In December of 2000, inventor Dean Kamen wheeled a luggage carrier with a couple of black duffel bags and some cardboard boxes into a ballroom at the Hyatt Regency and told the guard to lock up behind him. A former winner of the National Medal of Technology, he had flown to San Francisco to meet potential investors including John Doerr of Kleiner Perkins and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos.
Auther Steve Kemper recounts (via Adam Penenberg on PandoDaily) that Kamen opened the duffel and boxes, removed some components, and used a screwdriver and hex wrenches to assemble two machines. Within 10 minutes, Kamen had both up and running and began to ride one around the room. Bezos grabbed the other and as he tooled around, he couldn’t help but honk-laugh. Kamen offered his to Doerr, who took it for a spin.
Having so much fun, they didn’t notice that Steve Jobs in classic black turtleneck and blue jeans had walked in. He berated Kamen for his plan to introduce two models of the device when it would be better to start with one, and for the design, which “sucks.” The shape was “not innovative,” Jobs said. “It’s not elegant. It doesn’t feel anthropomorphic. You have this incredibly innovative machine but it looks very traditional. There are design firms out there that could come up with things we’ve never thought of, things that would make you shit in your pants.”
Within a month, the device codenamed as “Ginger,” became of latter-day gearhead folk religion, prompting scads of wild speculation. Also called “IT” which is short for “Individual Transportation,” it was suspected to be a hovercraft of some sort. But kept under extreme secrecy throughout the products development no one would know more until it was revealed as the Segway on December 3rd of 2001.
Over a decade later the Segway has failed to materialize as a disruptive force in transportation much less a success at all. Only adopted by mall security guards, the company was purchased by tycoon Jimi Heselden in December of 2009. The story of Segway essentially ended in September of the following year when Hendersen died in an accident while testing an off-road version of the Segway. The vehicles were banned on British roads for safety reasons.
Flash forward to 2013 and the social mediasphere goes wild when Matt Novak tweeted, “Google Glass is so futuristic it’s like wearing a Segway on your face.”
Much like the Segway, Google Glass is getting a storm of media buzz recognizing it as a breakthrough and innovative product. It’s something that Star Trek would have dreamed up (or maybe even did). But being innovative and futuristic doesn’t make a product a success. Despite being a break-out “futuristic product,” the iPhone was built both on the momentum of existing smart phones and Apple’s framework of iProducts.
In a series called “Everything is a Remix” that we shared last month, Kirby Fergusun does a detailed analysis of major innovative industries like technology, music and movies, and finds that almost every “iconic” moment was nothing more than the right remix of the right features and products at the right time. While history may remember it otherwise, the future only comes in small and steady steps.
In many ways this reveals what Segway’s biggest problem was. Other than bicycles, it wasn’t built on a framework for it to grow in. It didn’t have a slow and steady path of adopting users or a way to help society get used to it.
So what is Google Glass remixing and what makes now the right time?
Much like Apple’s existing iProducts, Google has Android and pretty much a stronghold on the entire internet. They have the power and strength to get the product through it’s proper development process so long as there is truly a need for it.
“Why are we even working on Glass? We all know that people love to be connected. Families message each other all the time, sports fanatics are checking live scores for their favorite teams. If you’re a frequent traveler you have to stay up to date on flight status or if your gate changes. Technology allows us to connect in that way. A big problem right now are the distractions that technology causes. If you’re a parent — let’s say your child’s performance, watching them do a soccer game or a musical. Often friends will be holding a camera to capture that moment. Guess what? It’s gone. You just missed that amazing game.” Glass Product Director Steve Lee tells The Verge.
Glass’s Point-Of-View photo and video recording is merely a stepping stone towards reaching their real goal of removing technological devices as a distraction. While the iPhone solved a lot of problems by creating an inter-connected focus point for our digital existence, it introduced a new problem where we aren’t paying attention to our real lives at all. By bringing the technology closer to our senses, they’re hoping to remove it as an abstraction.
Although being initially distracted by the glass object, The Verge editor in chief Joshua Topolsky didn’t report the graphics being too much of a distraction in actual use. Once upon-a-time people thought that radios would send drivers careening off the highways. Google Glass is hoping to fair better than iPhone texting (which actually does send people flying off the road) but just in case, it should be noted that the same Google department that is building Glass has also built a self-driving car that has clocked over 300 miles on public freeways without a single incident.
In the future, we may be able to both look at the road while texting and not have to drive at all.
Fashion Statement or Fashion Faux Pas
The only obstacle left for Google Glass to overcome is getting people to actually want to wear it. Will it be awkward to wear at work or at school? Will anyone want to use the voice activation or hand gestures when on a bus or in line at Starbucks? It isn’t enough for Glass to be functional bliss loved by the tech industry’s early adopters. Glass has to be sexy.
While Topolsky thinks the current quality is good enough to make people say “Google-level design” instead of “Apple-level design,” the product is anything but attractive. It sticks out like a sore thumb and he even reports that everyone that saw it came within parting lips of asking what the hell it was. To be fair, only a very few select people have ever seen Google Glass. But once everyone does know what it is, will the early adopters be seen as the cool guys with the hot new product or the geek who doesn’t care about looks at all?
Google seems to know that this is their biggest problem. While nothing has been announced yet, rumors have flown around that they could be working with Ray-Ban or Tom Ford to help with the design and the New York Times has reported that Google is speaking to online eyewear company Warby Parker. The actual device currently clips on to the current band so there’s opportunity for a Google Glass owner to transfer the product onto a large product line selection.
Even while the designs are still in prototype stages Google has been hot on marketing stunts that promote the product as a fashion statement. Teaming up with Dianne von Furstenberg to have both her and her models wear Glass on the runway. The marketing video both tells a touching story about von Furstenberg and shows some incredible footage of what it looks like to walk at NYFW.
Google is hoping to have their product on the market for early adopters by the end of the year. While it might seem rushed, tech blogs are also speculating that the Apple Watch could be announced by then as well. Both products have strengths but the Apple Watch is a less risky product with less disruptive prospects. Google’s Sergey Brinn is betting big on Glass being the future of mobile communication.
Let’s hope that he’s right. Let’s also hope that he doesn’t end up dead in a ditch at the hands of said product.
Helium Magazine | Publisher