Google Glass was one of the first hardware forays the Mountain View-based search giant embarked on.
After the early hype, which resulted in Time Magazine naming it the Best Invention of the Year, Google Glass’ fall from grace couldn’t have been more spectacular.
Google shuttered the project, which had been solely made available to a group of beta testers called Explorers, after a mere two years. Glass would later even be featured among 69 other products in the Swedish Museum of Failure.
How could a project, which Google spent tens of millions of dollars to develop, be shuttered this rapidly? Here are the five major reasons why Google Glass failed to take off as a mass-market consumer product.
1. Privacy Concerns
One of the biggest reasons for the failure of Google Glass was the privacy concerns and the resulting public backlash that accompanied its rollout.
The Google Glass was equipped with a camera that users could activate at any point in time without necessarily notifying those around.
People rightfully freaked out. Back then, the thought of being filmed, especially without consent, was substantially more frightening than it would be today. The New York Times even ran a front-page story, asking whether the launch of Glass would usher the end of privacy as we know it.
And countless examples proved that those fears were justified. The most prominent became Sarah Slocum who filmed an incident at a bar in San Francisco.
The owners had previously asked her to take her glasses off as it was against the venue’s policy to film people. One of the bar’s employees managed to forcefully remove the glass from her. After she successfully recovered it, Slocum realized that her purse and phone were gone.
Others, such as Business Insider writer Kyle Russell, reported that people would steal their glasses and destroy them on the spot.
And it certainly didn’t help that Glass users retaliated by leaving one-star reviews on Google and Yelp for venues that asked them to remove their eyewear.
As a result, people wearing them would be called “Glassholes,” which further added to the tension between owners and the wider public. While those reactions weren’t necessarily the norm, they still managed to snowball into a narrative that was outside Google’s control.
Ironically and technically, privacy shouldn’t have been that much of a concern. For once, there were some physical and visual indicators that would point towards a recording going on. To take a photo or video, the user of the Glass has to either touch or speak to the device.
Furthermore, when being in proximity to someone wearing a glass, one could note a light when the system was on.
Plus, the device’s battery wouldn’t even last long enough for owners to constantly film their surroundings, which directly ties into the next issue of why Google Glass failed.
2. Buggy Tech
A rapidly draining battery was just one of the few problems that the hardware suffered from. In fact, some reviewers even called it “the worst product of all time.”
Apart from the subpar battery, users had found plenty of other aspects they did not like including:
- The product being too heavy
- Questions about durability
- Not being able to access individual apps
- A lack of intuitiveness around navigation
- Constraining one’s peripheral vision to the point that activities like driving would become substantially more dangerous (and local municipalities contemplating banning the usage of Glass while driving)
- Repeated, yet unexpected crashing of applications (especially during firmware updates)
- Poor sound quality
- Distorted images under certain conditions
Hardware, however, was just one part of the story. Since Glass was essentially a beta product (more on that in the next chapter), it did not have many sophisticated apps that could be loaded onto it.
And a thriving app ecosystem is certainly one of the keys to making such a product work. Apple, for instance, released the App Store a year after the first iPhone, which significantly boosted adoption of the device.
Most of the apps that one could access on Glass were developed and maintained by Google, which probably did not commit enough developer resources toward a sophisticated selection of apps.
The software’s security became another concern. Researchers at security company Lookout discovered a flaw that would capture data from the Glass device and send it to the web without the wearer’s knowledge or consent.
All of these issues were not only avoidable but are actually deeply engrained in Google’s culture and the way it rolls out products.
Traditionally, the search giant had been famous for releasing early versions of software products and then adjusting them in public based on customer feedback. This is how many of its most popular products, including Gmail or Maps, were unveiled.
Even less than a year before launching the product, Google representatives were quick to point out that Glass was still a prototype.
“We wanted to let people know about what we’re doing, and what we hope to achieve with it,” a Google spokesperson told Co.Design in response to the first teaser video released back in April 2012. “But in terms of the graphics, the visuals, the hardware setup, there’s a lot of experimentation going on. And a lot of rapid prototyping on the team.”
