Tuesday may have been tax day for millions, but for the select few, it was also the chance to join the Google Glass consumer test team.
No, that does not mean paid work. For a single day, Google allowed the public to pay $1,500 to snap up a Google Glass headset – the wearable technology the tech giant is still developing in the hopes of officially launching it later this year.
The device displays web content on a tiny screen with voice commands for video recording, among other functions.
Whoever managed to land one of what Google is coyly calling “a limited quantity” of glasses joins the ranks of eager "Google explorers," who have already paid $1,500 to test an unfinished product.
Those who are part of this beta "community" report that the technology shows promise, but also is subject to software glitches and limited usefulness. Some users have found themselves the target of an anti-tech backlash by people worried about further invasions of privacy. In San Francisco, some wearers have even been physically attacked and their glasses destroyed.
So, given the pricey entry fee and an imperfect gadget – not to mention the prospect of a physical altercation – why would people pony up $1,500 to join this early-adopter club?
“Google certainly understands the value of scarcity in marketing,” says Daniel Castro, senior analyst at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation in Washington, adding that part of the appeal “is the cache and novelty of having access to new technology right now.”
Google is pushing hard to create an atmosphere of participation and buy-in from both consumers and developers at such an early stage for a very good reason, Mr. Castro says. Many of those snatching up these early prototypes are software developers, he adds.
“They are trying to launch themselves as the platform of choice for all wearable technology,” says Castro. Much as Microsoft got an early edge with developers of PC software and Apple maintains its early market lead by virtue of its dominance through iTunes, so Google is attempting to round up developers of the sorts of applications that may fuel the next big technological wave of wearable tech, he says.
“This is just Business School 101,” he says with a laugh. “Google is trying to get all the developers on board as this platform develops.”
Besides those who are interested in exploring commercial applications for the platform, a host of other uses are being explored. First responders, such as fire and police departments, have joined medical teams in exploring the value of real-time, hands-free access to data and communication. Educators, such as CarrieLynn Reinhard, assistant communication professor at Dominican University, in River Forest, Ill., have been using the glasses in their classrooms – so far, with mixed results.
“I am most assuredly a science, technology, and science fiction geek and nerd, so the ability to use the device, if only for a short time, was interesting,” she says, via e-mail, adding that her students found it fascinating, “more so the idea than the actual device.”
Professor Reinhard says the class tried passing the device around, but it would often shut down or lock up after being handled. Once the unit turns off, she adds, it is often hard to power up. It was also difficult to record video for more than 12 seconds, without having to continually instruct the unit to do so, she adds.
The device is synchronized to a user’s Android phone and Google accounts, and is not meant to be passed around, says Reinhard. This is unlike smart phones, which when unlocked, can be passed around for a more social experience.
“Glass is meant to stay on your head, to be for you and no one else,” she says, which “may be why it is getting a negative reception.”
So, what's so negative about wearing your computer on your nose? For one thing, many people experience others porting the smart eyewear as an invasion of privacy, and perceive negatively those who wear Glass without considering the social impact on others who may feel uncomfortable not knowing if they are being recorded or not.
“The idea being that these individuals will invade privacy by the fact of having these devices always on – always on their heads,” Reinhard says.
The practical uses do not yet match the theoretical promise, says Wheeler Winston Dixon, a film studies professor at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. Right now, the prototype glasses have limited recording and wifi capability, but this will change, he says.
But the perils are already evident, he adds. “We should care because this is yet another erosion of personal privacy, and also because it will allow Google to collect vast amounts of information on income, social class, purchasing habits – everything that you see will become information for their data base,” he says, so that we live in a constant consumer mode.
Still, “all these things help human beings go about their lives and conduct business,” says Paul Levinson, author of “New New Media.” "Nothing is perfect,” he adds, but “as long as society keeps an eye on the dangers of new technologies, it’s a good thing.”
The paradigm shift is inevitable, says Geoffrey Long, technical director & research fellow at the Annenberg Innovation Lab, University of Southern California in Los Angeles. Just as mainframes yielded to desktop computers in the mid-1980s, desktops yielded to laptops in the mid-2000s, and laptops are predicted to yield to tablets by 2015, he says via e-mail.
"It’s only a matter of time before mobile devices yield to wearables like smart watches and ocular devices like Google Glass," he says.
The big advantage of becoming an early adopter of wearables is the opportunity to both familiarize yourself with what this next wave will feel like, and the chance to get involved and influence how it develops, he says.
“All the things we use screens for now – information, entertainment, socializing – will change when those screens shatter into an ecosystem of smaller but interconnected experiences that unfold across your watch, your glasses, your house, your car, your office, and everywhere in between,” he adds.