Google Glass has always been a solution in search of a problem. Now, for Google, it has become a problem in its own right.
The latest bad news for Google’s dreams of putting a computer on every face came on Friday, when Reuters reported that the company no longer plans to release its smart glasses to the public in 2014. At this point, it has no official timetable for a consumer launch.
Google insists it remains committed to the project. A company blog post on Monday celebrated the debut of the 100th app for Glass. And spokeswoman Anna Richardson White told me the device will be released “when it’s ready.”
That’s an admirable stance, in theory. Building high-tech hardware is never easy, and it’s generally better to take your time and get it right than to push out a flawed product. Perhaps Google will surprise us all with a successful launch next year, or the year after.
But for a tech company that has always been more interested in software than hardware—and, I’d imagine, more interested in shooting for the moon than dragging a dubious product the last mile—there might be a better option: Pull back from Glass, and let someone else finish building it.
That might sound like a drastic step. The problem is, after a whiplash-inducing rollercoaster of hype and backlash, it’s no longer clear that time is on Google’s side. When Reuters interviewed 16 companies that have built apps for Glass, nine said they “had stopped work on their projects or abandoned them, mostly because of the lack of customers or limitations of the device.” Three others said they’ve given up on making Glass software for the consumer market, focusing instead on specific business applications. Twitter pulled its Glass app in October.
That’s quite a reversal: As recently as May, Google was touting Glass as its next big thing, holding press demos to show off the latest apps and announcing a new line of frames designed by fashion luminary Diane von Fürstenberg. But even then it was battling headwinds, including the “Glasshole” backlash against a device that was widely perceived as geeky, elitist, and creepy all at once.
So what went wrong? In hindsight, it’s easy to blame Google for tone-deaf marketing. It announced the device with much ballyhoo in 2012, setting off waves of hype, only to keep it largely under wraps for months afterward. When it did release a prototype, it made it available only to app developers and other tech-industry insiders. Surprise: Socially awkward white males turned out not to be the ideal brand ambassadors. When Google finally invited members of the public to apply for a chance to pay $1,500 for Glass, that backfired too.
But the problem with Google Glass was never just its image. Note that the makers of the Oculus Rift virtual-reality headset have followed a similar strategy, beta-testing the device for years to work out the kinks before any official launch. I haven’t heard a lot of complaints about Rift-holes (so far, anyway).
Rather, Glass’ problem is that the technology today simply doesn’t offer anything that average people really want, let alone need, in their everyday lives. At some point in the future, it might. But not anytime soon.
That’s not surprising when you consider how “Project Glass” originated—not as an idea for a new consumer product, but as an extension of a professor’s academic research. Glass was in large part the brainchild of Georgia Tech’s Thad Starner, a wearable-computing pioneer who had been tinkering with augmented-reality prototypes for two decades—and proudly wearing them on his face.
Starner emailed Google co-founder Sergey Brin in 2010 to update him on his progress, and the company was sufficiently impressed by the demo to bring him on board, along with several members of his Georgia Tech team. They set up the team at Google X, the company’s semisecret research lab for wild and speculative endeavors.
Project Glass was an attempt to answer the question: What might a consumer augmented-reality device look like, and how would one use it? It was, in short, an experiment. And, as often happens with experiments, the results forced the researchers to modify their hypotheses.
The original hypothesis was that Glass could work like a set of “Terminator glasses,” overlaying the wearer’s field of vision with real-time information about his surroundings. The first promotional videos played up this science-fictiony angle, showing a Glass user receiving timely notifications about the weather when he looked out the window; subway delays when he approached the entrance to the 6 train; and the location of the music section when he walked into a bookstore.
It soon became clear, however, that the device would not work that seamlessly. Walking around with the camera on, processing everything it sees and continually pulling up relevant information, would require a far larger battery, not to mention better image-recognition capabilities and a lot of cellular data.
And so Google quietly stopped talking about augmented reality and started talking about the convenience of checking your text messages, snapping a photo, or pulling up a search result without having to reach for your phone. (Fumbling with a smartphone, Brin insisted, was “emasculating.’)
But if the prototype’s $1,500 price tag seemed palatable for an early glimpse into humanity’s sci-fi future, it felt like an awful lot to pay for a wearable smartphone accessory. If anything, my experiences with Glass taught me that smartphones weren’t so bad after all. Reaching into your pocket might not be ideal, but it’s a lot easier than constantly craning your neck or fiddling with your glasses frames, only to have Glass mishear your instructions half the time.
It wouldn’t be quite fair to label Glass a failure as a consumer product before it has even launched. The idea of smart glasses still holds promise, especially in specialized settings, like a commercial kitchen or an operating room.
What we can say at this point is that Google has not built the next smartphone, or even the next smartwatch. The world at large isn’t ready for face-computers. More importantly, face-computers aren’t ready for the world at large—and they probably won’t be in the foreseeable future.
At this point, Google could be forgiven for pulling the plug on Glass altogether. It looks like the company isn’t letting go that easily—which is understandable, given all that the company has invested in it. Instead, it’s quietly pivoting the product once again. This time, it may finally be on the right track.
Based on the team’s recent hires and partnerships, the next phase for Glass appears to be twofold. One is marketing Glass to techies and rich people, not as the next smartphone, but simply as a high-tech add-on to your fashion eyewear. Google’s partnership with the likes of DVF and Luxottica hints at a future in which Google software powers “smart glasses” that are designed, built, marketed, and distributed by third parties that specialize in eyewear.
That could allow Google to gracefully withdraw itself from the hardware side of the equation, as it has largely done with phones and tablets, while still providing an operating system that works on multiple different companies’ devices. Google had to build Glass in order to figure out what works in terms of smart-glasses software. Why not offload the hardware problems and focus on optimizing Android for other people’s eyewear?
The second half of Glass’ future may lie in the realm of enterprise applications. Google’s smart-glasses were always better suited for trained professionals who need information on the fly but are busy doing other things with their hands. It’s here that Glass—or something like it—might at last find the rather narrow problems to which it is the optimal solution.
Arguably, Google should have focused on enterprise applications from the very start. Perhaps it got carried away with the idea of building the next iPhone and missed its chance to build something more modest and practical.
Then again, maybe getting carried away isn’t such a bad thing. Remember, Google X’s reason for being is the “moonshot”: the crazy idea that just might be closer to reality than we all thought. In the case of Glass, it appears to have overshot the mark.
Google could keep riding its smart glasses until they crash and burn. But the wiser course would be to turn it around and land it somewhere closer to home. Better yet, hand over the keys to companies whose primary business involves making eyewear or enterprise hardware—and then get to work on the next moonshot.