Most people who are even slightly technology-aware have heard of Google Glass, the wearable head-mounted display device that Google introduced almost two years ago amid a blizzard of publicity.
Priced at $1500, Google Glass was never intended to be a mass-market product. As of tomorrow, Google Glasses will become collector’s items, because the company announced last week that the product will no longer be available. According to Will Oremus at Slate.com, the press release announcing the news tried to put a positive spin on the situation with phrases like “moving even more from concept to reality.” So the idea of a wearable camera/monitor isn’t dead—just the particular embodiment of it in Google Glass.
I could have told them this was coming, because about a month ago, I finally got to try out a pair. A student of mine had borrowed some from a friend of his in Austin, and was walking around campus letting all and sundry try them on. I wear ordinary glasses, so the fit was somewhat of a problem. But I managed to see the little display, and then the battery ran down, so my experience was very limited. Nevertheless, it was enough for the Stephan Kiss of Technological Death to take place.
More times than I can count, I have tried out a new technology just before it’s about to disappear. We bought a VHS player right after DVDs came out. We got a DVD player about the time BluRay came out. I bought a cellphone with a color screen about the time the iPhone came out. Well, you get the idea. In any market, there are early adopters, then the great mass of people who buy a thing after the early adopters have worked the bugs out, and then late adopters like me who come along after everybody else has dropped a product for the next hot item.
Why wasn’t Google Glass more successful? From a late-adopter point of view, I can tell you one reason: it didn’t promise to do anything for me that was worth $1500 of my money. From the start, I got the sense that a lot of the people buying them were doing it for the same reason that they bought Rolex watches. A Rolex doesn’t keep time any better than a Timex. But a Rolex tells other people you are the kind of person who can afford a Rolex. So Google Glass became a fashion brand for the folks who just couldn’t wait to show up at the office wearing another expensive personal item. I’m a little surprised that nobody came up with an imitation knockoff Google Glass that looked the same as the real thing but wasn’t functional, priced at $99.99. Only it would have been embarrassing for people to come up to you and ask to try them out, and you’d have to tell them sorry, the battery just ran down.
Probably the most useful feature of Google Glass was also the most controversial: the little camera that could record your environment without anyone knowing for sure whether you’re recording or not. Spy cameras have been around for some time, but if they’re designed and placed right, nobody knows about them except for the operator. You see a Google Glass on someone and right away, you knew they could be recording you. It was a little bit like walking around with a 35-mm camera in front of your face all the time. No wonder some people got annoyed. Nevertheless, Oremus reports that the most serious business customers of the technology used the camera feature to capture things like pictures of sides of beef for FDA inspectors, and whether Dr. Whozis left any forceps inside his last gall-bladder-surgery patient. So it’s likely that face-mounted cameras in some form will show up in places where the product or service is pricey enough to justify the expense of whatever comes after Google Glass.
No one can currently beat Google at what they do best, but designing hardware for personal use is very different from the massive Internet-based data crunching that got Google where it is today. Technology geeks in particular tend to be blind to some issues that the general public care about deeply. When Henry Ford first marketed his Model T, he later recalled that he said in 1909, “Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black.” And for many years, Ford beat his competition on price and performance with all-black cars. But as automobiles became more of a commodity, other makers found that they could attract customers away from Ford by offering a variety of paint colors, and Ford eventually had to follow suit.
Engineer and author Henry Petroski likes to say that failure is often more instructive than success. By failure, he usually means things like collapsing bridges, but the failure of a new technology to meet its sales target is still a failure, though of a different and less hazardous kind than the failure of a bridge or a building. In a free market, market failures are inevitable, and it’s not like everybody at Google is now out on the street because they can’t sell any more glasses. In general, wearable technology seems to be the wave of the future in some form, and it’s just a question of what form it will take.
I think Google took on a major challenge by messing around with a person’s face. The face, and particularly the eyes, are where we look first when we meet another person. We have had a few hundred years to get used to the idea of people wearing ordinary glasses. They started out as expensive specialty items too. A graphic on the Fashionisto website says that in the U. S. of the 1700s, a pair of eyeglasses could set you back about $200, which is like about $6,000 today. So regardless of who comes up with the next version of Google Glass technology, they face an uphill battle in getting us used to the idea of having some active technology in the line of sight between soul and soul.
Karl D. Stephan is a professor of electrical engineering at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas. This article has been republished, with permission, from his blog, Engineering Ethics, which is a MercatorNet partner site.