Co.Design

Even Google’s Own Developers Won't Be Seen Wearing Google Glass

Google I/O should be the mecca of Glass. So why is Google burying the news while their own developers opt not to wear the specs?

I was standing in line for this week’s Google I/O keynote when I asked a developer friend if he’d tried Glass yet.

“Oh, I have it right here in my backpack,” he gestured.

“Why aren’t you wearing it?” I asked.

“I’m not going to wear it in public!” he laughed.

San Francisco is a city known for bridges, stylish grit, and a post-5 p.m. chill. But for Google I/O, it has another designation, as a future-peaking microcosm of Glass in the wild. Here, more than anywhere else in the known universe, you have the largest possible cohort of Google employees and deep-pocketed developers who forked over $1,500 to have early access to the future.

And that’s the rub. Because even amongst the largest community of loyalists living within the micro-habitat of I/O, Glass lives as a novelty (or maybe an endangered species?). It’s worn with total self-awareness by select Google employees, and with an elitest smugness by select members of the media. It’s never normal.

Maybe that’s why during the I/O keynote, Glass wasn’t on a single presenter’s face. Not Sundar Pichai (Google’s all-star SVP of Android, Chrome, and Google Apps) nor Google co-founder Larry Page during his Q&A love-in after the presentation. Even Sergey Brin--the company’s own Glass mascot--donned Glass for only part of a mingling session later that day with the press.

“It would be a little weird if every single Google person was wearing Glass,” a spokesperson counters when I inquire about it. Fair enough. But it would be a little weird if most Google figureheads declined to wear it, too!

And it’s a point only made sorer by the fact that there’s been almost no news for Glass at Google I/O at all. A more robust SDK was announced, but it wasn’t accompanied by any razzle dazzle use case. Some apps we all knew about went live, and they look like we’d expected. There was no revelation about availability, and no big reason why we should be more excited about Glass today than we were yesterday. The Glass team isn’t even giving press interviews, I’m told, though they took ~30 minutes of casual questions during a fireside chat.

Why the cone of silence? In its current incarnation, Glass is verging on becoming a Segway for your face. So Google doesn’t want us thinking about Glass any more than necessary.

A Google Streetview

Over the next few days, we grilled everyone we met. Do you own Glass? If so, why aren’t you wearing it?

Those who weren’t wearing Glass generally didn’t own it, I found. That’s fair, as few units have actually been released outside of Mountain View. But most people I spoke to didn’t have Glass, in part by choice, as they never attempted a $1,500 preorder last year.

“It’s cost prohibitive for sure,” one developer told me over the Google sugar rush of morning donuts and juice. “Maybe next year when they give them out!” someone else chimes in. We laugh, and it is a little bit ironic watching them quibble over pricetags, given that they’d each paid $3,000 to sit at this breakfast table.

Making my way around the room, I discovered that table after table of developers were confused about the pre-ordering policies. Was Glass available now? How do you even get it? Think about that: For consumers, those questions make sense. But these are detail-oriented people who stake their livelihood on Google products and minutiae, and they don’t know how to order Google’s next big thing. That’s not true confusion; that’s general lack of interest.

Glass Is A Pass To Google’s Own

But maybe what’s even more telling is how few of Google’s own troops were wearing Glass. Aside from Timothy Jordan, Google’s senior developer advocate and one of the public faces of Glass, no product leads I interviewed across the rest of the company were wearing Glass. (But even he wasn’t giving interviews about Glass at I/O.) Why not?

“That’s a good question,” Android lead designer Matias Duarte responds. "Um, I’ve enjoyed using Glass, but I’ve also found I want to spend as much time as I can living with the tools that people have [today], so I can stay focused on what I’m doing on Android.”

“I’m not wearing Glass today because it’s dead,” Google+ lead designer Fred Gilbert divulges later. “I didn’t charge it. I actually only have an iPhone on me today because I’m testing a new build of something. . . . I like Glass. I like Glass for its video, its photos, its Hangouts. I think there’s a lot of innovation that needs--will be coming that’s going to make it something you’ll want to wear more often.”

I didn’t get the impression that Gilbert had recharged Glass in a while. However, it was true that, for the lucky few with access to Glass who weren’t actively wearing them when we asked, battery woes were the chief culprit. Glass runs for about a day on a charge, but not anywhere near that if you begin filming your life.

And yet, even amongst these practical scapegoats, self-consciousness bleeds through. Developer Danny Shokouhi wasn’t wearing his Glass because “it was raining outside, and I didn’t want them to get wet,” and then he added, laughing, “Obviously, they work in the shower, but…

Google Developer Group organizer (a grassroots, unpaid position) Laurie White told us, “Here [at I/O], I do wear Glass. I don’t wear it elsewhere in my life…I wore it into a restaurant in a non-San-Francisco-type town and it was, like, everybody stares at you.”

Glass, in a sense, has a tendency to look back at you.

In Real Use Case, Anecdotes Matter

Of course most of the relative few independent developers donning Glass were happy to do so, giddy with the buzz of a new toy. But most developers I talked to simply weren’t that interested in the platform, no doubt more taken by the lucrative 900 million Android devices than this futuristic headware.

Meanwhile, people like Laurie White and my developer friend aren’t just one-off outliers. They’re a highly important, cynical contingent who owns Glass--developers who’ve invested early money in the platform, for whom the Glass litmus test is already failing. In its current incarnation, even some geeks won’t wear Glass. And that’s a terrifying precedent for Google.

You can almost sense that Google realizes that Glass is already tanking into the realm of cultural parody, just like the Segway did. And so they’re limiting Glass’s general exposure at I/O to counter the trend--no big news, no mandates for the troops to wear them. Let everyone forget about Glass for a while, then maybe reboot in a few months with a cheaper dev kit, better battery, and a Warby Parker redesign.

Those of us who believe in the future of Glass technology can identify other culprits: We can blame price. We can blame availability. We can blame battery. We can blame the silly aesthetic. We can even blame it on the rain! But imagine if Apple announced their new iPhone, yet almost no one at Cupertino felt the need to carry one. Or imagine if Ford announced a new car, but their execs insisted on biking to work.

If Google’s own cohort doesn’t feel compelled to wear Glass in spite of its perfectly predictable shortcomings, why would they ever expect that the rest of us will?

Additional reporting by Kevin Purdy and Chris Dannen.

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43 Comments

  • devraticus

    As a reader (and a widely published freelancer), I gotta say the "dead" pullquote doesn't work *at all* the way you're telling Ben it does, and I think you must already know this. Not one shred of the jokeyness you mention made it to the actual article, so there's no way a reader can construe the misleading pullquote as anything but manipulative in a very crass way. Glad to hear you found the in-person ambiguity "hilarious" and that you and Google can "laugh it off," but we readers aren't in on the joke, right? Which is whole freakin' point of your job -- to let the reader in on the joke, in the article, not the comment section. Do your job. And please, for God's sake, never use the phrase "lingering symbolic aftertaste" again.

    Mark Wilson wrote:
    "Hey Ben. The quote was hilariously out of context in person! Duarte said
    it in response to my question, and then there was this pause
    (humorously intentional or not, I actually don't know!), and it was
    fairly hilarious for a moment specifically because of its double
    meaning. I laughed--even referenced it--and we moved on. I loved that
    strange, stomach drop feeling I had for a microsecond that left a
    lingering symbolic aftertaste, and I think the pullquote is a means to
    replicate it
    Furthermore, I actually think that, as you don't know
    someone from Google said it in the pullquote (its a realization only
    made in retrospect), it's not lethally weighed. Google can laugh it off.
    So can we."

  • Luke Bockman

    Was this guy even at I/O?? There were plenty of people wearing glass. And why would you wear a product thats not even finally done yet. Google execs have a JOB to do. Who cares if someone spends months preparing for a conference and doesnt obstruct their view or attention by wearing something flashy when they actually would only like to deliver a good presentation. 

  • V900

    The biggest reason why Glass will fail, is not its Segway-nerdy ness.

    The biggest reason it'll fail is Google. And the creepy reputation they're starting to get.

    A few years ago, Google was cool, chic and the epitome of innovative.

    Today that reputation is staring to be heavily tinged with creepy too.

    We have a feeling that Google knows too much about us, we know that Google does what is best for them, and their interests aren't always aligned with ours.

    Google is becoming big brother. A kinder, gentler Big brother for sure, and a big brother who is primarily interested in selling your personal information and data, but still a Big Brother.

    Not really who'd you trust with developing Glass. A device that fundamentally functions as a pervasive surveillance device.

  • ThreeofAKind

    But the younger generation is more than willing to give their information up in exchange for a free service studies show, including email address, phone number and location. I think we're in the older minority as the next generation will start taking over the market. 

  • tz

    Yes, it seems if Google had its way everybody would be signed onto their account  and hooked up to them 24 hours a day. 
    Google wants to log your every move. There is no way I would welcome an anonymous faceless corporation into such an intimate privacy obliterating with me.

  • Hosni

    What Google execs don't seem to realize that there is an unlimited supply of great ideas.  However, the number of great ideas that can be produced and sold for a profit is far smaller.  

    I don't believe that Steve Jobs understood that point during his first term at Apple, but he learned it while almost going broke at neXt, Pixar and Apple (in 1997) he became a far better businessman.  The Google boys --- like their staunchest supporters --- are smart but not wise.

  • ACMEsalesrep

    When Pontiac (RIP) unveiled the Aztek, its styling was so outlandish and sales so poor that GM felt compelled to force many of its executives (some 2,300, by one count) to drive them in an effort to boost sales numbers and create an illusion of demand. It didn't work, and the car failed miserably despite being technologically advanced in comparison to many of its competitors. There may be a lesson in that for Google. If your own employees aren't willing to use a product by choice, how can you expect anyone else to?

  • Reading Comprehension

    My high school history teacher taught us that every bold new idea in the world goes through 3 phases: thesis, antithesis, synthesis.

    What we have here is "thesis": Google's new idea for how things could work.  We're also starting to see "antithesis": developers who actively dislike this new vision.

    Soon, we'll start seeing the "synthesis": the aspects of Glass which are acceptable to the majority of the public.  We'll see them trickle down into smartphones, or laptops, or game consoles, or something like that.

    There are some ideas which don't have a significant antithesis, and immediately look obvious to almost everyone.  Base-10 arithmetic, binary digital computers, stereo sound, touchscreen smartphones, and web search engines with just one text field are examples of these.  Once you switch from their predecessor, you'll never go back.  Glass is not turning out to be one of these.  For one thing, nobody is copying them.  That's a harsh indictment of a new technology.

  • Sam Mallery

    From someone who reads tech news all the time on monitors that aren't attached to my face (by choice), Google has been pushing Glass really hard for at least the past six months, if not longer. To suddenly go quiet on the topic, and opt not to wear their own product (beta or not), seems odd, and telling. There's a desparation on their part to be hardware innovators, for better or worse.

  • Ted_T

    Segway failed because it didn't work, fatally so: the company owner drove one off a cliff and died.
    If Google Glass fails it will be for the same reason -- because battery life is a joke, because it gives users headaches, because the videos and still photos it takes look worse than the ones from an iPhone. In other words, success or failure depends on how well it works. Esthetic design failures can be fixed -- broken functionality is much tougher.

    The iPhone didn't kill WinMo and the Blackberry because it looked better -- it killed them because it had a working Web browser and they didn't. It took RIM six years and an OS they bought from someone else to ship a functional Web browser. Let's see how long it takes Google to ship Glass with true full day battery life.

  • Jack

    I doubt glass will fail because of privacy issues. Culture will adapt--with every new technology there comes cultural adaptation. Think about how disruptive cell phones were. Because a technology will require adaptation, it doesn't follow (necessarily) that it will fail. Also, in regards to it failing due to it looking "dorky," I think the dork factor is being exaggerated. To compare it to Steve Martin's glasses above is just silly. Those glasses, for one, are not gender neutral and are obviously feminine (which exaggerates the silliness). Their design is also way outside the parameters of what was considered normal at the time. Glass' design are fairly gender neutral and their design is not that far outside of the design parameters of what is considered normal today. I don't see adaptation, looks-wise, being a huge hurdle either.

  • doctor_house_md

    Glass's best chance is being fitted in SUNGLASSES, the picture above shows they blend in, don't stick out and look rather fashionable.  Might suck for people who wear prescriptions, but they can get contacts or just be too afraid of looking dorkish.

  • Icmusic33

    They aren't even out yet.  Of course its weird to have them now because its a transformative technology.  When more people have access it will be ore acceptable.

  • Harvey Nuthman

    The problem is that just like the segway, they look dorky as hell. If google wants people to wear them, they have to look cool. that big square block is a nerdy eyesore.