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We’re killing Google Glass by forgetting it’s just one big experiment

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Image used with permission by copyright holder
Early this week, Sergey Brin may well have become the first tech executive to make headlines for what he wasn’t wearing. Maybe it’s just the world we live in, where Kim Kardashian’s oiled up bottom has a longer lasting effect on public consciousness than that spacecraft we landed on a comet. What was it called? Something French, I think.

What is clear is that something was … off when the Google co-founder hit the red carpet at a Silicon Valley event. Like when someone you’ve known your entire life goes and shaves their beard off without telling anyone. In the words of Bob Dylan, “you know something’s happening but you don’t know what it is.”

Google hand no intention of making Glass a mainstream product at that early stage.

For Brin, it was Google Glass that was missing. Asked why the technology’s biggest proponent had hit a big event with a naked face, the executive chalked the whole thing up to human error. He’d accidentally left the damned things in the car. What, in any other situation would have been easily written off as some standard computer science absentmindedness suddenly became a state of the union on Glass.

Was it possible that the product he’d devoted so much of his time to was such an abysmal failure that not even Brin was willing to be seen in public with it? Such speculation certainly wasn’t helped along by dozens of suitably sensationalistic headlines dating back to January declaring the untimely death of one of Google’s most fascinating technologies.

This brings up any number of questions surrounding the wearable, but let’s start with one really simple one: Pretending for a moment that Brin hadn’t invoked the car defense, and instead pulling a pair from his pocket and smashing them to bits with his Italian loafers. If Google halted all production and development on Google Glass tomorrow, would we consider the whole thing a failure?

Viewed in the larger context of the consumer electronics industry, the answer seems pretty clear. Two years is a pretty abysmal lifespan for a product line, and it seems pretty clear that we can toss it on the heap of rare, but mounting Google failures, alongside Buzz, Wave, and that overpriced movie streaming cephalopod, the Nexus Q. But should we hold all such products to the same standards? More to the point, what ultimately was Google attempting to accomplish with Glass in the first place?

Image used with permission by copyright holder

Two and a half years after introducing the product to the world, it’s easy to forget how the company initially framed the Glasses. Google’s first wearable was that rare peek into the company’s inner-workings, and exciting chance to pull back the curtain on the Wonka Chocolate Factory that is Google X Labs. It was that rare moonshot that Google not only wanted to show us, it wanted to actually send a few lucky souls home with a pair.

Unlike, say, self-driving cars or the drone delivery service Project Wing (both born out of the same semi-secret lab), Glass was a project that required developer testing. To call it a product was a misnomer — a disservice, really — for something that the company always saw as something of a proof of concept of a platform, perhaps. More than anything, Glass has always been an opportunity for Google to test the waters.

If Google halted all development on Google Glass tomorrow, would we consider the whole thing a failure?

It’s no coincidence, of course, that Google has long referred to its users as “explorers.” That’s more than just a fancy word for “early adopters.” It comes with all of simultaneous excitement and beta baggage of product testing — not to mention a $1,500 price tag. Many wrote the whole thing off as a bad deal for those suckers who will silly enough to shell out that kind of money in order to be the first on their block with the fancy new eyewear.

And really, they weren’t wrong. By just about any measure that’s a lot to pay for a product that, by its very nature, just wasn’t ready for prime time. Of course, people did pay the price, just as Google knew they would. And quickly, in the Silicon Valleys and Alleys of the country, Glass became an entirely familiar sight. Publications who got their hands on the wearable began writing it up like any other product and here in New York at least, the novelty quickly wore off.

In that time, we everyone began to lump the device in with the rest of the consumer electronics industry. Wearables were selling elsewhere, so why wasn’t Google Glass? Was it the price? The limited appeal? Well, yes and yes, but even more than that it was the fact that Google hand no intention of making Glass a mainstream product at that early stage. There were plenty of bugs yet to be worked out and the mere existence of the Explorer program was a very public acknowledgment of that fact.

This, naturally, is one of the relative downsides of Google’s transparency. And it’s no doubt one of the reasons Apple keeps its lips so tightly buttoned with regards to hardware releases. Some buggy missteps aside, the company has a lot invested in the idea that its products enter the world as fully-baked representations of Apple’s flawless ecosystem.

Image used with permission by copyright holder

The Explorer program was created as an attempt to answer some important questions through real world usage. Among them was how interested the public was in such a product, how people would react to such privacy concerns and what developers could do with this fascinating new platform. Each one of those points has raised some fascinating pros and cons that will no doubt be incorporated into future Google wearables regardless of the state of Glass.

Sadly, however, the whole process raised another important point: when it comes to technology, the public has a hard time distinguishing beta testing from final product — particularly in this Kickstarter era. And by that measure, Glass was, perhaps, doomed from the beginning. Hopefully this won’t discourage Google from such experiments in the future, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Brin and co. opted to lock their future gadgets in the lab a lot longer.

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Brian Heater
Brian Heater has worked at number of tech pubs, including Engadget, PCMag and Laptop. His writing has appeared in Spin…
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