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January 16th, 2015

Google Glass Was Not A Failure

The troubled Explorer program may have been invaluable to Google.

Sometimes an idea needs to die so it can live again. It is the nature of the phoenix, an inevitable step in the process of innovation.

Google Glass as we know it will meet its fate and shuffle off this mortal coil.

The smart eyewear introduced by Google two years ago is coming to an end. Google Glass has been available in beta since early 2013 to an “Explorer” program of early adopters willing to be part of a social and technological experiment. Google announced that Glass will exit the Google(x) research sector and become a division of its consumer gadgets division, reporting to Nest founder Tony Fadell.

As such, the Glass Explorer program will be shut down as of January 19th and the Glass team will work to create the next version of computers for your face.

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Many people will relish the death of the Glass program. Over the past two years, Google Glass has become the symbol of the over-connected mirage of techno-utopia that is espoused in San Francisco and Silicon Valley, the definition of technological hubris and lack of societal awareness. If you are in the business of technology, there is a good chance you have met a variety of “Glassholes” in the last two years.

“The Google Glass feature that (almost) no one is talking about is the experience – not of the user, but of everyone other than the user,” wrote Creative Good founder Mark Hurst in February 2013.

The anti-Google crowd will see this announcement as a failure of Glass and a renunciation of the wearable movement. To do so is a mistake, showing a profound misunderstanding of what the Glass program set out to do.

Glass wearing Google co-founder Sergey Brin talks to Sundar Pichai at I/O 2013.

Glass wearing Google co-founder Sergey Brin talks to Sundar Pichai at I/O 2013.

So let’s get one thing straight: Google Glass was never supposed to succeed as a paragon of the next era of technology and consumer electronics. Glass was never intended as a gadget for the masses or a product that anybody could pick up at a local Best Buy.

Google Glass was not a failure.

Glass was dorky and awkward. The device attracted attention—often unwanted—and identified the wearer as an adherent to a very specific societal tribe. Glass was never perfect, but it was never intended to be.

If Google had ever intended Glass to be a popular consumer product, it would not have kept the price at $1,500 through the life of the Explorer program. After all, Glass only cost $152.47 to make, according to a May, 2014 breakdown by research firm IHS. The Glass Explorer program was initially only open to a select group of people and attendees of Google I/O 2012 that registered for the device. Google eventually opened up the Explorer program to anyone willing to spend the $1,500 that was, by Google’s admission, a beta device and a prototype.

“We kept on it, and when it started to come together, we began the Glass Explorer Program as a kind of ‘open beta’ to hear what people had to say,” said the Glass account on Google+.

Why keep the price at $1,500 for Glass if it was about as expensive to make as the original Nexus 7 tablet that sold for $199? Because Google did not want—did not need—Glass to be popular. It needed to test the viability of the technology, the societal response, the psychology individual use and behavior.

Google was very careful never to fully explain the purpose of Glass. Google never fully said that Glass was a solution for anything (which was especially true when the topic of prescription Glass lenses came up).

fred_glasshole

The Glass Explorer program was essentially an experiment where Google said, “let’s put a computer display and a camera on people’s faces and see what happens.”

Well, what happened?

Glassholes happened. Backlash happened, as when people were assaulted for wearing Glass in San Francisco. One man was even reportedly treated for Google Glass addiction (he also may have been an alcoholic). In many ways, Google experienced failure with Glass and the vitriol against the device must have taken some people at the company by surprise.

As Google will readily point out, some fairly amazing things were done with Glass as well, starting with its stunning introduction where a man jumped from a plane during the Google I/O keynote. The benefits of having a computer on your face a camera, the ability to access all the world’s information and perform aspects of augmented reality are obvious. Google will continue the Glass at Work program, for instance.

In the end, the Explorer program should have been extremely beneficial to how Google understands the next evolution of human-computer interaction and the role of technology in society. Google also probably learned a bit about hardware design and aesthetics and how important that is to the perception of a product and the person that carries (or wears) it. Google experienced a wake up call with Glass and its two-year journey with the Explorer program gives it valuable feedback as it extends its efforts into all aspects of computing in the near and long-term future.

glass_io13

The fact that Glass will now live under the supervision of Tony Fadell tells us a lot about the lessons Google learned. Nest—the smart thermostat company that Google acquired in 2014—faces many of the same issues as Glass. Nest is useful but people are worried about privacy and how invasive it could be. The same could be said of Google’s efforts to build robots or self-driving cars or software that runs everything in people’s homes, cars and offices.

The same societal reaction and personal interaction that people had with Glass encompasses the education that Google needs as all the world’s gadgets and appliances come online.

In this, Glass was not a miscarriage of a technological dream, but an important step into the future.

All images by Dan Rowinski.