First of all, before we even get into anything about the Google Glass, I need to clarify that the product is actually still around. After going back to the drawing board, Google actually re-released the product, except it’s not available to the public. Now it’s exclusively marketed towards enterprise customers.

So this article is about the Google Glass that we can no longer get – the one that no one wanted, which caused Google to take it off the shelf for years. With that cleared up, let’s get into the history of this enigmatic product.

google glass on table

Through the Looking Glass

The Glass is the product of Google X, a sort of skunkworks development arm of the company that is today known as Alphabet. These are the guys who push the envelope and work on things like self-driving cars and internet balloons. Yes, I’m serious – look it up.

The first prototype of what would become the Glass was finished sometime in 2011 and weighed about eight pounds, which doesn’t sound very compact! The final version of the Glass had about the same shape and weight as a normal pair of eyeglasses. The only real clue that it was more than plain eyewear was a small module on one side of the glasses sporting a small prism and a camera. That bit of the puzzle is actually the Glass proper, since the module could in principle go on any pair of glasses. Presumably, if Glass ever became a mainstream device that’s exactly what Google planned to do.

By 2013 early adopters could apply for a Glass unit as long as they had the princely sum of $1500 to spend on it. Google opened the Glass up to even more people until around 2015 when it went back for a redesign. In 2017, the Glass was re-released, but this time as a product only for companies like Boeing.

People in Glass Houses

The Glass itself had some pretty impressive specifications, given how far mobile technology has come since 2013. It ran a custom operating system known as “Glass OS” and packed a system on a chip with two CPU cores. It also had 2GB of RAM and 16GB of flash storage. That may seem a little anemic in 2017, but putting it all into such a small form factor seemed like black magic at the time.

Those were just the conventional hardware specs. Google also managed to put in a bone conduction transducer for audio. I once owned a set of bone conducting headphones and they allowed me to hear everything going on around me while still letting me hear music and other audio. The visual part of the system was even more fancy, using a prism projector with a resolution of 640×360. To the user it appears to be a floating image the size of a 25” screen eight feet away.

There are plenty of inputs too. There’s a microphone for voice commands, a touchpad for menu navigation, and a raft of sensors. I’m not kidding – inside the glass there’s an accelerometer, gyro, magnetometer, light sensor, and proximity sensor. That’s a lot of tech packed into a tiny device. This space has to be shared with a lithium ion battery too, and don’t forget about the 5MP/720p camera!

The most mind-boggling thing about it all is the fact that the total Glass package ended up weighing 36 grams, or just over an ounce. See? Black Magic.

Don’t Be a Glasshole

While the hardware in the Glass is certainly impressive, given its size and weight, it’s a fair question to wonder what the thing is actually for. The Glass is technically an AR device, but it’s the type of AR that doesn’t really integrate with what you are looking at. It’s essentially a wearable display system that acts as an extension of your smartphone; you can discreetly read your emails, watch YouTube videos, and do other stuff you’d usually have to take your phone out for.

google glass

It also served as a platform for the Google voice assistant so that users could get a hands-free interface for their wearable computer. This is obviously pretty exciting, especially if you work as a surgeon or as another type of professional who needs to access information while also working with both hands.

One of the key features of the Glass is that big camera on the front. Really, I think this aspect of the device was its biggest downfall. It turns a person wearing a Glass into a roving surveillance platform. Talking with someone wearing a Glass can be pretty uncomfortable, as you are very aware of that camera. Privacy issues were always at the forefront of Glass criticisms. It’s funny – people seemed to be OK with flaunting every detail of their lives on social media, but the presence of the Glass camera made them aware of the fact that they could be watched. It’s illogical, but it’s also a very human reaction; one which Google never foresaw for some reason.

Psychologically, people seem to think differently about a camera positioned to be ready at any time and the fact that any of us can whip out a smartphone and start recording at any time. This resentment is one of the reason people who were early adopters of the Glass were nicknamed “Glassholes”. Society seemed unwilling to accept the technology.

Google Glass In Context

When Google Glass came to the attention of the public, it really was a novel concept to regular, non-tech geeks. While researchers at places like MIT have been playing with wearable computers for decades, the public was generally unaware. The sudden disruption to social norms made people uncomfortable, but this was before the VR and AR revolution of 2016. Let’s be honest, the Google Glass had some pretty mundane use cases. It’s an awesome piece of technology, but it was just a fancier smartphone interface.

Today, people might be much more willing to try or accept wearables in public. Modern AR is also much more sophisticated and compelling than simply projecting a small screen into space. Glass failed as a product because it was simply ahead of its time. The idea of Glass has not failed, however, and the work Google did on it played an important part in modern devices such as the Microsoft Hololens.