In the winter of 2001, I was introduced to a piece of technology that was along the first of its kind, the RCA eBook Reader; also known as the Rocket eBook or REB.
The REB, was a handheld device designed specifically for reading long forms of writing. It had a 5" backlit touch screen, about 8MB of memory (just enough for about 10 books), a built-in 33.6k modem, a USB port, and a well powered lithium-ion battery. The form factor felt like a book, supporting various orientations, and was light enough to carry in a backpack or purse without noticing it was there. It was a fantastic piece of engineering that made for a great reading experience, all for about $299. The device connected to a set of servers via the modem or USB by computer, where you could purchase, store, and download your eBooks.
The only problem with the REB, was that most of the major book publishers still refused to work with the service. No one, including critics of the device, believed that people would want to read on a digital screen instead of paper. People failed to see that it was an impending certainty. The future was in front of them, and they could not accept it. By 2003, the REB was discontinued and the service was shut down. Mine now sits on a dusty shelf in the closet.
In 2007, Amazon launched the Kindle and eBooks were propelled into modern culture. They are now the single best thing to happen to the publishing industry since the printing press (arguably). Companies and people from around the world, even those who fought the service in 2003, now embrace it. There are even statistics that show how children today are reading more than ever, simply due to the availability of content.
The Google Glass is a similarly marvelous piece of engineering to the REB. Having spent the last few weeks testing the device and developing software for it; I can certainly see how it will change just about everything in the way that we interact with each other. I also sense that it will suffer from the same sisyphean challenge as the REB did.
There has been a great criticism from the tech industry and consumers over the Glass, specifically around the $1500 price point. It's widely felt, and proven, that the price does not reflect the cost of the hardware. Larry Paige himself has said that the Glass is cheap to make.
The security of the device has been questioned, it's easy to hack and often can get confused with who is giving it commands. The safety of those who wear the Glass and those affected by people driving cars while using it has come under some fire. Some states have already proposed laws against using the device while driving. We have also seen a great debate start to emerge around privacy. Is it a constitutional right to not be captured on camera or video taped when not expressly asked permission?
Some people are criticizing the functionality of the device itself. There are not enough features, you can't change all the settings, it doesn't fold up to fit in your pocket. The resolution on the reticle is too small, blurry, or poorly contrasted.
All of these things have come to exist.... because of a prototype. Many of the critics have failed to acknowledge that this is not a polished and packaged device you can pick up at your local Best Buy. In fact, only 2,000 units are confirmed shipped with another 8,000 starting to be delivered, and only to hand selected users in the Glass Explorers program.
Google is not thrusting a device aggressively into the marketplace. In fact, they are actually trying to buy something. When an explorer shells out $1500 for the Google Glass, they are not paying for hardware. They are actually selling Google, dedication to the platform. When someone spends $299 dollars on a new piece of tech, it's easier for them to dismiss it after a short time. It then spends the rest of its existence on a closet shelf with a nice "what if" story behind it, or part of a blog post comparison to some brand new technology. Instead, they have $1500 of insurance money to reduce the likelihood of that dismal outcome.
Google is banking on the explorers investment in their device to help them discover how the device can be used, what its limitations are, and how socially acceptable it will be. They are hoping that engineers will take it seriously and build amazing things.
It can be argued that their approach also makes the device something of an elitist indicator. It helps to create a buzz, ultimately helping shepherd along the winds of change. In fact, if they gave one to some of those Kardashian girls, it would probably be the next big thing in fashion. However, I don't really feel this is the intent, though it certainly doesn't hurt.
As for the security, privacy, safety, and critiques of the platform. These are all to be expected, it is a game changing and socially awkward device. I would challenge some of the privacy concerns, noting that there are drones flying overhead and security cameras in just about every public place already capturing your beautiful face about 500 times per day. I could argue that the safety concerns are well-founded, but like everything else it's up to the user to be responsible. Manufacturers don't stop making knives sharp because they could cut someone.
For the device specific critiques about the design and functionality, I argue that it's a prototype. It is not a final product and needs to be treated as such. I would much prefer to see news reports on what the device makes possible rather than what the device doesn't do or how silly people look wearing it.
As an early adopter and part of the explorer program, I can see so many ways this is going to improve life. I have been hacking on it day and night, and I've only uncovered a fraction of what we are going to be able to do with it. I can also predict that this is the future, but we aren't ready.
The Google Glass is one of those technologies that we are going to impulsively fight like the early eBooks and readers. It's going to change the fundamental way in which we interact with the world, and that's a scary thought. Anything on that scale takes time. It will not be the overnight sensation that the iPad was or be the top-selling device on Amazon next Christmas. Remember that the Kindle has a great great grandfather, the RCA eBook Reader that paved the way for it.
It's quite certain that the glass will not go to market in its current state, if it goes to market at all. It may need a few more years of development. Even then, it might take years of patience and iterations for the technology to take off. It may not even be Google that ultimately finds success with it, but it will happen.