Will AR Glasses Die Like Google Glass?
Paris Marx is joined by Quinn Myers to discuss the launch of Google Glass, why the product failed so badly, and what lessons we can learn from it as tech companies make another push for AR glasses.
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Paris Marx: Quinn, welcome to Tech Won’t Save Us!
Quinn Myers: Hey, Paris! I love listening to show — I love doing the dishes while listening and just nodding my head and getting all riled up as I listen every week.
PM: I hope you don’t accidentally break your dishes while you’re listening to the show.
QM: It’s only happened a couple of times. Just small chips, chips in the coffee.
PM: Good. Very happy to have you on the show this week. You wrote this book about Google Glass, which is obviously something that was very much on everyone’s mind, that everyone was paying attention to for a while, that everyone likes to make fun of. It feels like it’s kind of receded from our memory a little bit, right at the moment, conveniently, when many tech companies are reentering the glasses space. It’s certainly a good moment to resurrect this history and have a discussion about what actually went on, and see some of the parallels that I certainly didn’t remember, as I was reading through the book.
So, I want to start here. Maybe there are some people who are listening who are like: Google Glass, what is that? Or I don’t completely remember what it is. I’m sure there will be other people who are like: Oh my God! Google Glass, what? In the rare case that there’s someone who doesn’t remember exactly what it is, what was Google Glass? More importantly, where did this come from? How did Google decide to pursue this product over the number of other things that could have done?
QM: We’ll start with why Google pursued it, and that is because Apple had just blown the world away with the iPhone. The iPhone was new and everyone was buying. It wasn’t as ubiquitous as it is now, but it was the new hot thing. So Google came up with Glass around 2012. They started working on it when they saw the iPhone just blowing people away. Apple was obviously making huge inroads into what it is now — a huge portion of the population uses iPhones. To this day, Google is largely an advertising platform. They get most of their revenue from ads served to you from Search, and they wanted to get into the hardware game. They said: We could do a cell phone, but the iPhone is dominating; let’s make a big swing at AR; we will replace phones. Their idea was a one screen per person thing, like we’ll replace TVs, laptops, and phones. Everyone will use this AR because this is what we’ve seen in science fiction, and we think this is what people want.
So they started the project in a top secret lab and just went from there. The end result was a clunky, heavy augmented reality glasses that worked and was kind of cool in a vacuum where it had a little display in the upper right hand corner. You could read texts, see emails, get notifications. You could be talking to people face-to-face by just texting with people. It would outlay directions — basically everything that people will talk about with augmented reality today. The problem was it was a beta product. They sold it, or pitched it, to the public as a finished product. It was not. The marketing was awful; the rollout was terrible. It was a huge meltdown, just a wildly in public tech meltdown for the ages. This was back in the Twitter and media heyday, when Gawker was still around, and Twitter was fun. Everyone was dunking on it and it was great. Then it went away, except for enterprise. Google transitioned Glass to being an enterprise version to stick on poor workers.
PM: That’s a good summation. We’ll get to a lot of those points through the course of the conversation to flesh them out a little bit more. When you’re talking about one of the sales pitches being that you’ll be able to text people from your glasses while you’re talking to someone across from you. It brings to mind when Mark Zuckerberg said something similar a couple years ago, and everyone was like: Why would you text someone when you’re talking to them? That would be so rude. It’s funny to see how these narratives repeat and come back and how they don’t seem to want to learn anything from previous experiences. But I want to get a bit more background information before we dig into it. You were talking about how Google created a research division in order to put this together. Do you want to tell us a bit more about Google X, how this was created and what the incentives behind it were from the co-founders, like Sergey Brin and Larry Page?
QM: So people who follow the industry will be very knowledgeable about Google and their moonshots, this Google X, this top-secret, crazy agency where they’re just taking their moonshots, which they branded them. It was just them throwing a ton of money at big projects that they think the world needed solving. Which are like huge internet balloons to go to parts of the world that didn’t have the internet. It’s like: Oh, great, we’ll give them the internet, but why? Driverless cars was another one. There’s a whole laundry list of these moonshots that they went out on and said the angle is: We’re doing this because we have the money and we have the smartest people on the earth. These are the problems that society needs solved, so we’re going go out and do it. People are like: Yeah, good job, Google. We love you! This is great.
PM: This is the tech industry changing the world for the better, right? It’s how we imagine them and how the media was presenting the tech companies to us, especially a company like Google.
QM: Oh, yeah. They formed Google X. One of the people I talked to in the book was Sebastian Thrun; he was the founder of it. They went after these huge projects where a lot of them failed — I would say probably all of them failed in some capacity. The takeaway from the book and in general is these aren’t altruistic projects. Google profits from more parts of the earth having internet; Google profits from everyone replacing their iPhone with your augmented reality. So people realize that as Glass melted down. They’re like: Oh, these aren’t things that need solved. Why don’t we tax people and put this money to actual use?
