Google’s (GOOG) Project Glass has won the company plenty of attention.
There’s a growing feeling that with the smartphone market beginning to mature, the next big high-tech growth segment is going to be wearable technology — and Google’s Project Glass augmented-reality glasses are its poster child.
From Google co-founder Sergey Brin sporting the futuristic glasses on New York subways to the crush of celebrities and early adopters who competed for the right to plunk down $1,500 for a pair of the specs, Project Glass has been in the spotlight.
However, the glasses are increasingly in the crosshairs of privacy advocates and legislators. Sure, Project Glass has the futuristic cool factor, but when it comes to wearable tech that’s going to hit the mainstream and really take off, that scrutiny means augmented-reality glasses are looking less like a winner.
Having a heads-up display so your messages and alerts are always front and center, being able to have your eyeglasses display route directions on demand and having translated words discreetly piped into your ear are useful and harmless enough. But that built-in camera is a huge privacy concern that threatens to derail Project Glass before it ever hits retail store shelves. Smartphones with their built-in cameras were problematic for some, but at least you have a pretty good idea if someone is filming you with one — they have to point it at you.
Google Glass has no such visual cue.
Concerned that Google Glass wearers could be secretly filming or photographing other customers, businesses started to condemn the device before it ever saw the light of day. Casinos are concerned about cheating, prompting bans. Worries about workplace privacy are leading companies to consider rules — would you be comfortable sitting in a meeting with someone who might be recording everything they see? Glass is a nightmare for businesses that rely on confidentiality, such as legal firms, banks and hospitals. And let’s not get started on gym locker rooms, schools and other personal privacy hotspots.
Google itself has come under frequent scrutiny for privacy violations (remember the Street View privacy breach?) and the specter of millions of people wearing Google glasses and having information they record in their travels end up in Google’s hands has some worried.
Congress has already written to Google asking for clarification on Google Glass functionality around technology such as facial recognition and user security. And the list of countries where the device is facing government scrutiny is growing. Canada, Mexico, New Zealand, Australia, The Netherlands and Israel have all joined the list of countries concerned about how Project Glass will comply with privacy rights and data collection regulations.
Meanwhile, a few realities have begun to intrude on the Google Glass vision. For one, it seems that a number of people were unaware that the glasses lack their own cellular radio (although they do have Wi-Fi). To do anything more than take photos or video while mobile, you need a smartphone, and for the best experience it should be an Android smartphone.
Photos aren’t great quality thanks to a low-resolution camera and currently require Google Plus for sharing. Early adopters report the battery lasts only three-and-a-half hours. Control of the glasses requires using a trackpad mounted on the arm or voice command — each of which can be distracting to the wearer and those around them.
There’s also a perception that Google glasses wearers are narcissistic, conspicuous consumers … a perception Google didn’t help with the “If I Had Glass” promotion that tended to reward social media fanatics and celebrities. They’re being called “Glassholes,” for Pete’s sake — that kind of reputation doesn’t help boost mass adoption.
Add in the race by other companies to bring their own augmented-reality glasses to market at a fraction of the price of Project Glass (although with many of the same technical and privacy challenges), and Google is likely to lose its advantage of being first to market when Project Glass finally goes on sale to the general public.
If Google’s glasses are stumbling in their bid to be the next must-have device, is there something else that’s going to step in and fill the vacuum?
My bet is on smartwatches.
They aren’t as sexy as having a heads-up display constantly projecting information in your field of vision, or being able to record what you see without having to hold up a camera. But the current crop of smartwatches — such as the Pebble — do some pretty interesting stuff. With Apple (AAPL), Samsung (SSNLF) and Google all reportedly hard at work on their own versions, you can expect the next generation of these devices to be even more tightly integrated with smartphones.
You’ll have to glance at your wrist instead of staring into space for notifications, but smartwatches aren’t likely to face any more usage restrictions than smartphones have. You can bet they’ll still look impressively futuristic for those who are going for a high-tech fashion appearance, and the price tag will be much more affordable; the wildly popular Pebble is hitting shelves at $150.
Would you rather be a “Glasshole” or strap a smartwatch on your wrist? Project Glass might be the future, but until privacy concerns, technical limitations and that inflated price tag are ironed out, the next few years are more likely to belong to the iWatch and its competitors.
As of this writing, Brad Moon did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities.