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.
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.
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.
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.