The Year, and the Future, of Google Glass

2014-07-21 17.01.16After a year in the Google Glass trenches, the future of the platform is getting sharper. It’s not fun, it’s not fashionable, but it will be fundamental.

This November marked my one-year anniversary as a Glasshole. I came for the hardware, but I stayed for the bizarre new perspective on tech and society. Here are five observations about Glass, wearables, and the future of tech that I’ve gained from being a diehard Glasshole in 2014.

1. Wearables are not mass-market products.

When you wear Glass, people randomly start conversations with you. I found that I could sort them neatly into two buckets – people who see an immediate need for Glass, and people who think it’s worthless. There’s no middle ground.

Generally, white-collar guys in high-pressure jobs – lawyers, surgeons, IT technicians, students – immediately grokked it. They had use-cases and wish lists ready to go. Nearly everyone else asked why I couldn’t just use my phone. After all, it’s not that big a deal to pull out your phone to type replies and take pictures.

There is a subclass of high performers, who take a job, task, or hobby seriously. They work hard to make fewer mistakes, avoid more distractions, and be better informed. These guys are the only ones who get real-world value from wearables. I truly believe that every attempt to aim wearables at the mass market will fail – the average Joe already gets everything he wants through a smartphone.

2. Developers rule everything around me.

The differences between being a Glass user and being a Glass developer are insane. Glass is life-changing if you can write apps, and nearly worthless if you can’t.

Within months of getting Glass, I wrote myself a dozen superpowers. I could add to-do items and calendar events mid-conversation. I could read QR codes, set timers, recognize art, find CitiBikes, and seek people out at conferences. Glass has a great UI toolkit and inherently minimal app architecture, and building new apps is a pleasure.

I found that most Glass owners had no ability, or intention, to program. They waited for Google and third parties to make Glass useful, and they were mostly disappointed. Mirror apps were clunky notifications, most GDK apps are toys, and Google’s official apps are sparse. A Glass with only approved apps is sad; it doesn’t do much besides pictures, directions, and notifications.

This made me realize that when you can program, you’re not at the mercy of third parties. You don’t think, “what does this hardware do?” You think, “what could this hardware do?” Glass is a way to modify your body and mind, or it’s a GoPro with sunglasses. Too many people rely too much on third parties to provide the tools and powers they need.

3. Technology is not fashion, but they both express style.

When Glass’ DVF “fashion frames” and the prescription frames launched, Google pushed hard to tie Glass to style. It worked, but not the way they intended. I’ve never met a single person who bought Glass because they were stylish. I have met dozens of people who bought Glass and found that they became part of their style.

Technology just isn’t fashionable. I don’t know enough about the sociology and semiotics to explain why, but you just don’t win sexy points by showing off electronics. Glass with mirrored shades aren’t Oakleys, a Casio calculator watch is still cooler than any smartwatch, and a top-of-the-line MacBook is still less of a status symbol than a Louis Vuitton. Beats might be close, but people still take them off when they get into a club.

That said, technology can be stylish. People express themselves, and judge others, by their technology. I found that Glass became part of my identity – and projected it strongly. I didn’t realize how much Glass overlapped with the Google fanboy community – for them, Glass was the ultimate status symbol.

Wearing technology no longer implicitly signals that the wearer is a dork – after using Glass and watching it develop, I’ve observed far more nuanced reactions. For the near future, fashion and technology will remain mutually exclusive, but technology is now a far more effective way to project a consistent personal style.

4. Wearables are solitary.

Most successful new products have been socially oriented. Smartphones are communication tools, optimized for talking and messaging. Tablets are inherently shareable, since you can pass the tablet to a friend or watch a movie together. The rise of curated and one-to-one social media, image messaging, and ‘fast human’ apps like Uber are designed around this. These are innovations for groups, designed to get people together and be used at a dinner table.

Glass is at its strongest when you’re alone. When you’re in a group, voice commands are awkward. In a group, you can also use a phone while others are talking, then show the answer around. With Glass, only you can see the app and you need to relay it like a know-it-all. Even Google itself hints at this with its taglines of ‘being in the moment’. Glass is contemplative technology for people who are interacting primarily with the scenery.

Of course, most people are terrified of solitude. To them, Glass seems alienating and counterproductive. When alone, most people want to be immersed in a phone, both to signal that they do in fact have friends, and to distract themselves. To many people, solitude implies loneliness, which taints their opinion of Glass and, at worst, its wearers.

Glass is a bit of a keep-out signal; you’re literally putting up a block between your eyes and others. If you’re not wearing Glass for a professional reason, it takes some balls to use it in public. Most of the time, it signals that you’re deliberately alone, and that you’re OK with that. The strongest wearable apps and devices will be designed around activities where solitude is an upside – running, commuting, technical work, and academics.

5. Glass is not dying.

I’m kind of baffled how abruptly this meme started. People act like Google has already cancelled Glass. As a guy on the inside, I don’t see enough signs that this is a foregone conclusion.

Google still provides phone support, still sends replacement units, still handles developer questions, and still updates its SDK. They’re still approving Glassware, still signing Glass@Work partners, and still cutting deals with hardware manufacturers. Their internal team still seems largely intact.

That said, Glass’ PR has vanished. They closed the Glass studios, reassigned the Glass Guides, stopped the #throughglass videos, ended the catered events, and de-emphasized it at the I/O conference.

I see this as a strategic shift, not an abandonment, to recover from many missteps early in the public Glass program. The glass-brick presale, the #ifihadglass campaign, the weak Mirror API, and the sketchy road-to-market got way too few developers building way too few apps. The splash damage of San Francisco’s yuppie backlash and the Snowden leaks blasted Glass further. Google misdiagnosed doubts of Glass’ utility as criticism of its fashionability, and aimed in the wrong direction with its #throughglass lifestyle campaign and Diane Von Furstenberg collaborations.

This implies bad targeting and worse timing, not a bad product at all. Google has clearly thrown massive strategic and resource weight behind Android Wear, sensor wearables, cross-device UX, Google Apps for enterprise, and austere ‘material’ design. I see Glass moving back into the Google[X] skunk works and being relaunched as an Android Wear alternative for extreme power users.

Early in the program, Glass was an empowering human-enhancement product. Google made a deliberate decision to reposition it as a fashionable lifestyle product, and this definitively backfired. I believe that the overachieving academics and diehard engineers who spearheaded Glass are regaining control from the wishy-washy marketing types who co-opted it. The future of Glass is not friendly, but it is bright.

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