Amidst the lightning rollout of fashionable, utilitarian merchandise, we think some products emerge out of the ether into our hands in the blink of an eye. This is no deception – it’s a kind of magic. Experimentation is a requisite for any successful product deployment. All the same, evolution is often out of reach or hidden behind the scenes.
Since 2010, Google (GOOG) X, a fairly secretive initiative started by Sebastian Thrun, has attempted to improve life and commodities by a factor of 10, rather than ten percent, through efforts called moonshots. Project Glass was assembled by virtue of these ambitions. Viewed as a vehicle for future technology, the MIT Technology Review comments that “Glass is already miles from where it was in 2011.” In fact, the invention, which was merely a shot in the dark, has taken on an afterlife of its own.
Google Glass isn’t coming to save the world, just help it. In fact, the central dispute among members of Google X is whether Glass should be used as a “fashionable device” all the time or “only for specific utilitarian functions.” Drawing inspiration from John F. Kennedy’s understanding that bigger challenges create more passion, specifically in regards to the space race, Google development ultimately strove to integrate feedback into its system.
To do this, Google co-founder Sergey Brin, who also oversees Google X, suggested Glass be treated as a finished product, despite everyone in the lab knowing it was “a prototype, with major kinks to be worked out.” Brin wanted to release Glass to the public and have consumers provide feedback that X could then use to improve the design.
The Glass prototype was released early as a result, with the intention of being more forward-looking than expressly convenient. Tim Brown, CEO and president of IDEO, feels the effort was not in vain, stating, “There has never in the history of new technology been an example where the first version out of the gate has been the right version.”
Ultimately, although consumers want functional gear, the functionality needs to be palatable. As Slate notes, “Glass’ problem is that the technology today simply doesn’t offer anything that average people really want, let alone need, in their everyday lives.” Glass is an interesting idea: it is nice to look at, but not through.
Google originally advertised Glass in terms of experience augmentation. The 2012 demo reel featured skydiving, biking as well as wall scaling. Eventually, the videos showed user-friendly information instantaneously appearing on screen during everyday activities. Google’s aspirations were lofty: the technology required lengthy battery life, improved image-recognition capabilities, and a lot of data.
Rather than augment reality, Glass simply supplemented it. The two to three-hour battery life enabled users to check messages, view photos and search the Internet. Glass was competing with other devices that boasted superior cameras, larger capacity, and faster processors.
With Glass’s questionable value came many questions. Would users be comfortable wearing a camera around their faces every day? As the MIT Technology Review points out, “no one could understand why you’d want to have that thing on your face, in the way of normal social interaction.” Others were less comfortable being on the other side of the Glass. Some bars and restaurants barred wearers entry; several simply banned the device altogether. The device’s outrageous valuation and creepy hazards even led to the creation of a brand-new pejorative.
Furthermore, the device retailed for $1,500 and didn’t do any single action especially well, which is why those who could afford Glass were content with cutting-edge smartphones. In pricing Glass highly and limiting access to a specific community of Glass Explorers, Google simply emphasized division “between the haves and have-nots.” People spend egregious sums on luxury items, but they find value with identity. Google Glass seems to be lacking in the department. Superficially, yet crucially, the device isn’t cool.
Google then tried to associate the product with fashion designers. Glass was featured during Fashion Week and in relevant advertisements. In other words, the company tried to buy coolness. However, the coolness associated with an invention assumes the element of faith – the brand is trustworthy. The Harvard Business Review puts it best: “Cool is not an equation. It’s mysterious, ineffable. An art, not a science.” Art isn’t easy in technology.
The Bottom Line
Google became caught up in the storm of its own making when it marketed Glass. The company wanted to capitalize on the hype, hope, and potential of the product instead of selling the reality. Rather than promoting the product as “a prototype technology from the future” as initially intended, “the promotion and high price of Glass simply gave it the allure of a super-premium product.”
Glass is not meant for mass consumption––not in this moment. Google is both behind the times and ahead of them. Nevertheless, Project Glass is a moonshot worth taking, if Google can stick the landing.