PM: Yes, sticking more of these Google projects out into the world, if we were all driving around in Google autonomous vehicles, and then they were showing ads to us the whole journey. Also getting this data on where we’re going so they could better target their ads to us. There are many ways that these projects are designed to benefit Google, to benefit the company, even though they’re being framed as: This is all for you; this is for the public; this is going to make the world a better place; we’re serving the Global South with internet. Elon Musk is using the same narratives now as Starlink saying: We’re putting all these satellites in space. Sure, it might create a whole load of risks and cause us to see satellites all the time when they’re going up there to distract from our view of the night sky, but we’re going to give internet to the global south and that is what is going to create a whole load of opportunities. This is the narrative as old as the internet itself.
Here’s another piece that I wanted to ask you about. One of the things that came up in the book was how there’s what Glass actually was, and then there’s the idea of what it could have been. These two narratives seem to get in conflict with one another. Some of the people on the project, as you were saying, wanted it to be like an AR headset and do these grand things. But then when they’re actually making it, they run into the challenges of reality and what they can actually deliver on. Tell us about that divide between the hope and the reality.
QM: So one of the my favorite things Sebastian Thrun told me was that if he could do it all again, he would only make it and market it as sunglasses because that way you couldn’t wear them and creep people out in romantic dinner. You could only wear them outside. It would be seen as a GoPro, like a camera that you wear as a GoPro. At the time, Google — specifically Sergey Brin who was very hands on on this project — wanted it to be something people wore all day. They wanted to market it as a piece of high fashion where they put it on models in huge fashion shows on the runway. The models didn’t know why they were wearing them or what the thing did, but were like: I guess what we’re trying to tell people this is the next big thing in fashion. They tried to get celebrities to wear it so that people would be like: Whoa, celebrities wear this! This is cool — I need to get it.
Then the big flashpoint for Glass was they came out with this video, which is called “One Day,” and that was the big viral hit. They put this video out that showed a person getting up in their apartment putting their Glass on, a little drop down said: Here’s an email from so and so. Then it’s like: Joe wants to meet you at the coffee shop your directions how to get there. They walk out of the subway and then into the coffee shop. And then it’s like: There’s Joe. And people are like: Whoa, this is so cool! Oh my god, this is the future! This is here, we’re living in the future. It’s here. Then a couple of the Glass engineers were like that’s quite literally where we lost the thread. Because in reality the Glass couldn’t do any of that. When it finally came out, the batteries didn’t last long. The batteries got hot. Sometimes they could record maybe 10 seconds at a time. They were clunky, slow, they broke down — so there’s a real divide about what Glass could actually do and what Google was trying to pitch it as being capable of. Or how Glass was going to transform the Earth into this utopia that everyone is wearing Glass and everyone can find their friends in the coffee shop without looking at their dang phone all day.
PM: Because they didn’t want you looking at your iPhone, they wanted to replace the mobile phone, so you’re just wearing your set of glasses. That was one of the funniest things to me when I was reading the book was — this is like 2012-2014 is the timeline you’re talking about — so it’s only been around for five, six, seven years, but already the engineers think it’s so terrible and we need to replace it. And the way that we’re going to replace it is by sticking a camera and a computer on your face, and that’s going to be so much better.
QM: My favorite thing is they had — I don’t know if it was internal or not — but it’s the image of the monkey turning into a caveman, where he’s crawling and then he’s a little upright, then it’s man walking. After the guy walking it was a person standing looking at their phone. Then after that it was a person walking upright again with Glass on. They think they’re transforming the human race. They think this is going to literally be an evolution for the human race. Just wild!
PM: As you wrote about, Sergey Brin did that talk where he talked about using your phone and having to look down at your phone as being emasculating and then everyone picking up on that.
QM: Unbelievable — emasculating? What is he talking about? When I saw that, I was like: I can’t believe this is what he said. We’ll probably get into this soon, but there’s so many seeds of things that are happening now, which is tech trying to wedge in their tech as a culture-war thing. Culture war is the language we use now, but there was rich versus poor in Glass, or haves and have-nots. This was him trying to be like: Phones are emasculating because you had to look down, I guess, or just like scroll. I don’t know what like his logic was, but it was him trying to cause that rift so people be like: I don’t want to do this emasculating thing. I’m going to buy this $1,500 piece of tech that doesn’t really work and heats up on my head.
PM: Is his vision that women use mobile phones and man use Google Glass? That’s how it comes across. It’s ridiculous.
QM: What a twisted, sick mind — a diseased way of thinking.
