As announced last week, the Google Glass project (at least in its current form) is shutting down. Now, it’s not cancelled; in fact it’s spinning off from Google[x] into its own team. It’s in capable hands, seeing as it will be led by former Apple exec and Nest founder Tony Fadell.
But the truth is no one (outside of Google at least) knows what the next iteration of Glass will actually be, and this shutdown/pause/sayonara is an appropriate time to reflect on a device that cost $1,500 and never really reached anything approaching broad consumer acceptance. For a device that had geeks (myself included) somewhere on the scale between “intrigued” and “all in a tizzy,” was it even successful at what it set out to do?
What Was Google Glass Supposed to Be?
Hardware-wise, Glass isn’t all that impressive. It’s a frame, a camera, a microphone, a touchpad, and a mini video screen. It’s a GoPro you can talk to and watch while wearing it. Neat, but not really mind-blowing. The magic was always in the software, and the potential to use it in novel ways. One such possibility was augmented reality, where a heads up display (HUD) could show relevant information about the world in front of you, all in real time. Perhaps the best use of this functionality came when surgeons were able to collaborate on a cleft lip repair by using Glass to mark out incision sites.
But What About Consumers?
Glass began with developers in mind, but eventually became available for consumer purchase. Seeing as the average Joe isn’t doing surgery, there just wasn’t a lot of utility in having a Glass. Certainly not $1,500 worth of it. And with concerns over privacy for users, it seemed readily apparent that this gadget wasn’t ready for the mainstream. Google never released sales numbers for Glass, so it’s unclear just how many units were sold, but if it’s any indication, today is the last day they’re available and they’re not selling out.
So Did It Fail?
If you think that Glass was always intended to be a mass-produced consumer product, then yes, Glass was indeed a commercial failure. But I don’t think that was really Google’s intention. Glass was meant to be a playground for innovative minds. The Explorer project was all about exploring (see what I did there?) what features people used and how they used them. Selling it to the general public was more about answering demand and making clear that this wasn’t meant to be some exclusive item only for the hand-selected few. At the same time (and it’s especially clear now, nearly three years later), Google never had the consumer in mind with this project.
If I knew the answer, I’d probably be hunted down by Google’s lackeys. But that doesn’t mean I can’t speculate. Like I said earlier, the magic is really in the software, and I think augmented reality is really going to expand in the future. I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see the next version of Glass put the screen unabashedly in front of the user’s entire field of view, seamlessly integrating data from the semantic web into our real-world lives.
Then again, the smart money is betting that Google will just blow our minds with something we didn’t see coming, so we might as well just sit tight for now.