Did you hear that Google finally pulled the plug on Google Glass?
Probably not. The announcement definitely flew under the radar. It came with much less fanfare than the original roll out in 2013. The technology, which has been quietly on life support as an enterprise tool aimed at select industries, finally had its plug pulled with this simple statement on its support page:
Thank you for over a decade of innovation and partnership. As of March 15, 2023, we will no longer sell Glass Enterprise Edition. We will continue supporting Glass Enterprise Edition until September 15, 2023.
Talk about your ignoble demises. They’re offering a mere 6 months of support for those stubbornly hanging on to their Glass. Glass has been thrown in the ever growing Google Graveyard, along with Google Health, Google+, Google Buzz, Google Wave, Knol – well, you get the idea.
It’s been 10 years, almost to the day, that Google invited 8000 people to become “Glass Explorers” (others had a different name – “Glassholes”) and plunge into the world of augmented reality.
I was not a believer – for a few reasons I talked about way back then. That led me to say, “Google Glass isn’t an adoptable product as it sits.” It took 10 years, but I can finally say, “I told you so.”
I did say that wearable technology, in other forms, would be a game changer. I just didn’t think that Google Glass was the candidate to do that. To be honest, I haven’t really thought that much more about it until I saw the muted news that this particular Glass was a lot more than half empty. I think there are some takeaways about the fading dividing line between technology and humans that we should keep in mind.
First of all, I think we’ve learned a little more about how our brains work with “always on” technologies like Google Glass. The short answer is, they don’t – at least not very well. And this is doubly ironic because according to an Interview with Google Glass product director Steve Lee on The Verge back in 2013, that was the whole point:
“We all know that people love to be connected. Families message each other all the time, sports fanatics are checking live scores for their favorite teams. If you’re a frequent traveler you have to stay up to date on flight status or if your gate changes. Technology allows us to connect in that way. A big problem right now are the distractions that technology causes.”
The theory was that it was much less distracting to have information right in the line of sight, rather than having to go to a connected screen that might be in your pocket.
Lee went on. “We wondered, what if we brought technology closer to your senses? Would that allow you to more quickly get information and connect with other people but do so in a way — with a design — that gets out of your way when you’re not interacting with technology? That’s sort of what led us to Glass.”
The problem here was one of incompatible operating systems – the one that drove Google Glass and the one we have baked into our brains. It turned out that maybe the technology was a little too close to our senses. A 2016 study (Lewis and Neider) found that trying to split attention between two different types of tasks – one scanning information on a heads up display and one trying to focus on the task at hand – ended up with the brain not being able to focus effectively on either. The researchers ended with this cautionary conclusion: “Our data strongly suggest that caution should be exercised when deploying HUD-based informational displays in circumstances where the primary user task is visual in nature. Just because we can, does not mean we should.”
For anyone who spends even a little time wondering how the brain works, this should not come as a surprise. There is an exhaustive list of research showing that the brain is not that great at multi-tasking. Putting a second cognitive task for the brain in our line of sight simply means the distraction is all that much harder to ignore.
Maybe there’s a lesson here for Google. I think sometimes they get a little starry eyed about their own technological capabilities and forget to factor in the human element. I remember talking to a roomful of Google engineers more than a decade ago about search behaviors. I remember asking them if any of them had heard about Pirolli and Card’s pioneering work on their Information Foraging theory. Not one hand went up. I was gob smacked. That should be essential reading for anyone working on a search interface. Yet, on that day, the crickets were chirping loudly at Mountainview.
If the Glass team had done their human homework, they would have found that the brain needs to focus on one task at a time. If you’re looking to augment reality with additional information, that information has to be synthesized into a single cohesive task for the brain. This means that for augmented reality to be successful, the use case has to be carefully studied to make sure the brain isn’t overloaded.
But I suspect there was another sticking point that prevented Google Glass from being widely adopted. It challenged the very nature of our relationship with technology. We like to believe we control technology, rather than the other way around. We have defined the online world as somewhere we “go” to through our connected devices. We are in control of when and where we do this. Pulling a device out and initiating an action keeps this metaphorical divide in place.
But Google Glass blurred this line in a way that made us uncomfortable. Again, a decade ago, I talked about the inevitable tipping point that will come with the merging of our physical and virtual worlds. Back then, I said, “as our technology becomes more intimate, whether it’s Google Glass, wearable devices or implanted chips, being ‘online’ will cease to be about ‘going’ and will become more about ‘being.’ As our interface with the virtual world becomes less deliberate, the paradigm becomes less about navigating a space that’s under our control and more about being an activated node in a vast network.”
I’m just speculating, but maybe Google Glass was just a step too far in this direction – for now, anyway.
(Feature image: Tim.Reckmann, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)