Google Glass Advisers: Smart Glasses Are Not a "Flop"


To augmented reality or not to augmented reality? That is the question industry experts believe average consumers will be forced to ask themselves as augmented reality (AR) devices mature and enter the mainstream. Which, according to the industry, will happen sooner than you may think.

We are currently in the midst of the proliferation of virtual reality (VR) as a mainstream medium for gaming, content consumption, and learning. While VR may never reach the same status as smartphones it is impossible to deny that the devices emerging in this space will become commonplace over the next two years as more consumer devices reach the market, such as the highly anticipated HTC Vive and Oculus Rift. Although the explosion of VR is likely to occur within the next two years AR will take longer to take off. That being said it will not be long, market research and investment firm Digi-Capital forecasts that the AR market will be four times larger than VR by 2020. This sentiment was recently echoed by two of the original team leaders of Google Glass during an interview at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California.

The general consensus amongst the media and consumers is that Glass Explorer Edition was a flop. According to Thad Starner, a professor at Georgia Tech and technical lead on Glass, and Greg Priest-Dorman, a systems administrator at Google X, this could not be further from the truth, and expect that consumers will be wearing computers on their face before long. The pair trace the perceived flop of the Explorer Edition to a misunderstanding of the product led by the mainstream media and the fact that Glass was simply ahead of its time.

Though the pair highlighted a few key challenges that AR devices will need to overcome, such as public perception and the technical challenges of designing a product that can last all day whilst offering compelling features in a compact, unobtrusive form factor, the panelists were particularly vocal about the impact of the press on Google’s first foray into AR. According to Starner, the media had misunderstood and overpromised what Google intended to achieve with the Explorer Edition, which became an “echo chamber in the press” that followed the product throughout its life cycle. “We were only going to sell thousands of them. That was the point of the experimental Explorer Edition,” he said. “And the uptake was tremendous. But the press ran away with this, thinking this was a super device.”

Essentially the press created a hype machine that all-but ensured the perceived flop of the Explorer Edition. It was simply impossible for an experimental device that Google itself knew was imperfect to live-up to consumers expectations. Had the Explorer Edition been treated as an experiment that was simply meant to explore a new category of devices it would not have been stigmatized as a failure because the Explorer Edition largely succeeded in this regard; Google learnt an immeasurable number of valuable lessons regarding public perception, privacy, form, and function that would have been impossible had they not released the Explorer Edition.

To that effect, Priest-Dorman stated that when consumers have had the chance to try smart glasses in the future they will likely find them valuable. Starner added that he began to wear computers in the ’90s in order to augment his memory, recording notes in class and in-person conversations in a convenient searchable index on his face. Other notable early applications included instant messaging, navigation, and alerts such as stock prices, which are all functions we demonstrably want to perform on the go based on our smartphone usage, he noted. Largely replicating smartphone functionality in a different form factor appears to be where AR and smart glasses are headed initially, though the simple fact that they are head-mounted has a drastic impact on their utility. Instead of searching for a yelp review about a restaurant you walk by, imagine simply looking at the restaurant’s sign and its star-rating appearing beneath without requiring input. Priest-Dorman echoes this sentiment and challenges the assumption that smartphones are more convenient and less intrusive than AR devices. “Wearables, if you’re doing it right, let you use electronics less,” he noted. “I really don’t like that kids today witness their parents at performances only through the back of their parents’ phones.”