Google's fantastic trip into wearable technology may be on pause right now, but it's still leaps and bounds ahead of the competition.
Three years ago today, Sergey Brin introduced Google Glass with a team of skydivers jumping from a blimp and live-streaming themselves descending from the heavens onto the Moscone West convention center in San Francisco. Sitting in the audience that day, I could feel the electricity in the room as Brin explained what the funny blue thing was strapped to his face. Google Glass had an explosive introduction to the world, and while many suggest this started a hype train that ultimately lead to its downfall, I find myself sitting behind my keyboard wondering what any other company in the world has to offer today that comes even close to what Google has been tinkering with for half a decade now.
The short answer is nothing, and it's unlikely we'll see anything quite like it until the team currently tasked with improving this already incredible device take to the stage again.
An Explorer's View Through Glass
I've been fortunate enough to be one of the few that has used Google Glass since the day Brin and his team leapt from that blimp. (And the following day they showed us how it was all done.) A brief press-only demo at Google I/O later that day allowed a handful of folks to look at a fireworks demonstration through the square prism that now sat just above my eye, and I instantly went from extremely curious to downright obsessed. I wanted to know everything about this technology, and how it would apply to my life. Weeks of conversations with MIT students working on technologically similar projects, app developers who started thinking up ideas immediately after seeing the presentation, and even a few Googlers who were only allowed to whisper behind closed doors about the tech being used fueled this obsession for months. When it was finally time to put the money down and grab Glass for myself, I took the trip to New York and squirmed with excitement the whole way up and back. Purchasing Google Glass was orders of magnitude above Nerd Christmas for me, because I knew it was a glimpse into the future.
I've been called a Glasshole one time, and the guy who said it was trying to get my attention to try the computer for himself.
It's right around this point the negativity started around the technology. The shiny newness had worn off for many in tech media, especially those either unwilling to shell out the $1,500 or unable to get a hold of their unit quite yet. Anything that could be portrayed as even remotely negative became a headline, and the tech sphere adopted a cute nickname for those who wore Glass in public. Sure, seeing a prominent member of the tech world in his shower with nothing but Glass on, or watching as some moron demonstrates all the ways you could conceivably creep on folks with a computer on your face was kinda gross, but with any other technology common sense would have kicked in and it would have become clear these were a minority inside of a minority. With Glass, the negativity continued to build with the hype, either because not enough people in tech media were able to use these devices full time or because headlines that portrayed Glass users as privacy-stealing monsters was easy. Either way, a malignancy grew that the users had no idea how to deal with, and Google was way to slow to address it internally.
To this day, having worn Glass on my face every day for two years straight in both major cities like New York and San Francisco as well as back home in Maryland, I've only been called a Glasshole once. It was at a gas station, and the guy who said it was trying to get my attention to try the computer for himself. I don't personally know a single Glass user who has a story different from mine, where folks ask what the computer is and then stare in amazement as I hand them the device and let them try it for themselves. The vast majority of Glass experiences in person have always been incredibly positive, and anyone who asked questions like "are you recording me right now" were quickly calmed once the tech was explained.
Even outside of those personal environments, Glass typically was received with warmth. When I sat down down at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C., to check out an interactive Hockey app for Glass called Skybox, APX Labs CTO Jay Kim explained that it was a rarity that someone turned down the opportunity to try Glass out of privacy concerns. This was a company asking total strangers to wear a computer on their face during a Capital's game, and in doing so found that many users were beyond excited at the opportunity to be more involved in the game by having the stats and replays on their eye instead of in their hand. Based on the experience of nearly everyone I have spoken to over the last three years, the rhetoric spilled about Glass making most people uncomfortable is a myth at best, and deliberately disingenuous at worst.
Glass itself is reasonably far from perfect. The processor was outdated, the battery wasn't always enough for a full day of use, and the camera was barely worth using in perfect conditions. Google also pushed away several promising developers early on for doing things the team didn't initially approve of, only to do less interesting versions of that same thing later on. The company nailed the initial presentation, and did a phenomenal job introducing new users to the technology at the Base Camps they set up around the U.S., but when it came to communicating with the community in a non-technical sense, Google failed in several major ways. Had Google adopted a social responsibility for this product as they sent it out into the world with these random ambassadors, things would probably be quite different today.
