The State of Google Glass

Now that Google has released Glass to external developers, it’s approaching the point where if you work anywhere near information technology, you are going to need some kind of opinion about whether Glass will be the mass-market success Google wants it to be.

Glass deserves a fair assessment, if only because Google has the software muscle and relatively mature content to have a heads-up display make compelling sense. In comparison, things like gesture interfaces or speech recognition were essentially solutions needing problems. With Glass, the content and capabilities have come first – and that, if nothing else, is new. Anyone who has used Google Now will know where the basic Glass experience is going to start.

A lot of the debate about whether Glass will take off is about privacy. The fact that you can do things like record events in secret. While that’s an important debate, I think it’s a premature one for Glass. And in any case it’s already quite easy to do that with conventional smartphones. Not that yet another method of surveillance isn’t a problem, I just don’t think it’s the main one.

I think it’s more more interesting to look at other things. Do they look cool or nerdy? I think they look cool and nerdy, like portable phones in 1985. But is wearable computing going to be acceptable if others know that despite initial appearances, you may not be giving them your full attention? Any perception of Glass-wearers being less engaged is similar to that of the simmering war over texting at the dinner table or parties. Personally, I think using a computing device of any kind when you are supposed to be in a social situation with other people is rude. In 20 years that might change, but for it to change significantly, society would need to abandon one of the fundamental things that originally defined it: dedicated social interaction. We have no history of people having multiple conversations at once, of reading books while meaningfully listening to others, or, more obviously, of multi-tasking.

So I think social acceptance is the first problem with Glass. Glass removes effort, yet that effort is precisely the thing that protects the social use of devices today: you hold them in your hand, and everyone can see you are operating one. If that barrier is removed, so too is a large part of your humanity as a social animal. Small Bluetooth headsets have been on sale for years, yet it is rare you see somebody in public having a hands-free conversation in a crowd or in a restaurant. With Glass we could imagine people bending to the technology to solve this issue. Perhaps using “Glass speak” such that people around you can be put at ease. Instead of delivering an apparently random imperative that others might think directed at them (“How much for the blue ones?”), you might use something more like amateur radio slang or police short form, perhaps also in a higher voice register, so as to signal others not to worry about it (“Eer, blue price que n’ by”). But these are very large leaps of imagination.

Another possible problem with Glass is ergonomic. Steve Mann is one of only a few scientific researchers who as has worked with heads-up displays for a long period of time. He has written about problems of disorientation which last (and change in various ways) even after you stop wearing them. These may well be Glass’s gorilla arm. Until we have more people using Glass, we can’t know for sure though. Perhaps Google will be able to throw enough development cash at these problems as well. Or perhaps, like using the QWERTY keyboard, we will learn how to solve them ourselves.

Add to all this that Glass has an array of what could be very hard technical problems to solve, at least in the next 10 years. Battery life, wi-fi reliance, and processing power all seem currently to prohibit a lot of its potential.

But what, essentially, is that potential? If we look at the user experience of this, it starts with the ideal of “no UI” and then to the ability to become more informed on a minute-by minute basis, and to make better choices because of that. To feel connected with a virtual world while operating in the real one. Those are definitely exiting things for some people, and may well be desired strongly enough for them to work to overcome the problems that seem now to be apparent. However, I think Glass will occupy a niche hidden away from the mass-market for a much longer time than most of its boosters realise.

I still want to buy one though.*

* As of Jan 2015, it’s too late. The above prediction that Glass would occupy a niche hidden away from the mass-market has indeed come to pass.