Quartz. “It’s not like Google came up with the very concept of eyeglasses-as-head-up-display any more than Motorola came up with the idea of a thin phone you could flip open and talk into. Saw that on Star Trek.”
Tech blog Huxiu, meanwhile, points out that Baidu began experimenting with face-recognition search on its shitu.baidu.com back in 2010 (link in Chinese), around the same time as Google Goggles, the Mountain View company’s first major image-recognition service, debuted.