PM: It almost feels like projection in a way. At the same time, what it brings to mind to me is that Brin seems to be involved with a lot of these projects, in that moment. As I wrote about in my book, around 2012, he’s also going out and pitching the self-driving car future and how self-driving cars are just going to completely upend our cities and solve all the problems in our transport system. So there’s a lot of big visions of the future coming out of Google, in that moment, and how these projects from Google X are going to completely revolutionize society and make things better for everyone. Brin seems really central to a lot of those ideas and pushing those sorts of ideas for what Google and what these technologies are going to do. How does Brin come to be so involved in Google X in this moment? What was he doing before? Why does he feel so drawn to these moonshot projects?
QM: So he was a founder of Google, and they had grown so big and powerful that they we’re like: We need to restructure how the power works in this company, because the two bros who found it, don’t really know what to do, or how to run a company. It’s getting kind of toxic. So they’re like…Sorry I am blanking on the other two.
PM: Larry Page and Eric Schmidt.
QM: Larry Page, and Eric Schmidt, yes. So, they divided power. One of them is going to oversee search and one of them is going to oversee everything, and they’re like: Sergey, you can go off and do this moonshot thing, because you seem really into it and we’ll give you a ton of money, so you can kind of whatever you want, just have free reign over of all Google’s money and resources to do these stupid projects that you think are going to save the world. So that’s how it went. Afterwards, after all this public failure, he’s fine. He didn’t get fired; he didn’t lose. I think he stepped aside, he’s definitely less public, but he still didn’t lose his job or lose credibility in the field at all.
PM: He’s a Google co-founder. He’s still with Page, a controlling share of the company, I believe, because of the way that the stocks are distributed and there’s two types of stock. I believe he ends up bowing out eventually, because reporting comes to light about his affairs or something like that. It’s not because everything is falling down around him and all of his big projects that he pitched as the future are falling apart and not actually delivering what he promised.
So you talked about Sebastian Thrun who comes in to run this Google X team. Obviously, Brin’s very involved as well. They hire a guy named Babak Parviz, who is really central to working on the Glass project, in particular, and they have a team that is working, putting this together, prototyping particular things. Trying to see what they can put together in terms of like a Glass’s product. Then they actually get to 2012, where they announced this thing, so you’re saying that they set up this particular narrative of what it’s going to be. But when it comes to putting the product out there, what do they actually announce? What did they actually have to show off when it comes to presenting this to the public?
QM: So they clearly want to be Apple and Steve Jobs at this point. So, they talk to San Francisco. They changed the laws so that they can fly a blimp over the urban area of San Francisco so someone can jump out of a blimp wearing Google Glass. They livestream his jump onto the Moscone Center, where he will then hand glass over to a BMX rider and he’ll livestream his little trek across the roof. Then people will jump down the side of the building and BMX right back to a stage where Sergey Brin is waiting. This was at Google’s big tech conference, basically Apple’s conference where they announce all their new products and stuff. They do it as a surprise. So, Sergey Brin comes out and he’s like: Oh, let me interrupt you for a second, we have a little announcement. Then, Glass comes up and everyone’s like: Ah, yes! Oh my god! This was incredible!
Then after all the fireworks and stuff, they show a video of other things, like a woman wearing Glass and being able to take pictures of her baby from her perspective, and really touching things about how Glass is going to change the future. Then they’re like: If you want a pair of these, the sign-up kiosks are right outside. And these are all Google developers and software developers, so they all jumped at the opportunity. Then it doesn’t come out for like a year. They kept pushing the deadline on when it’s going to come out. Finally, they announced that they’re going to release more, totaling about $8000. But in order to get a pair of Glass, you have to do a hashtag, saying what you would do if you had Glass, #ifihadglass.
So a bunch of people do it on Twitter, it goes viral. Everyone wants it. Teachers are being like: I would livestream my classes for students. Doctors are like: I could livestream ,y surgeries. Neil Patrick Harris is like: I would go on The Tonight Show wearing it. Of course, Google picks and chooses. Somehow it falls in the hands of a lot of celebrities and highly-touted tech journalists. There’s just so many little stupid mishaps along the way. One thing is that early, before they vetted people, they’re giving Glass to people who would be hashtagging: I would wear glass to throw it off a cliff and stuff. And they’d be like: You won! Cool. So everyone’s excited about that. It’s finally coming out. I think it takes another year maybe, eight to 10 months, for it to actually come out after this hashtag. When it does, if you won the contest you didn’t actually get a pair of Glass, you had to pay $1,500 for the opportunity to have Glass. Then you had to pay for plane tickets out to New York or LA where they could teach you how to use it and do a class on how it works.
So eventually, it comes out and people pay $1500 for this groundbreaking piece of technology that’s going to change the world. Everyone’s very excited. Then they put it on and it doesn’t do anything they promised, at all. Google tries to say: Oh, it’s a beta product; we’re trying to do this like we do our software; you’re a unique set of beta testers. You guys just use it and then tell us what’s wrong and how to fix it. That’s also not how Google marketed it — they marketed it as a thing that models and celebrities wear, and as a finished product that’s going to navigate you to your friends and stuff. But it doesn’t do that. People get pissed because they pay $1,500 for an unfinished, uncooked product and that’s where Google continues to lose the reins a little more. As opposed to today, the media ecosystem was a little healthier, and people were more willing to say like: No, this is dumb, and Google screwed up and you shouldn’t buy these. No one wants these, and they don’t really fix any problems. The narrative turned against Google a little bit. So that’s how they came out. It was a bumpy road, to say the least.
PM: It’s interesting that you describe this. Because Google is a company that many people would recognize people who use their products regularly or who have kept up with them, who do these public betas. They’ll release these products — Gmail was in beta for years — so they’re happy to have you test these products. They’ll say: They’re not 100% yet, but you’re using them. Sergey Brin decides that this is how we should handle the hardware product as well. It’s not 100% ready — it doesn’t have all the features that we promised in the “One Day” video and we might never be able to deliver all those anyway, but we’ll put it out there and we’ll get people to use it so that we can get data, we can hear from them, and then we can kind of iterate and make it better.
It seems that wasn’t communicated as much as they thought internally, or maybe they imagined to the people who are going to end up using it. They had a very different idea of what they were getting their hands on. As you say, there’s also the price. This is not a few hundred dollar product, this is not a $500 or $600 iPhone — this is a $1,500 set of glasses. That also plays into a particular idea around who should be able to use it, who should own it, how it fits into the tech ecosystem. I wonder if you can talk to us a bit about that part. Because at the same moment, as Google is pushing this as a luxury product, there’s also a growing class divide playing out in San Francisco as these tech companies are making a lot of money and leaving behind a lot of the people who lived in the city before the tech workers flooded in. What is going on there and how does that play into these existing tensions?
QM: So this is a great point and very important to what happened with Google Glass and this moment in time. Like you said, Google was busing people out to their campus in Mountain View. People who had lived in San Francisco their entire lives were getting pushed out by Silicon Valley. Something that is well known as a thing is impossibly high rent in San Francisco. This is when people were first starting to get pushed out; they were getting mad. Also, Google was just busing people to their campus without even thinking about improving the structure or the transit — putting money into trains or something. They’re just like: we’re gonna stick people on buses, and traffic is going to suck because we’re bringing our people here, and we’re not going to do anything about it. We’re going to leave that to the city to figure out. That’s not our problem. We’re private company, we can do whatever we want.
PM: And they were even paying the city to use the public bus stops. So people will be waiting for their buses and these Google and Apple buses would pull up to get tech employees and whisk them off to their canvases.
QM: Yes, crazy. So then, the tensions come to a boil. People are protesting the buses. It makes national news, but it’s very much a local story, for the most part. In the meantime, Google is coming out with Glass, which is about a $1,500 piece of technology. At this point, people were breaking the tech down and saying: Well, it shouldn’t really cost this much. There’s no reason it should cost as much. We think it would cost around probably $800, $900, about the same as an iPhone for Google to make profit. But this is something that Google people told me for the book, was that they priced it high because they wanted it to seem like a luxury product that only like the rich and powerful would wear so that people would be like: Oh, wow! I need this to appear rich and powerful. Ultimately, what happens is rich, white tech bros are the ones who are going all in on Google Glass, and wearing it all around. They’re boasting that they’re wearing this cutting edge piece of technology. They’re the ones on the cutting edge, they’re the ones who can afford this. They know what they’re doing.
So suddenly, it becomes a symbol of the very people who are pushing people out of San Francisco, not to mention that there’s a camera on it. That’s freaking people out — they don’t know they’re being recorded in public. So suddenly, if you couldn’t tell them from their North Face quarter zips, bookbags walking around San Francisco, suddenly, they’re wearing this big, stupid pair of augmented reality glasses that people know don’t really do anything and are overpriced, but they’re wearing them around anyways. That’s when people start to demand that they take Glass off and it really pushes this over into physical altercations because people are justifiably angry at this exact type of dude who’s pushing people out of their homes.
PM: It’s almost a symbol of the hubris of Silicon Valley, and the people who are benefiting from all of this wealth, while a lot of other people are still pretty hard up because, of course, 2012 and 2013 is still the aftermath of the recession. There’s still a lot of people who are struggling as a result of that, the effects of that moment are still being really felt by a lot of people around the United States and the world more broadly, beyond that.