Two months after the video was unveiled, project lead Babak Parviz had the following to say in an interview with Wired:
“Project Glass is something that Steve and I have worked on together for a bit more than two years now. It has gone through lots of prototypes and fortunately we’ve arrived at something that sort of works right now. It still is a prototype, but we can do more experimentation with it.”
However, testing hardware in public, especially with a price tag of $1,500, is probably not the best idea. Consumers simply don’t want to feel like lab rats that have to pay for an unfinished product.
After shuttering the consumer-facing side of the project, Google at least seemed to have learned its lesson. For example, it put experienced hardware people, such as Tony Fadell, a former Apple product executive and the creator of Nest, in charge.
And Mr. Fadell would know first-hand how important it is to release a delightful product that just works and is based on a consistent brand message – another aspect that Glass’ team failed to do.
3. Product Rollout
The whole rollout phase as well as the marketing of Glass led to one mistake after another. As mentioned above, Google Glass was only made available to a selected group of beta testers.
Most of those beta testers would be working for Silicon Valley-based companies themselves, thus not representing the most diverse set of customers, to begin with.
Not only that, some of them severely tainted the public’s perception of the coolness factor of the glasses. Tech evangelist Robert Scoble probably became the poster child of said group. He previously stated that he would never take off his glasses, except to let strangers try them.
To make matters worse, he doubled down on that take by posting a picture straight from the shower, stating that “you thought I was kidding” when referring to the fact that he’d take the glasses off eventually.
Google CEO Larry Page, at the firm’s annual I/O conference, even personally interacted with Scoble on stage, stating that he “really didn’t appreciate the shower photo.”
The Scoble and countless other incidents even led to the creation of sites like White Men Wearing Google Glass.
While early beta testers certainly played a key role, Google wasn’t without fault, either. For once, Glass was still a very clunky device that did not invoke any sort of stylishness.
Google tried to create hype through a variety of marketing hacks, which did not really move the needle. It paid celebrities to wear its glasses at events. The New Yorker even ran a 5,000-word piece on how it felt like wearing the device.
During New York Fashion Week in 2012, Belgian designer Diane von Furstenberg not only wore a pair herself but prompted all her models to do the same.
And when Sergey Brin, Google’s other cofounder and the Glass’ biggest supporter, introduced the product on stage at I/O, they did not spare any cost.
During the demo, they had skydivers land on the building where the conference took place, all while filming themselves using the glasses.
But after investing tens of millions of dollars into marketing the product, there was actually no real product launch. Glass remained solely available to beta testers up until the point it was scrapped.
To make matters worse, the product itself did not possess any clear use case beyond filming or accessing basic information. On top of that, Glass wasn’t very intuitive to use, thus requiring some basic training to get going.
The dissent was even present among Google’s own employees. Sebastian Thrun, a former Google X executive who worked on Glass as well, told the Wall Street Journal that team members were torn between how often the device should even be worn.
While some pushed for continuous usage, others thought it should be used in a work-related setting only. And even work was up for debate. “In the office environment, with my family and with my wife, it was much less desirable for me to wear it than I initially thought,” Thrun said in the interview.
Lastly, the price itself became a detriment as well. Google, by charging $1,500 for a barely-functioning device, not only priced out a significant portion of potential consumers ($1,500 in 2013 is equal to $1,905 today when adjusting for inflation) but alienated early adopters who felt somewhat scammed for paying that much.
As a result, Google burned the bridge with both its earliest adopters, one of the most important demographics when introducing new product categories, and future customers even before Google Glass was fully unveiled.
4. Leadership (Or Lack Thereof)
The lack of leadership, in particular from the top of the food chain, became another reason why Google Glass was shuttered this quickly.
Sergey Brin, one of Google’s co-founders and the key driving force behind the project, had alienated some of its team members even before the product was launched.
Specifically, some staffers expressed their discontent with releasing unproven hardware to the public for testing purposes – a key strategy on how product success is judged by Google.
However, as we outlined above, doing so for hardware products, especially one with a $1,500 price tag, is probably not advisable.
“The team within Google X knew the product wasn’t even close to ready for prime time,” a former Google employee recalled during an interview with the New York Times.
Now, disagreements within high-performing organizations like Google are all too common. Yet, imposing one’s view on more than 50 percent of all team members rarely leads to great outcomes.
