Google’s Astro Teller was on hand at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas recently to give a talk on the value of failure. It’s something he knows a bit about as the head of Google’s secretive Google X department. Teller, sometimes jokingly called “Captain of Moonshots,” spoke about a number of projects to help make his point, one of which was Google Glass. While he didn’t outright call Glass a failure, he did explain where Google went wrong. According to Teller, Google got one thing right and another very wrong with Glass.
Teller says the Explorer program was a positive influence on the product — this is whatGoogle got right. There’s only so much even the cleverest engineers can do absent outside input. He pointed to several examples of internal projects that went on far too long, and ultimately had to be scrapped. Getting Glass in the hands of real people was essential to learning where it needed improvement.
Google learned a number of things from the Explorer Program, like the battery life was more important than Google engineers had expected. When people got in the habit of wearing Glass, they wanted to be able to wear it all the time. The measly 570mAh lithium-ion cell in Glass wasn’t up to the task.
Google also learned a lot about cameras and the effect of public perception. Right from the start there were concerns about the ability of Glass to record video. It was far from the first discrete consumer-level device capable of shooting video, but there was something about having it right there at eye-level that made people uneasy. That’s not the sort of thing Google would have expected, and without the Explorer program, engineers wouldn’t have fully appreciated the delicacy of the situation.
This leads to Google’s big mistake with Glass — they treated it like a finished product when it was far from ready. Teller was referring to promotional events early in Glass’ life like the runway show with Diane Von Furstenberg. Having Glass-equipped skydivers land on the roof of the Moscone Center and run down to join co-founder Sergey Brin on stage at Google I/O 2012 was probably ill-conceived as well.
The $1500 price tag was supposed to make Glass look like a prototype technology from the future — something not for the faint of heart. Instead, the promotion and high price of Glass simply gave it the allure of a super-premium product. That was something the Explorer Edition could never live up to, though it wasn’t supposed to. Still, selling Glass through Google Play only strengthens this incorrect assumption. Even some of those who joined the Explorer Program seemed to expect Glass to become a consumer product quickly.
It would not be fair to say Glass as a product is dead, but you certainly can’t call it a success when the head of Google X discusses the Explorer Edition in a talk on failure. This incarnation of Glass failed, but Google X might have learned enough to nail it next time.