QM: I think at the same time, Twitter was threatening to move from San Francisco, but the mayor gave them a huge tax cut to stay. They were like: Oh, no.We want you guys to stay, here’s a massive tax cut. This just an another just like thumb in the eye of we’re not paying our dues to stay here.
PM: They’re making all this money. People are struggling, and now you’re getting a massive tax cut on top of it. This is not right. Of course, this is still a dynamic that is playing out in San Francisco to this day and has only gotten worse since then, I think it’s important to say. One thing that stands out to me in talking about this — you were just touching on it there as you were talking about the people who are kind of enthusiastic about this, who are wearing it — what’s the divide here because as the product is announced as this beta, 8,000 or 10,000 pairs of glasses have become available. There’s this group of enthusiasts that get really excited about it that are like: I’m moving into the future. I am getting these glasses from Google, you can tell I’m an early adopter, blah blah blah. But then on the other hand, there are people who are concerned about privacy. There are people who are concerned about the other implications of this. How quickly is there this divide between the enthusiasts and the critics, or the people who are concerned? How quickly does that emerge after the product is announced and put out there?
QM: So when it first comes out, there’s a little window of time where I talked to a lot of Glass explorers, to be known as Glassholes — the infamous Glassholes. They’re the ones who got Glass and were wearing it around. They told me there was a week, maybe a couple of weeks, of time where they’re wearing it around the city and people would be like: Oh my gosh, is that Glass? That’s so cool. Can you do this? Can you do that? Can you scan my face? Basically, just walking up and wanting to try it, being very curious and excited about it. But then the tide turns, I think specifically, when people start to realize that it can’t do what it’s supposed to do. Then, with the tensions boiling and San Francisco and the PRISM scandal. Which was when it came out that Google and the huge tech companies were funneling private data to the government, and it was a big scandal.
Suddenly, Glass is another symbol of you siphoning data of your life to who knows — a backdoor to whoever wants to see where you’ve been walking around, who you’ve been talking to, maybe what you’ve been saying, who you’ve been seeing. So, people are really freaked out about it, and then there’s the camera where people think they’re being recorded in public space, very isolating to the public sphere. It’s the camera that really freaks people out. They don’t want to be recorded in public; they don’t want to be out to eat and not know if this guy sitting at the table across from them is recording them and everything they’re saying. That’s when people really start to turn against these Glass explorers who are wearing them. At this point, some Glass explorers are like: Yeah, this is weird; I paid too much for it; it doesn’t really work. I’m also being like tasked with supplying Google with bug reports on a weekly basis. I’m doing work for them that they should just be doing. So, they just put their Glass in a box, and ever look at it again.
The rest of the people, though, circle the wagons. They’re like: We are being discriminated against — this is discrimination. You telling me to take my augmented reality glasses off in a restaurant is a violation of my civil rights, and they use the language of like civil rights movements to say: I’m being discrimiated against, how dare you? Restaurants, when they ban people from wearing Google Glass, get flooded with Google reviews of people being like: This restaurant is discriminatory, how dare they not allow people to wear what they want; it’s their right to wear this tech. This specific woman Sarah Solomon, someone pulls her Glass off her face in a bar, and she just goes on all the talk shows and talks about how she’s being discriminated against. How this is a reaction of poor people being jealous and not understanding that this is the future. Really cutting that divide, and putting a wedge there. Suddenly, they are the talking point, they’re the main media story of defining what Google Glass is. Google has completely lost any control of the narrative at that point.
PM: It’s just all these stuck up people who feel they should have the right to wear these glasses anywhere, you shouldn’t be able to put any restrictions on them. I believe you say in the book that Sarah says that being targeted for wearing Glass is a hate crime, just is one of the kind of crazy things that that is said there. As you’re saying, these people who are really pushing it, who are meeting resistance. There are companies, there are public spaces, there are airlines who quickly come in and start saying like: You can’t wear this product in these spaces because it makes other people uncomfortable; you might be recording people. It’s just not appropriate. How does the plan for Google Glass come apart?
QM: They’re still trying to push it as the next big thing that cool people wear and going to help your life. But at this point, people are questioning: What problems does this actually solve? The people who are wearing this are people we hate. At the time, they try to come out against us. They try to come out with etiquette guides for people who wear Glass saying: Don’t record people. If people ask you what they do, don’t say they can scan faces. If people ask you take them off, just take them off. But it’s very snarky and aimed at people who have concerns about Glass, like making fun of people.
