"Do glasses need to be the vehicle for AR?"
A Q&A with Quinn Myers about his book on Google Glass.
I hope you'll enjoy this free Virtual Vector bonus issue: a fun back-and-forth with Quinn Myers, journalist and author of Google Glass from Instar Books. I chose Myers' book on Glass as the first pick for what will become a series of XR-related reviews and response pieces exclusive to Voyager level subscribers. Given how timely Myers' book is–2022 has seen Google hype up new concept translation glasses and buy an AR display company–I wanted to have a chat with him about Glass, how it relates to immersive tech today, and what he learned from the early adopters that actually liked using it. For more insight from Myers, I recommend checking out his recent Reddit AMA about the book.
This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Mathew Olson: Let's talk about the origins of this book, which is part of Instar's "Remember the Internet" series. How did you end up writing about Google Glass?
Quinn Myers: Miles Klee, who wrote for MEL and now writes for Rolling Stone, was originally going to be my editor on it. He reached out thinking I'd be good for this series because I had done oral histories on things like Snake on Nokia phones and GoldenEye 007 on N64. He had to step away, and then I worked with one of Instar's editors. They kind of had a list of things–but the idea Miles and I had was Glass, because there was just so much there.
I remember where I was when the "One day…" video came out. It was like, man, I have such a tangible memory of this, and I don't know exactly what happened to it. Then, as I was writing, every time I'd start a new chapter there'd be some splinter of another story happening. It was such a tentpole moment on the internet, it felt like, back in 2012.
Olson: Toward the end of the book, you take some space to focus on how the coverage surrounding Glass was really defined by the shape of online media back then. It was not very long after Google scaled back plans for Glass that the media ecosystem completely changed–was that a major part of why you chose this topic?
Myers: 100%. There were so many dead ends: it seemed like every outlet, all of the blogs and sites that existed at the time, covered Glass in some fashion, but there would also be vacuums of information. I'd find that something happened, but maybe it was covered in a blog that doesn't exist anymore and I'd have to go to the Internet Archive to try to find it. A lot of Google's announcements around Glass were on Google+, which is just gone. It became like a little mystery, to me, to find and put these pieces together until I had a single timeline.
With all of this shattered information across the different outlets that covered Glass, it felt like it fits the scope of the series very well. All this internet ephemera that can be gone in the blink of an eye. Like, if MySpace shuts down, then everything that was there is gone, all these memories that people had. That really stuck out to me when I started down this path.
Olson: You end the book with a takeaway for readers–that we must "never stop dunking" on the failure of Glass. Do you think there's anything that Google or other tech companies themselves have demonstrably learned from Glass? A pessimist could look at this book and say they see the same mistakes being made left and right today.
Myers: Yeah, there's a number of parallels, almost down to the phrases Mark Zuckerberg will use when he's talking about Meta, that are so similar to what Google said about Glass. They're kind of pursuing the same thing in a very similar way, where people go "I don't know if I want to use this" and they insist no, this is the future.
That being said, I do think lessons were learned from Glass in marketing. One thing I kept coming back to was when Google Home and Amazon Alexa devices came out. There was coverage about how they seemed pretty invasive. Slowly but surely, though, a lot of people started getting them for their homes and apartments. It was maybe just a little more subtle. Their marketing didn't have Google Home as something that celebrities and athletes use.
I think leaning on utility more, which was something Sebastian Thrun mentioned, was a great point too. If he could do it all again, they would market Glass like a GoPro that you just put on to ride your bike or go hiking, then you take it off. You prove utility and get your foot in the door. It kind of seems like that's what's happening with Meta and the Microsoft partnership around the idea that this tech could be useful in meetings–that you feel like you're in a room with coworkers instead of on an exhausting Zoom all day. People might recognize that and think it's neat, as opposed to trying to tell people that this is like a Swiss Army Knife, or that it's "going to replace the phone, trust us."
Olson: Something you handled really well in the book was connecting the dots on why the reaction to Glass turned so negative. There was concern about invasions of privacy, but it also had to do with big tech bringing about material and social change–particularly in the Bay Area–that Glass became a symbol of. When you see other visions for how AR glasses might work, do any alarm bells go off around social challenges you don't think have been anticipated or solved?
Myers: One part of the Glass story that stood out to me was that there was a golden window, maybe about two weeks, where people were really excited to see Glass Explorers. They'd go up to them and say "oh my God, that's Glass, it's so cool, what can it do, can I try it on?" Just people being very excited and interested in it. Then suddenly it turned, where they felt like they were being recorded. The camera was there on Glass the whole time, so it's really interesting how much public perception changed.
