“Google Glass is so futuristic it’s like wearing a Segway on your face.”
That Tweet likely articulates Google’s biggest fear for Glass, its wearable computer. What if the cool crowd doesn’t accept it? What if, like the Segway, it becomes an emblem of the awkwardly nerdy? What if consumers reject the technology because, even though it’s amazing, there’s too much social stigma to being seen in public with it?
This fear, presumably, is why Google’s working so hard to turn Glass into a fashion statement, rather than a fashion faux pas.
I confess some sympathy for the social stigma point of view. I’ve sneered at douches with Bluetooth headsets and lamented for the fall of society whenever someone pulls out an iPad to take a photo at a concert. I giggle at the hoards who tour Washington DC on Segways, helmets fixed firmly, but responsibly, on their heads. And that’s true even though I secretly want a Segway.
But there’s an important difference between the Segway and Google Glass. The Segway is a single-purpose tool that isn’t properly supported by existing infrastructure. Its only purpose is for transportation, but it’s ill-suited to both roads and sidewalks. Plus, it’s just speedy and roadworthy enough to justify safety regulations such as having to wear a helmet – which helps push it over the edge for people who deem it unacceptable to look out of place among the masses.
Glass, on the other hand, is multi-purpose and perfectly supported by the existing infrastructure on which it relies: the Internet. In fact, it even enhances it by making it more portable and accessible. While the Segway is just a connection between rider and road, Glass is a connection to other people, video, photos, and timely and contextual information. As much as it is a dorky thing to wear on your face, it is also a portal to discovery.
We will develop a rubric around wearable computers like Glass. There will be times when it is socially appropriate to use it and when it is not. Even the most ardent users won’t want to be connected all the time. We’ll take off the glasses when it doesn’t feel right, or when our friends mock us, or our parents chide us. We won’t wear them, hopefully, when it seems insensitive to other parties, or when they intrude on people’s privacy. We are still humans capable of making rational decisions related to our surrounds. The glasses sit on our faces; they don’t own our faces. And unlike the Segway, when it comes time to not using the glasses, we can easily hide them at a moment’s notice.
The other thing is that what Glass looks like today is not what Glass will look like forever. It will get smaller, less intrusive, more fitted to the body. And, once they’re finally affordable, we’ll get used to seeing them everywhere. Glass will become as unremarkable as a hearing aid or a cellphone.
So while comparing Google Glass to a Segway is clever and funny, it’s also too easy and reductive. When we’re confronted with a paradigm-changing technology and all we can do is make fun of what it looks like, we’re kind of missing the point.