How Google Glass Explorer Was the Right Kind of Failure

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Writing for The Wall Street Journal, Alistair Barr reports that Google isn’t giving up on Google Glass. Google stopped selling the first version of Glass and shut down the Explorer program in January, moving the program out of the Google X research lab into its own division at the company. Ivy Ross remains the head of the Glass team, but Tony Fadell, head of Google’s Nest connected home division, now oversees strategy for the project. While the changes have given rise to speculation about whether or not Google Glass has a future as a consumer product, executive chairman Eric Schmidt tells the Wall Street Journal that the wearable device has been put under Fadell’s leadership “to make it ready for users.”

Schmidt tells the Journal that Google Glass is “a big and very fundamental platform for Google.” He explained, “We ended the Explorer program and the press conflated this into us canceling the whole project, which isn’t true. Google is about taking risks and there’s nothing about adjusting Glass that suggests we’re ending it.” Schmidt says that Glass, like Google’s driverless car, is a long-term project. Deeming Google Glass a failure would be “like saying the self-driving car is a disappointment because it’s not driving me around now,” he said. “These things take time.”

Though Glass has been criticized as an invasion of people’s privacy because the wearer can record videos or take photos unobtrusively, Google remains interested in the potentially large market for wearable devices. While research firm IDC projected last year that annual shipments of wearable devices will grow 78% a year to 112 million by 2018 — compared to almost 1.9 billion smartphones it expects to ship in 2018 — IDC says that complex wearables that operate independently from smartphones won’t catch on quickly because the value proposition for users isn’t yet clear.

The next generation of Google Glass is expected to be cheaper, and offer better battery life, improved sound, and a better display. It also bears noting that Google is reportedly considering adding a light to show when the outward-facing camera is recording, and it may also try to pair the technology that underpins Glass with more familiar types of eyewear.

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What did Google do right with Glass? What did it do wrong?

While we don’t know yet what Google Glass 2.0 will look like, one thing that’s certain is that Google will draw on what it learned with the Explorer program in rethinking Google Glass ready for the general consumer. There are numerous lessons to be drawn from the first phase of Google Glass, and Google’s likely learned, for one, that the appearance of a wearable device is extremely important. It’s also learned that making a device unobtrusive is important to the general consumer. And it’s likely gathered that wearable devices have to go beyond the functions of the smartphone to demonstrate their utility to the general consumer.

Significantly, Google Glass hasn’t successfully made a case for wearing a computer on your face, and Google hasn’t defined what Glass is for or how it can be useful to consumers. And most consumers won’t be interested in a device just because it’s new, but because it has some advantage over the devices they already have in what it can do and enable them to do. While it’s made its share of mistakes with the first generation of Glass, Google doesn’t count the public nature of the Explorer program as one of the mistakes that it made with Google Glass.

The Verge reports that in an SXSW keynote on the value of failure, Google X’s “captain of moonshots” Astro Teller talked about how the secretive lab will open up about its projects earlier in their development. Teller doesn’t see projects like Google Glass, Project Loon, robotics, Project Ara, and self-driving cars as secretive. He sees the development process as Google X releasing news of its projects as soon as possible to get feedback, and said he learned early on in his career that it’s necessary to get user feedback right away, not just at the end of product development. “The longer you put off that learning, the most you will unconsciously avoid getting the news,” which he characterized as “failing at the beginning.”

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Failing at the beginning with the first generation of Google Glass

Glass is perhaps the most high-profile project that Google X has created. While Teller called the Explorer program a “great decision,” he thinks that “The thing that we did not do well, that was closer to a failure, was that we allowed and sometimes even encouraged too much attention for the program.” He added, “We did things which encouraged people to think of this as a finished product.” Instead, Teller says that Google wanted to learn about uses for the product and the social norms around its use, but didn’t intend to lead people to believe it would launch a consumer-ready version of Glass anytime soon. The company was unprepared for the amount of attention that the product would receive.

Many people had something to say about the potential privacy issues associated with the wearable. While Teller didn’t discount those privacy concerns outright, he implied that he thought they were overblown, saying, “Google Glass did not move the needle, it was literally a rounding error on the number of cameras in your life.” He said he hoped that the privacy conversation Google Glass began will expand to the actual cameras that are everywhere, not just a few thousand prototypes of the company’s wearable device.

Teller spoke about the value of early failures, like those experienced with the first Project Loon balloons or in the development of the self-driving car, and noted that they were integral to the ambitious projects undertaken at Google X. Teller says he doesn’t regret anything about the mistakes made on any of these projects, except for one caveat: “I just wish we could have made these mistakes faster.” Conducting the Explorer program and making the development of Google Glass public seems to have helped accelerate the process of making and learning from mistakes with Google Glass. While the first version of Google Glass was a misfire, word has it that prototypes of a new and improved version of the device might already be in the hands of developers.

Source: Thinkstock

Source: Thinkstock

The Explorer program as a beta for Google Glass

In January, when Google announced that Google Glass was “graduating” from the Google X labs to become a standalone unit, Tech Cheat Sheet noted that future versions of Google Glass will be built out of public view, in an approach favored more often by companies like Apple, which develop products in relative secrecy and then release them as fully finished products. Google, as a software company, tends to release early versions of a product to gain the feedback of early adopters. The Glass Explorer Program, for example, was intended as “a kind of ‘open beta’ to hear what people had to say.”

Especially when it comes to wearable devices, an area still in its infancy, releasing a prototype or an early build of a product is comparable to sharing the beta version of a piece of software to test whether it successfully meets the needs of potential users. Writing for Wired, Novealthy’s Mano ten Napel explains that when a device or a piece of software is in its beta phase, it’s near completion. Typically, the beta is the last version before the final version is released. Beta products are released to test the hypothesis on which the product is built with real people in real-life situations. With wearable technology still in its “incubation period,” pre-releasing a product to gain valuable data and feedback goes against the intuition to protect a product until it’s finished in favor of doing something better, even when it exposes the company to criticism and the risk of failure.

While Google Glass 2.0 and future products in the Google Glass line won’t be open to the same public experimentation as the first generation, Google has hopefully used the beta stage of the product to gather the information it needs to make Google Glass into an exciting and useful product for consumers.

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