Google will stop consumer sales of Google Glass on Monday as it attempts to redesign the much-maligned wearable computer and turn it into something the public might actually use.
Glass has been a persistent marketing headache for Google — anxiety surrounded the device even before its small-scale public debut in 2013. Cynicism seemed to peak last spring, with bars banning it and detractors deriding it as the perfect symbol of San Francisco class conflict, prompting Google to publish both a list of “Top 10 Google Glass Myths” and a user etiquette guide.
It turns out consumers were unprepared to wear computers on their faces, a persistent layer of technology between users and the real world.
To bridge that divide, oversight of a rebooted Glass will now fall to Tony Fadell, the CEO of smart-home device maker Nest Labs, which Google acquired last year. Fadell has already three times in his career turned nascent technologies into must-buys, first as senior vice president on the iPod and iPhone at Apple and then at Nest, turning mundane appliances like thermostats into sleek objects of technological fetish.
Google first released Glass to so-called Glass Explorers who were willing to pay $1,500 to test the device — and submit an application essay explaining why they were worthy. The Explorer program expanded to the broader public in April, but sales were notably weak.
Conceptually, Glass presented a greater leap than smartphones or smart watches. Its futuristic look was reminiscent of “The Jetsons,” leading the New York Times to refer to Glass as “science-fiction spectacles.”
Glass was also daunted by the sentiment that it was ushering in the age of the surveillance state due to fears users could covertly record video.
But perhaps the biggest problem: People just weren’t really quite sure how or why to use it.
J.P. Gownder, a Forrester Research analyst, summed it up: “You heard a lot of bad things about it, but you rarely ever saw one.”
Janet Vertesi, a sociologist who studies technology at Princeton University, said that the main hurdle in driving Glass adoption is that objections to Glass are less about what using it is like and more about what it’s like to be around someone who is using it.
“It is a very invasive device,” she said. Last year, half of U.S. online adults said Google Glass gave them privacy concerns, according to a Forrester Research survey.
“One of the pitfalls of Silicon Valley is that it tends to only think of the user. Glass is a classic example — Google thought of the user but not of how Glass would work in different social situations,” said Vertesi. “This becomes more and more important as technology only becomes more social.”
‘Plaything for urban rich’
The reaction to Glass is not without precedent.
The Walkman may have been the first mobile device to attract criticism for promoting isolation, detachment and rude behavior — prompting the emergence of the term “the Walkmen Effect” in the 1980s to describe users of the device (much along the lines of the term “Glasshole” as shorthand for Google Glass users).
The early automobile is also a striking parallel.
“It was a plaything for urban rich,” said Marie Hicks, a historian of technology at the Illinois Institute of Technology. “They would put on their goggles and driving gloves and drive out to the country, where they would frighten livestock and even maim people and animals.”
Glass, said Hicks, has been viewed largely the same way.
“One of the biggest problems with Glass was the class warfare aspect of it,” she said. “The way Google rolled it out heightened it. All of the sudden the tech elite had this new tool of surveillance to use on everyone else.”
Hicks said that rather than just appeal to tech-savvy early adopters, Google made a critical mistake in trying to expand too quickly. “There was never a time in which an extreme technology became immediately mainstream,” she said. “It seems like Google tried to skip a step.”
Google tried to court mainstream consumers — and give the face computer something of a cool factor — by partnering with designers including Diane von Fürstenberg and eyeglass giant Luxottica.
One demographic of customers that Google did win over was the medical industry, where experimental uses include allowing doctors to quickly look up unfamiliar medical terms or remotely record patients’ medical conditions and transmit that information.
Available to businesses
As it works on the new model, Google will continue to sell the product to business customers.
Questions remain about whether Glass — and even the field of wearable computers — will ever win over the consumer market.
The day before Google’s announcement, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who himself invested heavily in wearable computing with the purchase of virtual reality startup Oculus VR, said that technologies like Glass are still 10 to 15 years off from achieving ubiquity.
“I think it’s pretty easy to imagine that in the future we will have something that we can wear,” he said. “It will look just like normal glasses — it won’t look weird like some of the stuff that exists today.”