It’ll be like: Well, we all know that Google Glass has a red beeping light when it’s recording, and it can only record for so long, but for some people who mistakenly believe that it can record at all times, explain that it can’t. Essentially, punching down at people who have concerns instead of addressing those concerns, head-on. They’re not saying: This is what it can do. Listen, we’re sorry, it’s not great, and we hear your concerns. But they’re just like: No, these people are idiots, but in the meantime here’s an etiquette guide on how to wear Glass in the real world. The media, Gawker especially, gets a hold of that, and it’s a hayday. Everything that they tried to do just loops back and is reason to just punch at Google, just hit them.
PM: I wanted to ask you about that point as well, though. Because in this moment, I think we recognize that a lot tech media has been very positive and helpful toward these companies in pushing out the visions that they have. There’s been a bit more criticism in recent years after a period where there wasn’t a whole lot of that. What do you make of the way that tech media responded to Google Glass in this period, 2012 to 2014? Was there generally a divide between somewhere somewhere quite critical and others were boosting it, saying it was incredible, repeating the company line. How did you see that play out in the media in the coverage of it?
QM: It’s interesting to compare or think about how this would all play out now. But at the time I would say the lion’s share of media was all in from day one, thinking it’s so cool. Time named it invention of the year. They were all over it because there were leaks coming out and this is very exciting — here’s what it could maybe do. This is the thing that’s going to replace phones. Just very excitedly talking about it, without really any sort of critical eye towards what could this do? What does this mean for surveillance and privacy terms? Instead, they’re all thinking it’s so cool. There are even articles being like: Google is marketing this in the smartest way possible, and saying how much it could benefit society, without really addressing the concerns. I should say that Gawker specifically, and I keep bringing them up, they were very consistently against this. At the time, Google is a huge monolithic company, but people generally viewed them positively. They’re like: No, look, they’re doing these moonshots because they care about society. They want to address, they’re gonna use their money and power for good.
PM: It was still the ‘Don’t be evil era?’
QM: Correct, the ‘Don’t be evil era.’ And people lapped that up. Gawker was critical of it the whole time, and they were very critical about Google. They were right on how Google was changing how they treat your data at the time, they were right on top of that. Gawker connected the dots between that and what Glass could do, or how Glass could leak data, or what stuff they could do.
It wasn’t until people saw that Glass wasn’t living up to its potential, and that people were cracking jokes about it on the internet. There had been a Tumblr started called “White Men Wearing Google Glass,” and it just brought all the narratives together into: Oh, this is what this. This is just rich white guys wearing Google Glass, the thing that doesn’t work and is super expensive. That’s when other legacy media companies started to think maybe this sucks and is bad. Here’s some critical things about it, but it wasn’t until the tide turned that they stopped parotting the company lines.
PM: And at what point does this really all fall apart? Or become clear that Google Glass is really not going anywhere, and this product is being put back into the hidden part of Google X, and it will only be seen in corporate applications, but not something that is in the real world
QM: For me, in my reading of it all, the final nail in the coffin was was when it was featured on The Daily Show. The daily show just had massive reach. It reached people who weren’t paying attention to the daily stumbles and meltdowns of Google and Google Glass PR.
PM: Especially in that moment, The Daily Show was huge.
QM: Massive. They did a whole segment on it. They trotted out Sarah and the other Glassholes, who were in front of camera wearing their Glass saying: I’m being discriminated against; it’s a hate crime to ask me to take my Glass off because this is part of who I am. This is the future and everybody get onboard, because we’re right, and you’re wrong. That’s when everyone’s like: Oh, fuck this, and fuck these people. I think that’s when the public, on top of the media, just turned. Google tried to do some last gasp that they tried to do one a.d. They tried to partner with Luxottica and say: Listen, we’re going to make them really cool. Ray Ban now has an augmented reality tech, but they’re like: We’re going make it nice and cool, and the hardware is going to be better, and you’re going to like it. But it was too late, the tide has turned on glass. It was a few months later that they quietly folded it into an enterprise product, but just never really said. They would tease the public release. People thought: Oh, Google says they’re gonna come out with it in a year, we’ll see. Then just fizzled out and no updates and they quietly folded it away.
It also coincided with investors in Google were being like: Why are we spending all this money on this thing that everybody hates? This is dumb. Why aren’t we buying more companies like Nest, the smart thermostats, which is immediately making money for us and while we’re throwing money at these moonshots? No one’s really watching over them, or critical of the choices they make, or the things they do. And that’s when, shortly after Glass’s public failure, they reorganized under Alphabet and totally restructured the company, shuttered a ton of the moonshots, and were like: We’re going to refocus how we spend our money here. The investors are mad and the markets are responding. So, money talks, I guess.
PM: Totally, something that we’re seeing now again. Of course, another reason that probably happened is 2014 is also when the story about Sergey Brin cheating on his wife came out, and he stepped back from a lot of this stuff shortly after. Of course, the person he cheated with was someone from Google Glass.
