The Law and Business of Social Media
January 16, 2015 - Wearable Computers

Narrow Vision: Did Anti-Glass Hysteria Contribute to the Demise of Google Glass?

Narrow Vision: Did Anti-Glass Hysteria Contribute to the Demise of Google Glass?

Once the hottest new technology innovation around, Google Glass was put out to pasture yesterday, at least for the near future.

In the tech industry, we generally assume that a game-changing product like Glass will somehow find a way to thrive, especially with Google’s virtually unlimited resources behind it. So why did Glass suffer this major setback?

I don’t have an answer. But I wonder if the relentless stream of negative publicity–often unreasonably negative publicity–about Glass may have contributed to consumers’ reluctance to embrace the product.

Consider, for example, the following items:

  • A recent study allegedly showing that Google Glass can partially obstruct the wearer’s peripheral vision received widespread coverage in the popular press. The study found that, even when the device is turned off, Google Glass’s hardware creates a blind spot in the upper right area of the wearer’s visual field. But, remarkably, this “study” was based on the experiences of only three people–hardly a statistically significant sample. (Most statisticians agree that, for a test to produce a meaningful result, there should be at least 100 subjects involved.)
  • Another recent study picked up by the news media described the Navy’s Substance Abuse and Recovery Program’s treatment of a 31-year-old serviceman for alcoholism and “significant frustration and irritability related to not being able to use his Google Glass,” as a case of “Google Glass addiction,” as if that were an established disorder (it’s not). At least the “obstructed peripheral vision” study noted above involved three participants; this “study” involved only a single subject.
  • It was widely reported last year that Glass would make it easier for eavesdroppers to steal ATM and tablet users’ PINs and passcodes–not because Glass’s technology makes it superior for those purposes, but because Glass is allegedly less conspicuous than, say, a smartphone with a camera. But the fact that Glass lights up when in use would seem to make it an awkward tool for spying on people using ATMs and tablets in public.

Even a cursory Google search will turn up many other articles warning us of the perils of Glass. (We covered anti-Glass sentiment in greater detail in a blog post last year.)  But I don’t mean to suggest that the press was solely responsible for anti-Glass hysteria; governments and big business did their part to stoke consumer fears.

For example, several state legislatures have been considering bills that would make it illegal to wear Google Glass while driving. As a practical matter, for such legislation to be effective, it would have to forbid motorists from wearing any head-mounted device, whether or not it’s in use–a police officer cannot be expected to know whether a person behind the wheel actually had her Glass device turned on while she was driving.

The federal government also jumped on the anti-Glass bandwagon. In May 2013, for example, a bipartisan caucus of U.S. congressmen sent Google an inquiry regarding a variety of privacy matters. In response to that inquiry, Google announced in June 2013 that it would not allow applications with facial recognition on Google Glass. It’s remarkable that, even in these bitterly partisan times, Glass fears could unite Democrats and Republicans.

Regulators in other countries entered the fray as well, writing to Google to complain that they had not been approached by Google to address Glass-related privacy concerns.

Further, all types of businesses and organizations have rushed to ban Glass–bars, restaurants, banks, schools, hospitals, museums, casinos, circuses, strip clubs and so on. Some of these bans, of course, make sense, but others do not; interestingly, history informs us that the revolutionary Kodak camera, upon its introduction in 1888, was banned from beach resorts and even the Washington Monument.

In any event, it’s hard to imagine any product, no matter how innovative, surviving the barrage of negative developments related to Glass. Everywhere one looked, the message was that Glass had the potential to do damage–damage to its user’s physical and mental health, damage to its owner’s integrity, damage to the privacy of bystanders, damage to other motorists, damage to a business establishment’s income.

I don’t mean to suggest that Glass didn’t raise some legitimate privacy concerns–it did. And so does the Internet. And social media. And mobile phones. And the Internet of Things. And even the Kodak camera, for that matter.

Now that Glass is no longer with us, perhaps we can look at it with clearer vision. Is it possible that all of the relentless criticism of Glass was, well, short-sighted?