Did Google Ruin Smart Glasses for Everyone Else?

In the time since Google stopped selling the Explorer Edition of Google Glass, a number of tech companies have been working on their own version of a pair of smart glasses. One of those seems close to becoming a reality, but Google Glass may have done so much damage that no one will want to buy even a better-designed, less expensive pair of smart glasses.

Rachel Metz reports for MIT’s Technology Review that VSP Global, the company whose Marchon division currently produces glasses for brands like Nike and Calvin Klein, is building a pair of glasses that can track your steps. But unlike Google Glass, which Google stopped selling to consumers in January, VSP’s “Project Genesis” glasses mostly hide the technology that makes the glasses smart. The company is testing an early version of the glasses with its employees, and it will soon expand to a pilot with people outside the company, with the goal of bringing the frames to market next year.

The popularity of fitness-tracking wearables has increased significantly in the past few years, but many people who buy such devices don’t keep using them for long. Endeavour Partners recently estimated that a third of buyers in the U.S. end up ditching their fitness-tracking wearables within six months. While the reasons certainly vary, Metz notes that VSP is hoping that integrating the tracking technology into an accessory that many people are used to wearing everyday could make fitness trackers more appealing. Jay Sales, co-leader of the VSP research lab working on the project, tells Technology Review that adding the technology to the frames isn’t expected to make them more expensive for consumers. “We’re hoping this will be ubiquitous in everything we make,” he tells Metz.

As Metz notes, VSP’s eyewear would be “smart-ish glasses that don’t look dumb.” She tried on a prototype, which integrated an accelerometer, a gyroscope, a magnetometer, and a rechargeable battery all in the left arm of the glasses. The device uses low-energy Bluetooth to connect with a smartphone app that logs steps and calculates the number of calories burned. The current prototype gets about four days of battery life. Metz notes, “I could tell that the left arm was fatter than the right, but overall the glasses didn’t look too unusual—definitely much more like a regular pair of specs than, say, Google Glass.”

What’s unclear is whether the failure of Google Glass has poisoned the well for everyone else, even if they offer good solutions to problems like dealing with the added weight of the sensors and battery, or figuring out a good way to charge the glasses’ battery. Tim Bajarin reports for PC Mag that with its pair of smart glasses, Google learned the hard way how tech products do and don’t get adopted.

“It lost hundreds of millions of dollars on this project,” Bajarin writes, “and even worse, it soured the consumer market for a product like this.” Google Glass did a considerable amount of damage to consumer regard for smart glasses, and Bajarin thinks that even when a manufacturer comes to market with a product that’s cheaper and better than Google Glass, it will be difficult to get the average consumer interested. “What I think the market will soon realize is that Google’s goal of extending smartphone data to glasses was never a viable product, at least for a broad consumer market,” Bajarin writes. “On the other hand, it appears that the best wearable to do this is a smartwatch.”

In building a device to deliver information from a smartphone to a tiny lens on a pair of eyeglasses, Google took a fundamentally different approach than Apple took with the Apple Watch, which had been in the works well before Google Glass first surfaced. Bajarin notes that the Apple Watch face looks “like a giant screen” when the device is compared to Google Glass. Delivering information from a smartphone to a wearable is a viable concept, but a wrist-worn device is more likely to become the “de facto standard for extending the smartphone to a wearable” than a pair of smart glasses.

From what Technology Review has reported about the prototype, VSP’s Project Genesis smart glasses will be the kind of device that will passively collect information — rather than present information for you to interact with, or at least pay attention to — which should make it easier to get right. If the company succeeds in making the technology useful but truly unobtrusive, it could hit the right balance to appeal to at least a small group of consumers. But the sour consumer sentiment around Google Glass demonstrates that there are some compromises that even the most tech-savvy of wearable fans just aren’t willing to make for a pair of smart glasses.

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