QM: Speaking of media, that was something gross, which was people would analyze why Google Glass failed, like in the wake of it, and blamed the affair. Specifically, the woman who he had an affair with, giving it the same weight as awful marketing, and making a product that people didn’t need or want. They gave that equal weight as the general product failures of Google. I was like: I don’t think that’s right, and it’s shitty and that has nothing to do with why Google Glass failed. Google Glass failed because Google was overconfident in what they could make people do.
PM: What it sounds like to me is almost searching for a reason to say: It wasn’t the tech; it wasn’t the vision. It was this interpersonal relationship that did in this visionary product, and now we don’t have it because these two people couldn’t keep it in their pants. When the problem goes much, much deeper than that. I don’t think that’s what killed Google Glass.
QM: Right, that and that it was simply ahead of its time. This is an inevitability, but it’s not Google’s failure. It’s not because the public just doesn’t want this. It’s like: They were just so smart. They were ahead of the public on this one.
PM: Well, speaking of it being ahead of its time, I think that’s a good segue to talk about what we can learn from this experience, and how Google Glass can inform some of the things that are going on now. I’m sure some of these tech companies have learned from it. You talked about the larger wearable space and how that becomes something, post-Google Glass, these companies get into smartwatches. Now we’re seeing more of them experiment with glasses. We had Snapchat with its sunglasses with a little camera in them. Of course, Facebook is trying to move into glasses now as well — it has a partnership with Ray Ban. So what do you see as the legacy of Google Glass and how inspires or inform some of the things that the tech companies are doing now, as they tried to revive this vision of putting a computer on your face?
QM: I think that, in a lot of ways, they haven’t learned their lessons at all. To the broader point that they tried to sell this vision of a world where everyone’s wearing augmented reality and people wholly rejected that. They just don’t believe that’s true and they’re going to continue on headstrong because they still believe that this is the next big thing. I will say that the marketing eyeglass was just awful — just generally head-scratching at points. I do think that they learned a few crafty lessons and how Google was pitched and how it was marketed, how it was sold. The AR Ray Bans came out very quietly, they were like: These are sunglasses you can post to social media and posted a little videos.
Compare that to how Glass came out, crickets, way quieter. You’ve talked about on the show how tech companies will pick something like climate change and say: We need to make this because it solves climate change. You’ll see this in Apple’s AR, which they’re coming out with. They lead the story with you can wear these and go to another country and it’ll translate right in front of you. People are like: Oh, cool, that’s awesome. Glass didn’t have anything. They just came out and was like: This is great. You’re going to love it. Trust us. But it didn’t work.
So I think we’ve gotten craftier about tethering a thing that people care about to the product that they’re making. The other thing is this is just weathering the storm. One thing I kept thinking of when I was writing this was the Google Home. If you remember when it first came out, people were like: Oh, no, I’m not gonna put this in my home. They’re going to record everything I say. Then after that initial pushback, tons of people have Google Home. You don’t hear any privacy concerns. They just weathered the storm, didn’t give it any oxygen and assumed we could just continue pushing this, and pushing this until people accepted buying an Alexa. My remote has voice control. I’ve never used it once — I don’t know who uses it — but there are constantly pops ups, like: Tell Alexa to play Netflix. I’d rather just use buttons, but they’ve gotten craftier and more adept at getting products to further infiltrating people’s private lives without causing a lot of public attention. Basically, just scary.
PM: Absolutely. We’re not long after Christmas and stuff. I feel one of the things that they’ve really taken advantage of is having some of those products be pretty cheap. The sticks that you stick in your TV or speakers as well, the ones that you talk to. I don’t like calling them smart speakers, I hate that terminology, but they’ve made them cheap. I don’t know what to get this person for a gift, I’ll just get them one of these because everyone has them now. You slowly perpetuated in that way or you get them free or discounted in some kind of promotion or something like that. So oh, why not pick up this new product? I hate that kind of stuff, but I do think it’s interesting to see how they continue to have partnerships with luxury brands. Apple Watch, when it originally came out, Jony Ive really wanted it to be a fashion product, in the way that Sergey Brin wanted Google Glass not to be for weird dorks, but to be for affluent people, to be for cool people.
You can see that same desire in Apple Watch when it is coming out. They’re showing it to Anna Wintour and Karl Lagerfeld, and bringing it to the runways. It’s featured in Vogue, and similar sorts of things. They have a particular audience that they want to sell it to — that they want to associate it with. Then after that, it becomes more of a health and fitness product, because they find that there’s a much larger market there. We see Facebook working with Ray Ban, in order to put its Stories glasses out there. So I find that really interesting to see those parallels, as these wearables become more common. We basically see a repetition of some of the things that Glass tried and maybe failed, but these other companies are working on and trying to use in their own pitches to get us to adopt these products.
