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Google Glass: Flawed Technology or Flawed Ethics?

February 18, 2015

Published by the Center for Digital Ethics & Policy

On January 15, Google announced that it was discontinuing sales of Google Glass. The wearable computer on an eyeglass frame hailed and harangued by enthusiasts and critics alike during its short existence is on hold indefinitely.

On a timeline, Google Glass doesn’t fill much space: In 2010, it became the first of many projects housed in Google X Lab, a secret experimental space for researchers to develop ideas. In April 2012, the company made Glass a Google+ account and posted a conceptual video, effectively introducing the product to the world. That June, Google showed it off at a conference in San Francisco during a demonstration that included skydivers and stunt bikers wearing the device.

Afterward, Google allowed conference attendees to preorder the Glass “Explorer” edition for $1,500. About 2,000 people did, though they didn’t start to receive the toy until April 2013. In May of that year, 8,000 members of the public who won the opportunity to buy Glass through Google’s #ifihadglass contest also received it. A year later, in May 2014, Google opened the Explorer Program up to everyone that could afford the price tag.

In the end, Glass was available to anyone who wanted it for only eight months. But during its brief lifespan, the product permeated society in remarkable ways. It was simultaneously an intriguing vision of the future, a derided symbol of elitism, and a controversial topic of ethical debate.

In a blog post, Google wrote that the Glass Explorer Program closed so that the company “can focus on what’s coming next” and promised “you’ll start to see future versions of Glass when they’re ready.”

The phrase “when they’re ready” speaks the loudest when considering the downfall of the first iteration of Glass: Was it ready? Or was the product released too soon?

There are multiple angles by which to approach this question. First, consider the product’s design flaws. Glass Explorer was far from a perfect device when it was sold to those conference attendees, and it remained so a year later when the public got its hands on it. Limited app support, unreliable connectivity, and a short battery life were common complaints from users. Some thought the frame was uncomfortable; others thought it was awkward to wear the technology in public.

With Glass, early users could take photos and videos, send texts, and participate in Google Hangouts using a dashboard appearing in front of the eyes and voice commands. They could make calls, get directions, and see personal reminders, the time, weather, and news headlines.

Joanna Stern, a reviewer for ABC News, wrote in June 2013 that Glass features “modify the smartphone app experience, they don’t yet offer something unique.” She continued, “I want to do the things that Google showed in the original demo video. I want to be able to look at the subway station and know if there is a 2 or 10 minute wait for the next train so I can decide I should take a cab instead. I want to look at the pasta I am about to inhale and know more about the ingredients or caloric information.”

Yet, the same reviewer also said she would stick with Glass. She recognized that the platform was new and still being tested.

Joshua Topolsky, writing for the Verge, had a similar takeaway: “Is it ready for everyone right now? Not really. Does the Glass team still have huge distance to cover in making the experience work just the way it should every time you use it? Definitely. But I walked away convinced that this wasn’t just one of Google’s weird flights of fancy.”

Users seemed to understand that the product they bought was a prototype, an experiment being done in real time (hence the “Explorer” name for the program). But is it fair for a company to expect consumers to do the dirty work for it? To test out kinks that could have been resolved back in the laboratory? And to pay for that experience?

Say a shopper bought a pair of regular glasses that turned out to be not fully functional. Perhaps in certain light, images appeared blurry. Or the frame didn’t sit level over brow. The shopper would return the glasses, expecting a full refund for a product that didn’t do its job. But that expectation doesn’t hold with new technology, and Glass is no exception, partly because users didn’t really know what to expect of it. And they didn’t assume it would be perfect.

Consumers expect technology – from laptops to smartphones – to improve over time. They know that early versions will be costly and inferior to later iterations. But they’re willing to pay up and withstand shortcomings so that they can be pioneers. To be fair, Google issued monthly software updates to Glass users, so they did have access to the product’s latest improvements.

That said, maybe Google’s biggest mistake wasn’t introducing an imperfect product. Maybe the company erred most in the way it marketed Glass.

On February 4, New York Times technology columnist Nick Bilton published an article that put a narrative behind the demise of Glass. The story described how most Google X engineers believed that the Glass project was not ready for the public. But one of the company’s founders disagreed, and the Explorer program was born. “The strategy backfired. The exclusivity added to the intense interest, with media outlets clamoring for their own piece of the story. As public excitement detonated, Google not only fanned the flames, but doused them with jet fuel,” Bilton wrote.

Now, the company has to backtrack.

It’s important to note that Glass is not the first product that Google has halted. RSS feed aggregator Google Reader closed down in 2013 after eight years when popularity with users declined. Collaborative editing platform Google Wave fizzled less than a year after it was released to consumers. These examples are not anomalies. Failure is part of the high risk-high reward world of business. It’s expected.

But failure seems different with Glass. The product was presented to consumers with so much fanfare and promise. Think about the unveiling process one more time: Google spent two years generating buzz for a product that wasn’t perfected, the ethical considerations not thought through. People had to wait months to find out if they had won a contest for the privilege of forking over $1,500 to purchase Glass. Is a company ethically obligated to follow all that allure up with a high quality product, one that can actually do what its marketing messages suggest it can?

It’s also worth noting that Google’s marketing campaign passed over the privacy concerns implicit in Glass capabilities. Addressing the product’s ethical concerns in advance of its launch, rather than dealing with problems as they arose, may have improved Glass’s reception. For instance, many reviewers called for a sort of rulebook, a set of etiquette guidelines, to accompany the technology.

CNET senior editor Scott Stein explained how it felt wearing Glass on a train in New Jersey. “People stared, but cautiously. I didn’t want to look at them. I didn’t want to make them feel uncomfortable. But there’s no way for a camera conspicuously hovering on your glasses to not generate some level of social discomfort, no matter how elegantly designed.”

The device’s camera and video capabilities are so subtle that privacy concerns are inevitable. While it’s possible to take photos and record audio or video on the sly with a smartphone, it’s even easier with Glass, so much so that many businesses, from bars to hospitals, banned the product before it was even released.

Perhaps when – if – Google releases a new version of Glass, there will be evidence that the company has learned from its previous ethical mistakes. They could demonstrate this with a more refined product, a clearer marketing campaign, and a privacy plan that’s already been worked out with legal experts and lawmakers.

Where would Glass be if those strategies had been thought through the first time around? Even if Google was not able produce a stronger device, at least it would have an audience that was ready for Glass, that understood the product’s purpose and felt comfortable using it, rather than perceiving the technology as gimmicky, unnecessary, and ethically concerning.

What’s next for Glass? Right now, all the public knows is that the product won’t be developed by Google X anymore. It will be redesigned from scratch, with different leadership and a renewed effort to keep experimentation on the inside. Google’s competitors, like Microsoft and its HoloGlass, should take note.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Laura permalink
    February 18, 2015 7:26 pm

    Even with a “privacy plan” – what assurance would the public have of the user’s compliance?

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