“One Day” will have to wait a little longer: Google Glass still means business

Last week, Google announced that it would be ending the Glass Explorer project for the public to purchase.  The reaction on the internet was a combination of anger from people who bought the device, pundits declaring ‘I knew it all along,’ and a healthy dose of Schadenfreude. Some provided commentary on the many reasons it was poorly received, others lumped it in in with other high profile Google missteps, and still others analyzed it from a PR perspective, i.e. what a disaster the project was for Google.

The second part of Google’s announcement, however – that they are reorganizing the departments in charge of the project and refocusing Glass to cater to business uses rather than consumer use – has only been covered as a minor footnote. Cynics are arguing that this is just a cover story to minimize embarrassment, while proponents are taking Google’s word that it is going back to the drawing board and revamping the device for a different market and rerelease.

As someone who has been studying the augmented reality/wearable technology community for a number of years (many of whom have understandably distanced themselves from Glass), the decision comes as no surprise. While most of the coverage in the popular press has been about consumer usage, it has been an ongoing trend in the past couple years for AR hardware and software companies to focus more on business to business partnerships than the consumer market.

Google Glass illustrated many of the reasons why the consumer market is a finicky space – the aesthetic/fashion issues have been well covered, as have the stories of social (and physical) backlash toward Glass wearers and their recording devices. Two other issues specific to the consumer market have received less attention, but are nonetheless significant. One is something that the AR community has been slowly realizing, that their presumption that people want a constant stream of information (constantly augmented) was misguided. One of the problems that delayed Google Glass, according to a Glass community leader who I met at a Augmented World Expo New York 2014, was that many of the initial proposed applications for Glass by designers were for extended uses – reading, watching video, etc. It wasn’t until the Explorer community beta-tested the device that they realized these weren’t going to be viable – people did not want to spent more than a few seconds looking up and to the right, let alone several minutes or beyond. Many of these application ideas had to be scrapped.

0405_glass_6602The second is that designing for these ‘micro-interactions’ proved extraordinarily difficult. In order to justify the hefty price tag, these would also have to offer something that smartphones could not, while also working around technological and practical limitations. One proposed application held up as a good use for Glass was one that proposed to show you (directionally) where your departure gate was when you arrived/disembarked at an airport. Just for that one second of information, however, this app would have to have real-time information about airport layout and gate changes, knowledge of your flight itinerary (gleaned from your email), and to know your specific location and direction you’re looking. There simply weren’t enough instances for everyday consumer life where all of these things are necessary, particularly to justify the price tag and potential loss of privacy these apps require.

It is for all of these reasons that the AR/Wearable community, and now Google Glass, is turning to industrial/enterprise applications to bracket off some of those hard design and technology problems that make the devices untenable for consumer use. First, industrial applications do not have to attract voluntary users or persuade people that a certain device and application is worth using – instead they have to make the business case to management. Second, they do not need to leverage or attract third party developers, because instead of finding everyday consumer problems that the technology can address on a mass scale, they can narrowly focus on specific areas and gain access to the content/databases they need directly from the enterprise industries. Lastly, it brackets the aesthetics question for HWD, because industrial users are not voluntarily using these devices and do not need to ‘look cool’ or be super comfortable. At InsideAR 2013 these motivations are made explicit, as one speaker told the audience: “employers can just make their employees wear this stuff. I’m sorry if that sounds draconian, but that’s the way it is.”

For the past couple years, industrial development has been growing way for the AR community to demonstrate the necessity of the technology – sometimes people will show videos of technicians using headworn technology to help them repair machines, warehouse workers deploying AR to identify and log product pickups, airport employees wearing glasses that check ID’s and boarding passes, and sales representatives looking up information that helps customers.  Already other AR eyewear companies like Vuzix have started moving in this space with the M2000, highlighting their ruggedness and durability as well as their ability to handle bright outdoor spaces. Another AR eyewear company (who asked to remain confidential for the time being) has garnered interest from one of the largest big box store franchises in the world for equipping their sales associates. Augmedix just announced that it raised 16 million dollars for their application to organize doctors medical records. Google will now join these companies in focusing on these kinds of industries and perhaps shifting the next design of the product to better suit these environments.

There are important implications of this move, both for AR technology and the workplace. Consumer AR and industrial AR are not strictly mutually exclusive, but they do differ in priorities across all areas of development, including technological capabilities, physical design, standards, and content. Consumer AR advocates were focused on solving improving the design of these devices, creating better recognition of 2-D images and simple 3-D shapes, finding useful consumer applications, and creating/standardizing AR colorful and playful visualizations. Industrial/Enterprise AR would push instead for more complex recognition capabilities, highly accurate registration with the physical world (over the animation), specific types of interaction capabilities, while deemphasizing the aesthetic side. Google was the biggest organization to make a push in the consumer AR space, and their abandonment signals to other actors that the consumer market is not ready and perhaps motivate work toward industrial problems.

For employers and employees, these devices will be the latest technology to enter the workplace, reviving longstanding debates between management and labor. At Augmented World Expo New York 2014, one AR salesperson told me that they are in discussions with an appliance company that sends their employees out in the field for repairs. One of the reasons they were interested in AR devices was so they could monitor what their employees were doing and looking at in the field. Other concerns are that these technological devices might be used to replace workers or expertise. The CEO of the AR company interested in partnering with the big box store explained to me that one of their client’s primary motivations is to decrease the amount of employee training they need to do and help to absorb turnover in the workplace. Thus far the conversation has been about how moving toward industrial uses is a smart move for Google, but soon we’ll have to think about what it means for the companies who choose to adopt these technologies and the workers who have to wear them (if they do or choose to resist).

Google’s announcement is an important one for what it signals – about the technology and to other actors in the technology space – that the consumer market isn’t quite ready or those problems aren’t solved. At the same time, if they are actually serious about moving toward industrial/enterprise uses, it raises and elevates new problems for headworn/wearable technologies in those environments. One thing is for certain after last week’s announcement – the immediate future of AR will look very different from the ‘One Day’ that Google originally envisioned.