Google on Glass Backlash: 'Messy' But Worth It
No single piece of technology has sparked as much interest, scrutiny and even ire as Google Glass — and the consumer version isn't even on sale yet. Glass, which puts a camera, notifications and more right in your face, was designed to make us feel more human and less chained to our smartphones. But many critics are treating this innovation as a harbinger of a society overrun with privacy-sapping cyborgs.
Is the backlash warranted? Chris Dale, head of communications and public affairs for Google Glass, said consumers' reactions are following a similar pattern to that of other disruptive technologies. And he's confident that the feedback being generated by Google’s initial Explorers program will result in a better product, as well as a healthier dialogue about how wearable tech should (and shouldn't) be used.
We spoke with Dale about Glass' impact and the future of wearables.
Between Glass and now Android Wear, why is Google so excited about wearable technology?
Dale: For the first time in computing history, you have a piece of technology that is being designed for a person, rather than a screen. Over the last 10 years, technology has been built for a 3-inch, 4-inch or 5-inch phone; a 7-inch or 10-inch tablet; or a laptop computer. With all of these things, you are optimizing the experience for the display. You're not optimizing for a person. The device has become an intermediary between us and our physical lives.
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Right now, there's a weird dialectic. There is this tension that exists between our physical lives and our digital lives, and we flop inelegantly between the two. What wearables in their purest form will try to do is alleviate that tension. They are going to try to almost erase that tension, so that our digital lives can coexist in a meaningful way with our physical lives.
Are you trying to replace smartphones and tablets?
Dale: Over the long term, it's about, how can wearables come into our lives and actually make them fundamentally easier? The number of people I see just staring down at their phones as they walk along is astounding. And yet because it's kind of crept up slowly — the behavior has evolved over the last five to 10 years — we don't really question it.
I think there is a great place for smartphones; there's a great place for tablets; there is a great place for all of these things. Just when you're out and about and you are on the go, [smartphones and tablets] aren't necessarily the best kind of form factors.
You've taken some heat for the Glass Explorers program, which allowed only invited users to purchase the product. Why did you use this strategy?
Dale: One of the unique things we are doing with Glass ... is that we are having this discussion very publicly. We, as a company, could very easily have taken this technology into a conference room, wrapped the conference room in tin foil and developed this over the course of two to three years and released it en masse and basically said, "You know what? Deal with it. The technology is ready, and here it is."
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What we decided to do instead was have a living laboratory for a very public experiment. Is it messy? Sure. And are there are things that you couldn't predict? Absolutely. But there is all of this feedback that you get from these Explorers and these use cases. We cannot only bake the feedback into the product, but bake it into our policies.
What do you make of so-called Glassholes?
Dale: There are a handful of Explorers who aren't necessarily behaving as well as they should, and that's disappointing. But as a whole, the amount of feedback in terms of how to make the hardware better, how to make the software better — even the use cases — it has absolutely been worth it.
There are still a lot concerns around privacy, though, with certain businesses banning Glass even before it goes on sale to the public.
Dale: New technology always raises new issues, and it's important that we have a public discussion about the benefits and challenges. But ultimately, perceptions evolve. Kodak cameras in the 1890s were banned in public spaces, because people feared the idea of their image being captured without their permission.
There are all sorts of examples throughout history, where technology has come in and disrupted. It rightly begs a lot of questions, and I think it's important we have those kinds of conversations.
What obstacles do you see for Glass from a technical perspective?
Dale: Some of the technological barriers that wearables face is simply the availability of Wi-Fi. Glass, specifically, has a Wi-Fi antenna, so when you are in an area where you have Wi-Fi, it can work without a cellphone. But the truth is, when I'm out and about, there are very few cities that offer free Wi-Fi, so I tether. So, Glass, in a lot of places, is dependent on the power and functionality of a smartphone when Wi-Fi isn't around.
What about design and battery life?
Dale: I think you are going to see the components and technology get smaller and better, and see the battery life improve. And you are going to see aesthetics change and evolve as the software changes as well. Over the course of the months and years ahead, you are going to see a lot of these issues disappear, just like they did with smartphones and laptop computers.
Things happen much more quickly than they did 20 or 30 years ago, but they still take time.
How has using Glass changed you?
Dale: My own personal experience, having used Glass for about a year now, is that I use technology less because I use it far more efficiently than I used to. With Glass, I don't have the real estate of a 4-inch or a 5-inch screen. And so I get little bits of information that I think is really useful just when I need it.
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