BUSINESS

Glass Warfare: How Google's Headgear Problems Went From Bad To Worse

04/15/2014 12:46 pm ET | Updated Apr 15, 2014
Angela Weiss via Getty Images

Just in case Americans aren’t signing enough big checks on April 15, Google is celebrating Tax Day by giving the nation one day -- and one day only -- to purchase its $1,500 Google Glass forehead computer. Thus far, it seems people have done a superb job containing their excitement.

We always knew Glass, with its vaguely orthodontic design, would be a tough sell. Yet in the thirteen months since the device first appeared on American brows, Google has actually lost ground: Getting people to embrace the Internet-connected head camera has become more difficult, not less. And this is after an extended PR blitz, in which Google placed Glass on models in Vogue, refashioned it on sleek designer frames and showcased Glass in the hands of famous chefs, DJs and fashion designers.

In the beginning, Glass’ biggest sin was looking weird. Now, Glass is both physically unattractive and morally suspect. Glass has transformed into a symbol of the class warfare that’s erupted in San Francisco as residents protest the high prices, evictions and gentrification brought by an infusion of Silicon Valley cash. Glass, with its high pricetag and privacy threat, has come to represent everything San Francisco’s activists resent about the tech industry: privilege, profligate living and a disrupt-or-bust mentality that prioritizes progress for a few over the well-being of many. No stylish Warby Parker frames can easily fix that.

Wearing Glass is no longer just a sign of a dubious fashion sense. Donning Glass, no matter who you are under the metal frame, taints you as one of them -- one of the rich people destroying the fabric of the city, or one of the creepy Glassholes who likes to secretly record strangers from across the roof. Probably both. Such stereotypes turn Glass carriers into a target.

In San Francisco this past weekend, a Business Insider reporter covering a protest against Google had his Glass ripped from his face and smashed on the sidewalk. A few weeks before, a woman who wore Glass into a dive bar on Haight Street got the middle finger from fellow patrons, was told she was “killing the city,” and had her forehead-computer grabbed off her head by a stranger, who disappeared with the device but later returned it.

“When I saw her wearing the glasses,” the woman who flipped off the Glass owner told the New Yorker, “all I could think of was my friends who are being pushed out of the city.”

Google would like it very much if the world would just see Glass as a friendly device that’s “getting technology out of the way” while helping you “explore your world.” Instead, Glass has come to look more like an expensive toy for nerds with money to burn. The company has tried to smooth things over by giving its Explorers -- the 10,000-odd people invited to purchase early versions of Glass -- an etiquette guide to follow, with instructions like “respect others” and don't “be creepy or rude.”

But what Google hasn’t yet done is offer people a persuasive reason for why they need to wear Glass. Even those of us who haven’t signed a four-figure check know that leaving Glass at home doesn’t compare to forgetting an iPhone on the kitchen counter. So far, the only killer application for Glass is showing people that you’re wearing Glass.

Even with a growing number of Glass apps, there’s not much people can do with the fancy spectacles that they couldn’t do more quickly or seamlessly with their phones. To many, Glass still looks like an optional accessory. When Glass owners are challenged to defend why they’re using the device, in spite of the discomfort it might cause people around them, the wearers don’t have a compelling reply. The assumption becomes that they’re wearing Glass to show off, further cementing its dubious, status-symbol reputation.

Can Glass recover? Google is trying for a comeback, and has made a big show lately of putting Glass into the hands of the people who dedicate their lives to making people feel better: Doctors, firefighters, teachers.

If that doesn't work, Google also has a backup plan to make Glass less visible. This week, it filed a patent for technology that could put cameras on contact lenses. For now, though, extending the frontiers of smart eyewear remains, a least for Google, a pain in the glass.

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