Google Glass: death or reincarnation?

Is Google's big Glass experiment shattered? It appears not - but the next step will mean success or failure.

Is that it? Is Google Glass dead?

You might very well think so, if you’ve been following the tech press in recent days. Glass, it seems, never really had a fighting chance. Will anyone mourn its passing?

Certainly, signs have not been good. While our Glass Explorers meetup in Berlin back in May packed out a room, by the time of LeWeb in Paris back in December neither Loic Le Meur, LeWeb founder, nor frequent Glass evangelist (and NEXT speaker) Robert Scoble were wearing their Glass. In fact, Robert hadn’t even brought it with him.

Writing on the wall time?

Well, perhaps not.

Reports of Glass’s death are greatly exaggerated

The death of Glass is not what Google announced:

As we look to the road ahead, we realize that we’ve outgrown the lab and so we’re officially “graduating” from Google[x] to be our own team here at Google. We’re thrilled to be moving even more from concept to reality.

As part of this transition, we’re closing the Explorer Program so we can focus on what’s coming next. January 19 will be the last day to get the Glass Explorer Edition. In the meantime, we’re continuing to build for the future, and you’ll start to see future versions of Glass when they’re ready. (For now, no peeking.)

The interesting part of this story isn’t that they’re ending the Glass explorer programme – but not Glass itself. It’s heading into very capable, experienced hands – those of Tony Fadell, the man who guided the early years of the iPod, and most recently the founder of Nest, which makes smart home appliances.

Yes, that Tony Fadell.

Fadell is someone with serious chops in the experience of bringing compelling products to market. He’s done it for big, mass scale consumer goods like the iPod, and more not, cutting edge tech like the Nest thermostat and Nest Protect smoke alarm. One made digital music mainstream, the other brought the first experience of smart home internet of things integration into many people’s lives.

He’s now got a big challenge ahead of him – take something that borders on a laughing stock, and turn it into a viable product.

Escaping the Lab

Up until now Glass has been a Google[x] project – part of Google’s skunkworks division, which is busy conducting “moonshots” or bets on the future that aren’t yet consumer products. And it’s worth remembering that, for all the fuss, Glass has never been anywhere near a consumer product so far. The explorer programme has only been opened up to the general public via the Play store relatively recently – and at £1000, it’s far from an impulse purchase.

Glass is almost archetypically everything good and bad about Google – big, grand visions of our computing future, but a ropey path to productisation, and a bad habit of experimenting in public. Gmail was in Beta for years – but there’s a big difference between an extended beta of a free product, and charging someone £1000 to test your idea of a future product.

And that’s what Google Glass’s Explorer experiment has been – an expensive public beta, that initially caused buzz, and then a backlash, as it became symptomatic (and deeply associated with) the idea that there’s an evolving tech elite disconnected from the rest of us. The idea of the elite filming us was deeply disturbing to many – hence the birth of the term, “glasshole”.

Selling Glass – but to whom?

Fadell’s challenge is very clearly to take this geeky, experimental product, and find some way to turn it into a product that people want.

Will it be a consumer product? Or will it become a specialist tool for professional and sports users?

If I had to place a bet on it, I’d suggest the latter. As a glasses wearer since I was three years old, I sent much of my childhood longing for the day when I could stop wearing my glasses. Not amount of tech will encourage me to wear them full-time again. And unless adoption becomes widespread, face-worn tech will always make you stand out.

The future – to my inexpert eyes, at least – looks like Glass as a tool, a useful device for those who need information infant of them, without being able to look away at a phone or even a watch. Maintenance, construction, surgery and their ilk would all benefit from such a device.

Now, maybe Fadell will come up with a different vision. But whatever comes next, it’ll certainly be more commercial than anything we’ve seen so far – and that’s a good thing for the future of the tech.

The all-seeing eye

And maybe the secret to making it work – in the consumer space, at least – might be removing the camera from it:

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.

Camera-free Glass for consumers and a camera-enabled one for professional use? It’s an idea…