Will Google Glass really change the world?

The biggest revolution that Google Glass could usher in would be getting people to stop thinking about media in terms of rectangles and boxes. Every medium around you is some combination of a rectangle or box. Even that performance art piece you went and saw at some newfangled gallery in the Mission last weekend was probably presented in a white rectangular room — a box in the truest sense of the word.

The logical direction for Google Glass to head is to overlay content directly on one’s vision, which opens up a lot of possibilities that don’t exist today. The current iteration of Glass is yet another rectangular screen, this time in the upper-right of your vision instead of halfway between your head and the floor. Its key innovation seems to be that it keeps your hands free and you staring straight ahead, which is a step toward an ideal augmented reality.

It’s only a matter of time before this happens and it’s making some people nervous that Google seems to ahead of other companies (at least in terms of marketing and investment). It’s been a while since I’ve seen such vehement attacks on a product which hardly anyone has used yet. The last time I remember this kind of full-court press against an upcoming product was from cell phone makers shortly before the iPhone shipped.

A lot of the criticism revolves around how the current iteration of Glass looks. The current version of those Epson glasses and Google Glass might make you look like a freak (or seem annoying, a “glasshole,” etc.), but a bunch of people sitting around at a restaurant or bar staring at their phones instead of each other would’ve looked pretty freaky not too long ago. People will adapt; there’s no doubt about it.

If future versions of glass do overlay a screen over your vision and literally augment reality — what would that world look like? Beyond things like enabling a hologram Tupac performance in your living room, there will be different layers on top of physical reality. Only science fiction has explored the possibilites of such a world, even though it seems we’re on the cusp of technology being good enough to start experiencing it.

I used to think that the “internet of things” meant that unconnected devices and objects would somehow become connected, via NFC or Wifi, but that isn’t what it’s about at all. “Things” will be more connected to a network, but beyond commercials aimed at selling CSCO stock and a few fitness devices, there hasn’t been a whole lot of traction there yet. Instead, I think the “internet of things” will really be enabled by this layer above the world. It’s not hard to see why people are so excited about the opportunites unlocked by this eyewear.

Can Google do it?

The main reason augmented reality glasses like this haven’t taken off is that there hasn’t been a good platform to build upon, from both a hardware and a software perspective.

If you look at most Google products, they're usually better versions of something that already existed in a very similar form. Search, Gmail, Android, Chrome, Maps, and a bunch of other bread-and-butter products that Google produces are not “new” platforms built from the ground up but are dramatically improved versions of existing and successful products within a space.

Some of the less successful products have been blatantly reactionary: Google+, the +1 button, Buzz, etc. The worst thing Google has done in the past year or two has been polluting their bread-and-butter products with these reactionary projects. As an aside, I don't think there is anything inherently wrong with being reactionary as long as you're improving the experience for your own users and making a product which is, at least in some ways, better than the competition. But Google's most reactionary products don't seem to have brought anything to the table that consumers are willing to invest time for.

The closest thing to something new that Google has produced in the past couple of years has been Wave, which was a complete disaster, to say the least. That and Android, which for a few years was very derivative (versions of pre-iPhone Android were not even touch-optimized) and has only recently deviated from that path to become something quite different from iOS. Android’s doing really well recently and the experience is, at least on high end devices, getting better every day.

On the hardware side, there seems to be the Nexus Q and Chromebook Pixel and maybe the CR-48 as the only examples of hardware which were designed by Google and not obviously rebadged and slightly tweaked versions of someone else’s devices.

So it’s not clear that Google can build a platform, integrating both hardware and software, from the ground up at this time. Actually, it’s not clear that Google can build platforms at all, but Glass is its first real attempt to create something completely new, to ship a complete hardware and software platform at scale. I hope it succeeds enough so that in a few years, we can point to today’s Glass and compare it to the Motorola ROKR iTunes phone, which pointed the way to the iPhone several years beforehand.