Messages From the Future: The Fate of Google Glass

Man, time travel sucks. I mean think about it, you know all this stuff- and I mean you really know this stuff, but of course you can’t say, “You’re wrong. And I know, because I’m from the future.”

So you pretend like its just your opinion and then sit there grinding your teeth while everyone else bloviates their opinions without actually knowing anything. Of course my old friends hate me. I mean I was always a know-it-all, but I really do know it all this time, which must make me seem even worse.

Anyway I was catching up on current events and was surprised to realize that I had arrived here smack dab before Google started selling Glass.

Truth is, I’d actually forgotten about Google Glass until I read that they are about to launch it again. Which itself should tell you something about its impact on the future.

So here’s the deal on Google Glass. At least as far as I know – what with my being from the future and all.

It flopped.

Nobody bought it.

sergeyOh sure they sold SOME. Ultimately Google Glass got used mostly by very specialized workers who typically operated in solitary and didn’t have to interact with other humans. Of the general public, there were a few geeks, opportunistic future-seekers and silicon valley wannabes, who bought them to keep up with developments or hoping to look as “cool” as Sergey did when he was famously photographed sitting on the subway (some PR guy later admitted that the whole “I’m just a normal guy slumming on the subway looking like some hipster cyborg” thing was just an orchestrated Glass marketing ploy arranged by Googles PR firm) but they didn’t. That’s because none of those geeks were young, mincingly-manicured-to-appear-casually-hip, billionaires. No. They just looked overtly dorky and as I recall, slightly desperate for the smug rub off that comes with publicly flashing a “cool” new product. But that didn’t happen for them. Quite the opposite.

Glass just smacked of the old I’m-an-important-technical-guy-armor syndrome. The 90’s cellphone belt holster. The 00’s blinky blue bluetooth headset that guys left in their ears blinking away even while not in use. And then Google Glass.

The whole “I’m just a normal guy slumming on the subway looking like some hipster cyborg” thing was just an orchestrated Glass marketing ploy arranged by Google’s PR firm.

You know, sometimes you see a new innovation and it so upsets the world’s expectations, it’s such a brilliant non sequitur, that you can’t imagine the events that must have lead to such an invention. You wonder what the story was. The iPhone was one of those.

But Google Glass was so mis-timed and straightforward – the exact conversations that lead to it seemed transparent. In hindsight, they were just trying too hard, too early, to force something that they hoped would be a big idea – and eventually would be, if only a little over a decade later, by someone else.

Here’s the scene:

Sergey and his hand-picked team sit in a super secret, man cave romper room on the Google Plex campus. Then Sergey, doing his best to pick up the magician’s torch as an imagined version of Steve Jobs says:

“As we have long discussed, the day will come when no one will hold a device in their hand. The whole handheld paradigm will seem old and archaic. And I want Google to be the company that makes it happen – now. We need to change everything. I want to blow past every consumer device out there with the first persistent augmented reality solution. The iPhone will be a distant memory. Money is no object, how do we do it?”

And then within 10 minutes of brainstorming (if even), of which 8 mostly involved a geek-speak top-lining of the impracticality of implants, bioware and direct neural interfaces, someone on the team stands with a self-satisfied twinkle of entitlement in his eye stemming from his too good to be true ticket to Google’s billion-dollar playground wonder-world which he secretly fears is little more than the result of his having been in the right place at the right time and might rather be more imaginatively wielded by half a dozen brilliant teenagers scattered throughout that very neighborhood, let alone the globe, says:

“We can do this, think about it. We need to give the user access to visual content, right? And audio. And our solution must receive voice commands. So the platform that would carry all that must naturally exist close to each of the relevant senses – somewhere on the head. And that platform – already exists. (murmurs around the room) Ready? Wait for it… a HAT!”

A sniff is heard.

A guy wearing a t-shirt with numbers on it says: “…Augmented Reality …Hat?”

And then someone else, who is slightly closer to being worthy of his access to the Google moneybags-action playset, says, “No, not a hat… Glasses! Think about it – glasses have been in the public consciousness forever as a device for seeing clearly, right? Well, enter Google, with glasses… that let you see everything clearly, more… clearly.”

Everyone in the room nods and smiles. Even obvious ideas can carry a certain excitement when you happen to experience their moment of ideation. This effect of course must be especially pronounced when you’ve passed through a recruitment process that inordinately reveres academic measures of intelligence.

Either that, or it was just Sergey’s idea from the shower that morning.

In any event, the iPhone was such a truly disruptive idea that one cannot as easily pick apart the thought process that lead to it. Too many moving parts. Too much was innovative.

But Glass was a simple idea. Not simple in a good way, like it solved a problem in a zen, effortless way. No, simple like the initial idea was not much of a leap and yet they still didn’t consider everything they needed to.

What didn’t they consider?

Well having seen it all play out, I’d say: Real people – real life. I think what Google completely missed, developing Glass in their private, billion dollar bouncy-house laboratory, were some basic realities that would ultimately limit adoption of Glass’ persistent access to technology: factors related to humanity and culture, real-world relationships, social settings and pressures, and unspoken etiquette.

Oh and one other bit of obviousness. Sex. And I mean the real kind, with another person’s actual living body – two real people who spend a lot of money to look good.

But I guess I get why these, of all über geeks missed that.

While admittedly, sunglasses have found a long-time, hard-earned place in the world of fashion as a “cool” accessory when well appointed and on trend, in hindsight, Google glass should not have expected to leap across the fashion chasm so easily.  There are good reasons people spend umpteen fortunes on contact lenses and corrective eye surgeries. Corrective glasses, while being a practical pain in the ass also effectively serve to make the largest swath of the population less attractive.