Today I usually avoid wearing Glass, but that decision has a lot more to do with hardware preservation than the comfort of those around me. Google never fully addressed a critical weakness in the design for Glass, the foil on the glass prism that made the display function correctly. If the foil becomes damaged, the display becomes useless. I've had to replace my Glass unit four times due to foil damage, and with Google currently silent about the future of the platform I decided to put mine in its case and keep it safe. I frequently find myself wishing I was still wearing it on a regular basis, though. The ease with which I could get turn by turn navigation in the car, the convenience of sliding some earbuds for listening to music, and the timeline-style notification system that Android Wear has abandoned and Pebble Time seems to have adopted are all things I frequently miss.
Zero competition in the face wearable space
Perhaps the most frustrating part of having used Google Glass for so long is the complete lack of a competing product. There are no products out there today that allow me to get notifications and directions at a glance in a way that I can comfortably wear all day, despite Glass having been in the wild for years and several attempts at competition having been announced. Epson, who has been doing interesting things in this space for years, has turned almost entirely to Enterprise verticals for their products. Recon Instruments recently started shipping the Jet, but it's barely functional as an awkward fitness accessory, and its creators have repeatedly said they have no intention of competing with Google Glass, despite having been perfectly happy to use that angle to help crowdfund their hardware in the first place. Sony, Microsoft, and Samsung are all focusing on huge headsets that are used for short bursts of time, usually for entertainment. That's not to say these aren't great products in their own right, but it highlights just how much closer Google was to a complete thought than the rest of the companies working in this space.
Glass was never meant to be a consumer-facing product in the state it was in when Brin's team jumped out of that blimp.
The closest thing you get to whispers of actual Google Glass competition nowadays comes from the likes of Epiphany Eyewear and the Infinity.1 glasses from Six15 Technologies. Both devices exist as regular-ish thick glasses that deliver information to the user in a way that is a lot less visually jarring than Glass. Epiphany Eyewear was recently bought by Snapchat, and has since been silent about what is actually happening with their hardware, but their concept has been out in the world for a while. An LED near your eye to offer simple colors when you have a notification you care about was the original focus here, but Snapchat may take things a bit further in the future. Meanwhile, the folks behind Infinity.1 are focused on business use for the moment, but their purpose-built solutions seem to be the closest thing to a wearable display with a camera that is actually comfortable to wear, which is impressive.
It's also true that Glass was never meant to be a consumer-facing product in the state it was in when Brin first introduced it to us at day at Google I/O, though it took the company a lot longer than it should have to admit this. Google's X lab is all about moonshots, seemingly impossible projects that Google is uniquely position to solve by throwing huge quantities of brains and money at, and that's where Glass was when it was unveiled. It wasn't until after the Glass team was split out from X and given its own set of mandates that things like social responsibility and a huge range of accessories started to come from the project. If the first year hadn't already happened, weirdly public traffic incidents and all, Google might have gotten away with pretending Glass was ready for public consumption long enough to work on a functional version 2.0 in the background, but eventually reality had to catch up.
Eagerly awaiting the next generation
While Google may not be looking for new Glass Explorers, the team and its leadership are far from gone. Nest CEO Tony Fadell took control of the team as it left Google X, and in doing so has made it clear the project is moving forward. This team is going to keep things under wraps, focus on every aspect of the current project and tweak as necessary, and when Google is ready to unveil the next generation you can bet I'll be there once again.
There's still a lot of work to be done, some of it unfortunately social focused due to the damage that has already been done, but there has never been a new technology that didn't meet this kind of resistance at first. In fact, if you look at the way segments of society initially handled cameras being baked in to phones, you'll see the criticism and awkwardness hasn't changed much.
Ultimately, I still believe Glass is the way forward. I think there's plenty of room for folks who have notifications on their eyeballs and folks who want their notifications on their wrists or in their pockets to coexist, and you'll never be able to convince me that constantly glancing at your watch or phone is less disruptive than never breaking eye contact with the person you're speaking with. It's something different, and for better or worse Google is going to do what they do best, throw money and brains at the problem until a solution emerges. I don't know about you, but I'm looking forward to the ride.