I'm going to sound like I'm a thousand years old, but with TikTok and things, people are recording public spaces more often than they were back then, at least. I still think there's going to be a sense around this where, if you know that someone has a little camera and could potentially be recording you, you're going to act a little differently. You're going to be a little more buttoned up, maybe not feel on edge, but not like your normal self. People felt tense around Glass Explorers. It just seems like that's going to be the case unless there's the sense that everyone is recording everything, all of the time–that it's just a new normal.
Olson: It's a footnote in the story of Glass, but it's worth remembering that Luxottica partnered with Google on it in 2014. Now they work with Meta. I see the case for paying closer attention to Luxottica when it comes to who's throwing money at making glasses like these happen. Did you dig into that partnership much?
Myers: Rather than Luxottica climbing onto whoever's developing this, to me at the time it felt like it was a last gasp from Google for appeal, another move to make Glass seem cooler.
I think there were a handful of optometrists who were allowed to sell Glass in the LA area. Google showed them how to put it on people, train them, stuff like that. I think they saw that that was actually pretty successful, just letting people wander into an optometrist's office and put it on. It was like a no-pressure situation. I wonder if there were numbers that Luxottica saw there, or if they thought there was something it should continue to pursue–especially in the form of Ray-Bans and not in some unique-looking hardware.
Olson: So this book was probably done and dusted by the time the announcements were made, but what do you make of Google coming back around to the idea of AR glasses (that aren't just Glass for businesses) earlier this year?
Myers: I saw that very, very quiet blog post saying "hey, we're doing a little public beta test with this, around Google offices." They're definitely not doing the Glass hashtag contest again.
I thought it was also super notable that they came out with a leading utility, the transcribing and translating in your field of view, because that has broad appeal. Though yeah, I thought the lack of pizazz with that announcement was very funny. I also thought it was funny back when they quietly opened up the enterprise version of Glass for purchase, when previously you could only get them if you were a developer or working for a company that was going to buy a bunch of them. I honestly think Google must see that the enterprise version is much more advanced than the original Glass was, way faster and lighter. I'm sure they could fix them up to look more fashionable. I imagine they see the enterprise version of Glass as something that's working, that kind of puts them ahead of the curve.
Olson: You spoke to people in the Explorer program who kept using their Glass after Google's support for those Explorer Edition devices had ended. That's a group that, to my knowledge, hasn't actually been written about all that much. I'm curious, what was their experience like and how did Glass still fit into their lives after that point?
Myers: That's an article I've been meaning to write, because they were great. People like Keith Myers, if you look them up, still have Glass on in their profile pictures. They'd go to conferences wearing it, despite people being like "is that Google Glass?" and use it to record presentations. A lot of them really enjoyed the camera and the sense that when they would, say, take a picture of their kids, it'd be from their perspective.
When Google's software disconnected, Glass was essentially just a GoPro, but they could still hook it up manually to their computer.
Olson: Not too dissimilar, then, from Meta's Ray-Ban Stories glasses. Have you followed the reception to those?
Myers: Yeah, I remember when those came out I was tracking it for a while, but it did seem very quiet. There was a little hubbub about it on Twitter and then it kind of dissipated.
In the circle of Explorers who kept wearing Glass, people still very much track the technology and what's being developed. They were very excited about the Ray-Bans. I mean, there's a bunch of other companies–North Focals was another one that they bought up or would chat about for the same reasons that they liked Glass. [Ed. note: Google ended up buying North in 2020.]
Olson: In talking to Explorers, did you ever start to come around on the appeal of Glass yourself?
Myers: Definitely. The Explorers were all so enthusiastic about it, even still, that I often ended interviews going "okay, this sounds pretty cool!"
There were a few specific things: directions as you walked around the city, taking pictures sounded nice, and honestly, to a certain extent, just having notifications pop up. But then, you know, the more they talked about the physical standpoint of wearing it all day–it being heavy, or the battery getting warm–I'd immediately go back to "oh, I'm fine, my phone is great."
Olson: I hear you. I've been pitched on the appeal of walking directions with AR glasses many times, and it's sort of low-hanging fruit. And then, when you can look at your watch or wear ear buds for directions, how immediate does information need to be to be worth having it in your field of view? Where's that point of diminishing returns?
Myers: Yeah, and that's what I really think about a lot with this: do glasses need to be the vehicle for AR? Or could it be more like having directions on your car's windshield, or other forms that you don't have to wear but that are still built into our everyday life?