Wearable technology took a hit this past week after many began proclaiming the apparent demise of Google Glass. Once the "hot new thing," Glass has had a tough time ever since Reuters reported many developers had stopped building software for the gadget. Even my colleague, Lance Ulanoff, decided it was time to break up with Glass.
Google quickly tried to get in front of the hearse, insisting it hadn't abandoned Glass.
"Google remains committed to Glass and is energized by the opportunity that wearables, and Glass in particular, represent," spokesperson Anna Richardson White told Mash, adding that Google would launch Glass officially "when the product is fully ready."
When it's fully ready? Google's had nearly two years since it kicked off the Google Glass Explorer program, and almost three since it first started talking about it. How much time does it need? In the absence of a clear road map for the product or the technology, developers and users are moving on.
"There's a lot of people who have fallen out of favor with [Glass] because there just doesn't seem like there's a vision for Google of where they're taking it," said Robert Patterson, vice-president of social media for MMGY Global and an early adopter of Google Glass. "The updates have been less frequent, and they haven't really put out their vision for this product."
The future of smart glasses
Where does that leave smart glasses as a category?Google Glass, rightly or wrongly, became the public face of smart glasses, showcasing many of the benefits, while enduring virtually all of the criticism. If Google Glass has — at least on the surface — failed, what chance do smart glasses have?
"To be successful in the consumer space, you need the look and feel of fashion glasses," said Paul Travers, CEO of Vuzix, which has been making smart glasses (mostly for business applications) for many years. "Imagine a pair of glasses, and they connected cloud information to the world in front of you, and you didn't look like a dork when you're wearing it. That's the ultimate goal."
The design of Google Glass has earned plenty of criticism — even jabs. Everyone from designer Marc Newson to fantasy author Neil Gaiman have taken shots at how silly (or worse) Glass looks. Google built Glass to stand out on purpose, but it hasn't blunted the accusations of spyware, which has led many to completely shun the product.
A rethought design, made to look more like a pair of glasses, might kill those two birds with one stone-colored pair of frames. Yes, the accusations of spyware would grow even louder, but they would be confined to online chatter among the tech con and legal circles; people who see this reimagined Glass in public simply wouldn't notice it. Glass users would no longer get the incessant question, "Are you recording me?"
It might even be the first step toward a "platform" solution for Glass. As Will Ormeus at Slate suggests, Google might be better served by a product model that looks something like how it handles Android, with Google providing the operating system and much of the software, while others build the actual glasses. The current Explorer Edition could even remain, essentially functioning as the "Nexus" of the Glass platform.
Such a neat solution, however, is unlikely. As a piece of technology, Glass is made to be glanceable, just out of your direct line of sight. To build the screen into the lenses themselves would change the concept — not completely, but enough to require a re-think of how the software and apps work.
Vuzix, Epson and others have shown how lens-integrated smart glasses can work, but the nature of them necessitates abandoning the idea of "prescription" versions. Even if you assume the current bulky designs will eventually be as sleek as today's designer frames, creating lenses in the multiple sizes and styles consumers demand from eyeware would be a monumental challenge.
"If Google Glass could go with a stronger processor, and a pair of glasses that were optically see-through and actually fashionable looking, they could start to deliver the stuff they were talking about," Travers said.
Google's partnership with Luxottica is the first step on that journey, but it's doubtful if the so-called "mainstream consumer" would tolerate any frames — as beautiful as they may be — with Glass' signature prism growing out of them.
The consumer question
Would perfectly designed smart glasses even be enough? As many have observed, Google Glass often feels like a solution in search of a problem. Are the conveniences it and other smart glasses bring — hands-free access to Twitter, Facebook, and other apps and services — really that helpful?
Many in the enterprise world would say, yes, and indeed Google Glass has spurred lots of professions to consider smart glasses where they might not have otherwise. Travers said Vuzix's business customer base has jumped ever since Glass debuted.
"We're seeing amazing uptake, the bulk being enterprise customers," he said. "For us, it's just getting started."
Whether or not consumers will ever warm to smart glasses is a bigger question. Glass has proved its usefulness in certain situations — mainly travel and the "GoPro" factor, times when a hands-free camera is needed.
"Smart glasses as a category seems pretty small," Patterson said."There is an opportunity for wearable cameras, but I don't think we're going to see mass consumer adoption of this technology any time in the near future."
Glass could justify its existence to consumers even more if it performed more like the original promo video for the product. That video showed impressive feats of image recognition, such as alerting the wearer that subway service was suspended when he tried to descend into a station — feats outside the abilities of Glass in its current form.
"Google built a product that they wanted to do one thing, but when they came out with it, it didn't do it," Travers said. "They ended up building a product that was nothing more than a remote display for the phone."
Still, it's hard to think of a company better suited than Google to one day realize that vision, and according to the company, Glass' journey is just beginning — probably because it's invested too much into its "moonshot" project to back out now. We'll likely see the next phase of the product, with Luxottica's participation, in the coming months.
But a few pairs of luxury frames won't solve the acceptance and practicality problems of Glass and smart glasses in general. It may be almost three years since Google captured our imaginations with the idea of an Internet-connected, head-mounted display, but delivering on that promise feels further away than ever.
Tags: GADGETS, Google, GOOGLE GLASS, MOBILE, SMART GLASSES, Tech, VUZIX, WEARABLES