Google Glass, if you haven’t heard of it or seen it, is a miniature computer that’s integrated with a pair of non-prescription lenses with a small heads-up display attached. It can take pictures and look up things on Google or Facebook. It has both a limited feature-set and battery life, despite being available for 2 years (at $1500).
Google Glass, in its current incarnation, is similar to the first versions of smartphones that came out 5 or 6 years ago. The only difference is that it resides on the side of a person’s head instead of inside their purse or pocket.
So why is this seemingly-inconsequential, limited piece of technology the focus of so much hatred and mocking?
Ron Miller, a technology blogger, has some ideas on this topic, writing over at Tech Crunch:
I have a theory. When it comes to new technology, there are early adopters who start using it and everyone else sees the very worst in the technology: These people ultimately belittle, dismiss and make fun of those who use it. But in spite of this initial negative reaction, the technology eventually finds its way into the mainstream, and the early fears and misinformation fade away.
I first noticed this phenomenon at the turn of the century when Dean Kamen invented the Segway self-powered scooter.
Wow, that’s a pretty wild theory there Ron. Notwithstanding the fact that technophobia is hardly new, nor can it be traced back only to the Segway. History, in fact, is replete with examples.
People have feared new technology since the beginning of time. Although we don’t know for certain, I imagine the discovery of fire created quite the stir amongst the people at the time. In more modern times, everything from the introduction of ships that were ironclad (to ward off cannon fire) to the telegraph were mocked as ridiculous and useless by experts at the time.
Newspaper accounts are full of the anger and hatred toward the horseless carriage at the turn of the last century. People couldn’t understand these strange carriages that were loud, smelly (in a different way than a horse), and traveled at unsafe speeds (as fast as 30 mph!).
Televisions were seen as “idiot boxes” by many soon after they became prevalent in American homes. Children sat idly in front of them for as long as you’d let them, staring blankly into technology that was decidedly one-way and non-interactive (except when you were fighting with your siblings over what you were going to watch next).
When I was growing up, all the mocking and hatred was directed at video games. Adults just couldn’t understand why you’d sit and play video games for hours. Or why you’d want to spend an entire afternoon in the mall arcade.
The Era of the Segway
Rob Miller compares Google Glass to the Segway, and its an apt comparison — but not in the way he meant. Rather it’s because they are both perfect examples of orphans in the technology world that have little chance in catching on in any mainstream manner.1
Segway didn’t fail as a technological innovation because of misinformation and early fears. It failed because, once that misinformation was corrected and those early fears turned out to be nothing more than that, it answered a question few people were asking. And its price point was (and remains) stubbornly high, relegating it primarily to commercial markets and applications. It has never found its way into the mainstream, so it’s a particularly poor example to use to make your point about all technology eventually finding its way into the mainstream.
Segway remains an easy target for mocking, and misinformation about it remains a problem (“I heard you can mod it to go up to 28 mph!”) Anytime it hits a news cycle, it’s rarely to describe its innovation or mainstream acceptance in small-town America.
Google Glass is for Glassholes
Google Glass falls into the same category — answering a question nobody asked. “Wouldn’t it be cool if I didn’t have to reach into my pocket to retrieve my smartphone to do stuff?” Umm, yeah. Decidedly a first-world problem there — having to expend those 1.2 calories it takes to retrieve your smartphone in order to take a photo, video, or update your status on Facebook.
That’s not to say it doesn’t have specific use cases that could make it a valuable tool in certain situations — most of which are commercial. Lots of industries might make use of this kind of technology to make things easier on the job.
But it will never become widely accepted by consumers, primarily because of privacy concerns. Like any technology, it can and will be hacked. Inevitably one of those hacks will be to be able to record video without any external notification (like a glowing red light to let you know its recording). While you can do the same with any smartphone available today, at least I have some idea you’re doing it because most people are holding it in such a way as to signal they are recording or taking a photo.
That non-verbal signal is important, but it was largely overlooked — or worse, dismissed — by the smart technologists at Google.
Common Sense Wins Out Over Technology
Sometimes the common sense –or common wisdom — of people is smarter than the smartest engineers and inventors. People mock not only what they don’t understand, but when they see silly, over-thought answers to problems that don’t really exist in most people’s lives.
Equating the invention of computers to Google Glass or Segway is a particularly poor comparison. People couldn’t understand the point of a computer since the software that made them amazing wasn’t yet invented (it always came later, and in some cases, much later). Once the software caught up to the hardware, people began to understand the real enhanced productivity value of a computer.
Computers only became valuable in the home when the Internet became readily available to ordinary Americans. Before that, they were simply used primarily for games and a replacement for a typewriter and calculator.
The Segway has no next-generation of software or hardware that will change its basic use — giving people access to an environmentally-friendly transportation device that lets them carry out a lot of short-distance tasks. At a price point 10x than the average cost of a bicycle — which is probably why it has found a niche only in commercial markets.
Google Glass falls into the same category as the Segway, for better or worse. It replicates — but doesn’t really innovate — the features and functionality of your smartphone. It’s just a different interface that makes some tasks a little bit easier, while making other tasks harder. It may have commercial uses (although with its limited battery life, even that’s a big question mark right now), but it’s hard to justify based upon its price tag and limited features today. Two years after it was first released.
Despite widespread use of smartphones, most of the time they reside in our pockets or purses for good reason. While useful productivity, financial and social connection tools, they ultimately distract us from living our real lives, fully and mindfully. People want others to be authentic when they are with them in the flesh, and completely focused on them. Not distracted — by technology, FOMO, or anything else.
I, like most, can’t see how a heads-up display would change that for the better.
Read the Tech Crunch article: Why We Hate Google Glass — And All New Tech
- Full disclosure: I worked at Segway for nearly 4 years, beginning before its public release in 2001. [↩]