But putting his own desires over that of the team wasn’t Brin’s only fault. Early in 2014, news broke that Brin had an affair with Google Glass marketing manager Amanda Rosenberg.
Not only was Brin married at the time with two children while Rosenberg herself had a relationship with another Google staffer, but Brin’s wife was actually friends with Amanda Rosenberg. The two initially met after Rosenberg asked Anne Wojcicki, Brin’s then-wife, how to market Google Glass to mothers.
The scandal prompted multiple members of the team to depart from the team as well. Babak Parviz, one of the driving forces behind the project and a world-renowned expert on human and machine interaction, took his talents to Amazon.
Many have since stated that the incident became the proverbial nail in the coffin to the closure of the Glass Explorer Program. Seeing how poor the public reception had been previously, it’s not farfetched to assume that all involved wanted to simply move on.
5. Society & Technology At Large
Lastly, the state of society and technology, in general, played a key role in the backlash against Google Glass as well.
On the technology side, people around the globe had just begun to adopt smartphones and incorporate them into their daily lives.
For reference, only 55 percent of Americans in 2013 claimed to own a smartphone. Adoption has since swelled to 97 percent.
4G LTE had only been made available in 2012 while processing large quantities of data via the cloud (and potentially through Google’s own cloud service) was still in its nascent stages.
“People just weren’t ready to wear this thing on their faces. It didn’t normalise the way they anticipated,” another anonymous Google staffer said during the above-mentioned NYT interview.
As a result, having a device mounted on someone else’s eyes and potentially filming you made quite a few people unconformable. This has certainly changed, though.
Today, most consumers are comfortable with the thought of carrying a device with them at all times. And many of them gladly share what they’re doing on social platforms and even film what’s going on around them.
Moreover, cameras, whether its public locations or even people’s homes, have become ubiquitous. The thought of being constantly filmed is simply not as scary anymore.
Back then, the NSA leaks published by Edward Snowden in 2013 had amplified distrust against the government, thus making people more susceptible to potentially invasive monitoring practices.
One stands to wonder what the reception of a Google Glass-like product, given the proliferation of both AR and VR, would be today.
In fact, there are some interesting data points that indicate Glass actually not being a failure at all. Let’s unpack them in the following section.
But Wait: Is Google Glass Really a Failure?
Looking at all the facts I outlined above, one would easily arrive at the conclusion that Google Glass was a colossal failure. After all, the project itself was shut down within less than two years of consumer testing.
However, a deeper look under the hood reveals that this is not necessarily the case. After announcing the shutdown, Google moved the project away from the X division to a standalone unit within Nest.
Moreover, the team adopted a more secretive approach when it came to development instead of splashy marketing campaigns.
A mere six months later, in July 2015, patterns of what Google aimed to do with Glass began to emerge. The Wall Street Journal reported that Google quietly began to distribute a new version of Glass to business customers.
For instance, surgeons would use the glasses to get feedback from colleagues during procedures. And manufacturing companies equipped their workers with glasses that told them where to look for certain parts or access manuals of machinery they were using.
Firms like AGCO, which manufactures agriculture equipment, were able to improve their workers’ productivity by more than 20 percent.
And previous concerns, such as privacy, became non-issues as well since employees would only wear glasses during their work.
As a result, Google released a second version of its glasses, called Google Glass Enterprise Edition 2, in May 2019. With a price tag of $999, the model was also substantially cheaper while being much more performant.
Google continued to invest in the division as more and more (enterprise) use cases began to emerge. In July 2020, for instance, it acquired North, the makers of Focals smart glasses, for an undisclosed sum.
And finally, in 2022, Google seemed to be comfortable to release a consumer-facing product once again. In June, it unveiled a teaser that showed an eyewear product, which could translate languages in real time.
Many experts in the industry now believe that Google is actively working on a consumer product in light of rumors that Apple could release AR glasses of its own. Tech giants like Meta and Samsung are also set to release versions of their own while companies like Microsoft and Snapchat have been in the AR game for years.
Whatever the product winds up becoming, there’s one thing we can all stand behind: please, for the love of god, stop using skydivers.