The father of the Nest and iPod, Tony Fadell, has taken over the Google Glass project. And to make Google Glass succeed, he needs to take one radical first step: Fadell needs to rip out Glass’s camera. Because Glass isn’t just a technology problem, and it isn’t just a fashion problem. It’s a social problem. Glass is freaking people out. And in case it isn’t clear, it’s freaking people out because it’s pointing a camera in their faces.
Fadell takes over the project shortly after fashion specialist Ivy Ross took over the project, who now reports to Fadell, from Google moonshot engineer Astro Teller (and to some extent, the industrial designer Isabella Olson who’d been the face of Glass as a fashion statement and also continues on the project).
For anyone who’s not following, that means Google Glass has gone from the rule of industrial designers, to a fashion designer, back to industrial designers, as if with every step, Google is saying, “You know what we need? We need that grass on the other side of the fence!”
No doubt, Glass has iterated with each stage, evolving from Olson’s original sci-fi design language into Ray Ban-inspired frames. Glass has partnerships working with Oakley and Diane von Furstenberg. The fashion/tech fusion is evolving slowly but surely. In a half a dozen more project handoffs, who knows, maybe Glass won’t look so jarring on someone’s face.
But ultimately, this fashion-in-tech angle has proven one large distraction, for both Google and writers like me who’ve been picking at that angle for too long. The biggest problem with Glass isn’t that its look offends people, it’s that its presence scares people.
Glass has more or less been in beta stage, and already, we’ve seen it banned in all sorts of places by citizens and legislators who are shaken by the idea of a camera that’s potentially recording them during every conversation they have. It’s the sort of problem that you may reason, people will get over. After all, everybody has a camera in their phone these days. Glass will meld into the social landscape of our daily lives. We’ll learn to ignore the camera module or crystal LCD butting out from the frame.
That said, people don’t always just get used to it, and I learned that from my own case study with a wearable camera. After my son was born, I attempted to wear a Narrative camera most of the time. The Narrative is a diminutive, auto-shooting camera, the size of a small lapel pin, optimized to capture candid moments in your life. But family member after family member would spot it, ask what it was, and slowly tense in my presence, even when I’d promise these photos were private and wouldn’t be shared on Facebook. The next time they’d visit, their eyes would lower to my chest pockets again.
Nobody likes worrying they’re being recorded, and a subtle, spy-worthy piece of hardware does nothing to alleviate that concern. It made me realize that smartphone cameras didn’t offend anyone, because they live in a pocket, and it’s always obvious when someone’s taking a photograph with one. Along the same lines, I believe an embedded photographer photographing us with a large SLR would have offended my guests less than my tiny lapel camera. A few weeks into the experiment, I removed the Narrative to never wear it again, even though it captured some great shots.
Now, as Fadell takes over Glass–the guy who knows how to turn endless digital music libraries and machine learning heating and cooling algorithms into hit products–I hope he’s recognizing that Glass isn’t just some failed tech or fashion statement, it’s an affront to social norms. If Fadell wants to get rid of the Glasshole monicker, he needs to aggressively reposition what Glass is. He needs to rip out that camera, functionality be damned, to make the platform succeed. Because Glass–not as a design, but as an idea–is freaking people out.