This is a story of public intrigue, a futuristic wearable technology, a secret laboratory, models, sky divers and an office love triangle that ended a billionaire's marriage. This is the story of Google Glass.
From its unveiling in 2012, Google Glass was considered the gadget of the future. But perhaps the biggest surprise took place last week when Google said Glass as we know it was going away.
To understand what went wrong we need to go back a few years. The founders and a handful of executives came up with a list of 100 futuristic ideas. These included indoor GPS and the Google Brain. But the excitement was reserved for a new genre of wearable computers that could be attached to skin or worn like glasses.
In 2009 Google’s chief executive
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to build out these ideas. The lab found a covert home on the Google campus and Glass was born. Before long Sergey Brin, Google’s co-founder, joined to help run X.
At the time he was married to Anne Wojcicki, a genetic-testing entrepreneur and the mother of their two children. He also had a reputation for having what has been widely quoted as "project attention deficit disorder," becoming obsessed with one project and then sauntering off to the next.
With Brin and Thrun at the helm Google X and the glasses project stayed under wraps for more than a year. Then in 2011 my colleague Claire Cain Miller and I broke the news about the secret Google X Lab and detailed some of the projects.
At the time, unknown to anyone outside X, an impassioned split was forming between X engineers about the most basic functions of Google Glass. One faction argued that it should be worn all day, like a “fashionable device,” while others thought it should be worn only for specific utilitarian functions. Still, nearly everyone at X was in agreement that the current prototype was just that: a prototype, with major kinks to be worked out.
There was one notable dissenter. Brin knew Google Glass wasn’t a finished product and that it needed work, but he wanted that to take place in public, not in a top-secret lab. Brin argued that X should release Glass to consumers and use their feedback to iterate and improve the design.
To reinforce that Glass was a work in progress, Google decided not to sell the first version in retail stores, but to limit it to Glass Explorers, a select group of geeks and journalists who paid $1,500 (€1,320) for the privilege of being an early adopter. The strategy backfired.
“The team within Google X knew the product wasn’t even close to ready for prime time,” a former employee said. The marketing team and Brin had other plans however.
At a Google developers conference in June 2012, for example, Glass-wearing sky divers landed on top of the auditorium, raced across the roof on bikes and into the conference hall to thunderous applause.
Brin seemed to revel in the attention. Later that year at New York Fashion Week, Brin sat in the front row wearing Google Glass at a Diane von Furstenberg show in which the models wore different coloured pairs.
This wasn’t how Glass was supposed to be introduced. This wasn’t the quiet experiment that Google X engineers had hoped for as they tinkered away. It was like watching someone whisper a secret with a bullhorn.
But sky divers can only do so much, and the shine started to wear off. Tech reviewers who finally got their hands on Glass described it as “the worst product of all time,” aptly noting that it had abysmal battery life, and that it was “plagued by bugs”. Privacy concerns were raised, with people afraid of being recorded during private moments, such as at the urinal, as I experienced at another Google conference where I was surrounded by Glass wearers. It was also banned from bars, movie theatres, Las Vegas casinos and other places that did not want customers surreptitiously recording.
Then, in early 2014, a scandal hit the Google X labs. A love affair had developed between Brin and Amanda Rosenberg, a marketing manager on Google Glass. Brin was leaving his wife for Rosenberg, who was in turn leaving her boyfriend, who also worked at Google.
From there, Google Glass seemed to wither away. Early X employees left. Brin stopped wearing Glass in public.
And that’s how we arrive at last month, when Google announced that it was shuttering its Glass Explorer programme. It has largely been reported as the death knell for Glass. But maybe not.
In its new life, Glass is overseen by Ivy Ross, a jewellery designer who runs Google's smart-eyewear division, and Tony Fadell, a former Apple product executive and the creator of Nest. Several people with knowledge of Fadell's plans for Glass said he was going to redesign the product from scratch and would not release it until it was complete.
“There will be no public experimentation,” one adviser to Fadell said. “Tony is a product guyand he’s not going to release something until it’s perfect.” – (Copyright 2015 New York Times News Service)