With the consumer launch of Google Glass expected during the 2013 holiday season, people around the world will soon have a chance to discover a technology that only decades ago seemed like movie magic. While many have begun to talk about how well the device will sell, many are avoiding the obvious question: will it be acceptable to wear Google Glass in public, and if so, can Google grab enough mindshare at the outset to influence social convention?
As Joel Hladecek points out, most people already consider it rude to use your phone in public spaces and while having a conversation. It's generally assumed that if you're looking at your phone, you're not paying much attention to those around you. No where is that more true than walking down the streets of my neighborhood in New York City. If Google Glass presents an "always on" distraction (literally), how can someone be sure they have your undivided attention?
Steve Lee, Google Glass Product Director, makes the case that Glass lets you focus on the things you're doing, like your child's soccer game or a day at the park, instead of on your phone. By making the product wearable, he says Google has found a way to make technology more invisible. Nevertheless, like a phone sitting on a table, Google Glass may present a distraction for both the wearer and observer. Even if you trust the person you're talking with to listen, the potential for distraction will exist simply because it's out in the open. There's also the privacy factor. With a camera in every headset, it's not unreasonable to expect people will feel a bit exposed and uncomfortable at the thought of being filmed or photographed, possibly without their consent.
While this friction may not exist in a future where Glass is commonplace, the reality we face is that social interactions depend on some level of courtesy and comfort. For Glass to succeed, it's going to have to become socially acceptable for people to wear them without raising eyebrows. Moreover, early adopters who purchase the device will have to embrace the inevitable unease that'll come from judgmental stares and adapt to when and where the device is appropriate. The kicker is that if you can only expect to wear the device at home, you might as well leave it in the box.
We can see a glimpse of what early adopters may face by looking no further than Google co-founder Sergey Brin – he wore Google Glass on the NYC subway. Not only did people avoid him, but he also looked a bit foolish wearing the device in a scenario that clearly provided no benefit. At that point, he may as well have put them in his pocket, and if you're putting Glass in your pocket, why not just use your phone?
Now you could argue that cell phones were once in the same position that Google Glass now finds itself. Who would ever want to carry around a giant, clunky box with an antenna? The reason for that is simple. Phones have introduced a plethora of life-changing conveniences that outweigh the risks of looking silly. They solve real problems and they do it well. Contrast this with something like bluetooth headsets, which solve a much smaller problem while introducing another: if people don't see it, you look mentally ill. When you aren't using it, you look like a self-important douche.
Let's assume for a moment that Google can overcome societal conventions and turn Glass into the next must-have gadget. What would this look like? Google is going to have to introduce compelling conveniences that trump smartphones and eliminate moments where the device feels pointless. Right now, sending messages, taking pictures and video, and voice searches aren't compelling enough to overcome the potentially awkward experience. But if Google can capitalize on the success of Google Now to provide information that users didn't even know they needed, the moment they need it, the "invisibility" of Glass becomes an invaluable way to provide something truly better. Add on top of that applications like navigation - the most obvious case where being able to watch your surroundings is important - and the device becomes more transformative.
While it's unclear what role developers will have on the device, it's a good bet that the most compelling applications, either from Google or third-parties, will take advantage of the Glass experience the same way great iOS apps maximize the touchscreen. The trick will be pushing the form factor so that awkward subway rides are few and far between.
So, will it become socially acceptable to wear Google Glass? I hope so. While the device is a bit bulky now and the walls for social acceptance appear high, minification and iteration are bound to further Google's goal: making technology invisible in ways that meaningfully enhance our lives. Glass is breaking new ground for sure, but it needs compelling experiences that take full advantage of the device in order to make it acceptable to wear, and that's no short order. But if Google can succeed, it means a device that could blossom into something truly great.
My name is Mike and I design and build things that get stuff done. Follow me on Twitter