Throughout history, glasses have been employed predominantly as the defacto symbol of unattractiveness, of loserdom. They are the iconic tipping point between cool and uncool. The thin line separating the Clark Kents from the Supermen. Countless young ugly ducklings of cinema needed only remove that awkward face gear to become the stunning beauty, the glassless romantic lead. How many make-over shows ADD a pair of glasses?

Throughout history, glasses have been employed predominantly as the defacto symbol of unattractiveness, of loserdom. They are the iconic tipping point between cool and uncool. The thin line separating the Clark Kents from the Supermen.

Sure, there are a few fetishists out there, but for every lover of glasses wearing geekery, there are a thousand more who prefer their prospective mates unadorned.

Leave it to a bunch of Halo-playing, Dorito-eating engineers to voluntarily ignore that basic cultural bias. And worse, to maybe think all they had to do was wear them themselves to make them cool somehow.

“But didn’t you SEE Sergey on the subway?” You ask. “He looked cool.”

Well, Sergey had indeed been styled by someone with taste and has been valiantly strutting his little heart out on the PR runway in an obviously desperate effort to infuse some residual “billionaires wear them” fashion credibility into his face contraption.

But look at that picture again, he also looked alone, and sad.

And to think Google Glass was a really good idea, you sort of had to be a loner. A slightly sad, insecure, misfit. Typically riding the train with no one to talk to. Incidentally, later- before Facebook died, Facebook Graph showed that Glass wearers didn’t have many friends. Not the kind they could hug or have a beer or shop with.

And to think Google Glass was a really good idea, you sort of had to be a loner. A slightly sad, insecure, misfit. Typically riding the train with no one to talk to.

Wearing Google Glass made users feel like they didn’t have to connect with the actual humans around them. “I’m elsewhere – even though I appear to be staring right at you.” Frankly the people who wore Google Glass were afraid of the people around them. And Glass gave them a strange transparent hiding place. A self-centered context for suffering through normal moments of uncomfortable close proximity. Does it matter that everyone around you is more uncomfortable for it?

At least with a hand-held phone there was no charade. The very presence of the device in hand, head down, was a clear flag alerting bystanders to the momentary disconnect. “At the moment, I’m not paying attention to you.”

But in it’s utterly elitist privacy, Google Glass offered none of that body language. Which revealed other problems.

At least with a hand-held phone there was no charade. The very presence of the device in hand, head down, was a clear flag alerting bystanders to the momentary disconnect. “At the moment, I’m not paying attention to you.”

But in it’s utterly elitist privacy, Google Glass offered none of that body language.

In the same way that the introduction of cellphone headsets made a previous generation of users on the street sound like that crazy guy who pees on himself as he rants to no one, Google Glass pushed its users past that, occupying all their attention, their body in space be damned – mentally disconnecting them from their physical reality. With Glass, not even their eyes were trustworthy.

Actually, it was commonly joked that Glass users often appeared down right “mentally challenged” as they stared through you trying to work out some glitch that no one else in the world could see. They’d stutter commands and and tap their heads and blink and look around lost and confused.

Glass users often appeared down right “mentally challenged” as they stared right through you trying to work out some glitch that no one else in the world could see. They’d stutter commands and and tap their heads and blink and look around lost and confused.

Suddenly we all realized what poor multi-taskers these people really were.

Any wearer who actually wanted to interact with the real world quickly found they had to keep taking off their Google Glasses and stowing them, or else everyone got mad.

It was simply deemed unacceptable to wear them persistently. And in fact users reported to having been socially pressured to use them quite a lot as they had previously used their phones. Pulling them out as needed. Which utterly defeated the purpose. On some level – that’s what broke Google Glass. It wasn’t what it was supposed to be. It wasn’t persistent. It was more cumbersome and socially uncomfortable than the previous paradigm.

People who left them on in social situations were openly called “glassholes”.

People who left them on in social situations were openly called “glassholes”.

They were smirked at, and laughed at walking down the street. I know because I did it too.

There were lots of news reports about people who got punched for wearing them in public. In fact, anecdotally, there were more news reports about people getting beat up for wearing Google Glass in public than I actually saw on the street wearing them. The court of public opinion immediately sided on the position that Google Glass was little more than some random stranger shoving a camera in your face. Other people stopped talking to wearers until they took them off. They didn’t even want it on top of their heads.

In hind sight it was pretty quickly clear Google Glass wasn’t going to be a revolution.

I read an interview somewhere (years from now) that someone on the Google team had admitted that they more than once asked themselves if they were on the right track – but that the sentiment on the team was that they were doing something new. Like Steve Jobs would have done. Steve Jobs couldn’t have known he was on the right track any more than they did – so they pushed forward.

Except that I think Steve Jobs sort of did know better. Or rather, he was better connected to the real world than the boys at Google’s Richie Rich Malibu Dream Labs were. Less dorky and introverted, basically.

The problem with innovation is that all the pieces need to be in place. Good ideas and good motivation can be mistimed. Usually is. That’s all Google Glass was. Like so many reasonable intentions it was just too early. Selling digital music didn’t work until everything was in place – iPods and iTunes were readily available and insanely easy to sync. HDTV didn’t hit until content and economics permitted. And the world didn’t want persistent augmented reality when Google created Glass.

All the above disclosed, Augmented Reality is still indeed your future. It’s just that when it finally comes, well, when it happened, it didn’t look like Google Glass.

Like, at all.

And I know, because I’m from the future.

38 Comments Messages From the Future: The Fate of Google Glass

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