QM: The wearables moving into health is another fascinating thing to me because people caught on when people are like: Oh, I can track my heart rate or I can track my sleep using this. It’s not about just like having the next Apple thing. I just constantly wonder about this with VR and AR, they cannot find a use case that people really care about. With VR, Meta met with Microsoft and was like: We don’t have to do Zoom meetings, you can feel like you’re in, you can do a meeting in the metaverse and feels like you’re there. But they probably just came up with it two months ago, and people started complaining about being in Zoom meetings all day because of the pandemic. That’s just a huge hurdle for these companies. It doesn’t do anything better than your phone does and doesn’t do anything new, and it doesn’t help you track your personal health at all. So what does it do? It’s just a question that they still struggle to solve. I don’t think there is an answer, but I don’t think they care. The potential payload on cracking the code to augmented reality or virtual reality or XR, as in extended reality, is untold profits, if they can get people to buy in.
PM: They just need to make it work. They need to figure it out. I do think that even in this moment, where they’re trying again, we’re still at a point where it can be stopped. In seeing the reaction to the metaverse and what Facebook or Meta is trying to push on us has been really instructive in seeing that people just think it’s a total joke. People don’t take it seriously. People are like: I’m not going to live my life in the metaverse, Mark Zuckerberg, I don’t know what you’re getting on with. I feel like looking back to Google Glass as something that really tanked because people really turned against it, because people using it were considered Glassholes. The media finally wizened up and started repeating that this was an utter joke that was had a lot of problems. But why would you even wear it in the first place?
We also saw that recently with cryptocurrencies and Web3, and the metaverse where there was criticism from the get-go. Even though the media was open to the idea that this could be the future, initially, it very quickly turned when it seemed the public had turned against it as well. So I wonder what you think we learn from that, especially as we look to what the companies are doing and trying to sell us when it comes to AR and these headsets Apple is apparently going to put out at some point too. I don’t know if you saw the recent reports, but it looks they’re planning to release a really expensive one, and aren’t sure when a consumer oriented a less expensive one will ever be released. Apparently that got pushed, and then they’re not sure on a release date now. Of course, these are all rumors, but what do you make of all that and what we can learn from the Google Glass period?
QM: You had Rose Eveleth on recently and they were talking about when it comes to tech and “progress,” you feel bad saying no. You feel bad saying: No, I’m not going do this. I often find myself couching myself and being like: Listen, I’m not a Luddite. I’m not a person who’s like: These little black squares, they might as well be our coffins! But there is hope and agency to be found in saying like: I’m going to like say no to this, I don’t want this. That should be looked at as a positive thing. That was kind of my endpoint with Glass. You should go back and read a few articles because it’s instructive and interesting to see that this multibillion dollar product from the world’s most powerful company was stuffed, because people made fun of it enough. I think that’s very hopeful.
Today when it comes to crypto and the metaverse, I don’t know if I’m cynical and in how the media ecosystem has been like hollowed out, it’s not as strong. Tech has positioned itself where the media is almost reliant on it to survive. Twitter isn’t what it used to be, obviously, and social media is in a weird fractured place. So I don’t know. There’s been a lot of people making fun of the metaverse and their lack of legs, and their big rollouts. There’s a lot of jokes to be had, and maybe it’s just because billionaires are a little more megalomaniac than they used to be, but they are not stopping. I don’t know if they tank the company to try to do it, and then that tanks the entire economy, or what, but we’re in a different space now than we were back then.
But I think that taking in the story of Glass made me realize it’s possible to step in and say that this empirical march into our private lives, we can stop that. I can go outside. I can leave my phone and computer to go outside, and Tim Cook doesn’t know where I’m at. I can look at trees and my eyes aren’t being tracked and what I’m looking at, how many ads I’m seeing. So I think if we can really protect that, even though it’s personal privacy versus public privacy, if we can really bunker down and just be like: No, I don’t want that, I think that’s something to hold on to.
PM: No, absolutely. As you say, that doesn’t mean it’s not a difficult thing to do. That doesn’t mean that the billionaires aren’t working overtime to ensure that their vision of the world is the one that gets implemented and that we all accept and conform to. There’s also opportunities, if we’re able to seize them, to push back on them, to challenge their ideas of what our future should be. We shouldn’t forget that. The story of Google Glass is certainly one that shows us how we can defeat bad ideas if we really try. Quinn, it’s been great to talk to you. Thanks for writing this book, it was great to go back to this period and reflect on it especially with the moment that we’re in now. Thanks so much for taking the time to chat with me.
QM: Thank you. This was great! I love it. Thanks, Paris.