Looking past the Google Glass hype: Nobody knows what it's for

Is this man seeing into the future? Credit: Mariachily via Flickr

Apparently we’re all supposed to swoon because Google has confirmed that its beta version of Google Glass will be available to lucky testers who must pay $1,500 for the privilege of trying this “transformational” Internet-connected eyewear.

That’s Marc Andreessen who calls it transformational, but the venture capitalist and Netscape founder hardly is alone. The tech world has been positively giddy over the futuristic glasses since rumors about them began a couple of years ago.

And a lot of powerful players are lining up to cash in on Google Glass, including VC firms Andreessen Horowitz and Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, which have teamed up with Google Ventures to form something called the Glass Collective that will fund the development of apps for these wearable computers.

All understandable. The technology world’s main sources of fuel are funding and hype, so it’s not surprising that both are being applied to Google Glass in liberal doses. And those dual spigots will be opened further once testers -- mostly developers and consumers with $1,500 to burn (you could buy a Chromebook Pixel with that money!) -- get their hands on Google Glass Explorer Edition and begin reporting their rapturous experiences.

I don’t mean to sound cynical. I’ve been writing about and consuming technology for a long, long time. I’m a fan, if not a fanboy. And I’m an information junkie. So the Internet blew my mind, as have smartphones, tablets, cloud computing, Xbox, iTunes, Wii, Madden, Twitter and a bunch of other things.

But let’s slow down for a moment and consider exactly what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about taking computer and information technology and placing it on eyewear. Truly a great idea! I’m with it all the way (just not for $1,500, though Google says the glasses will cost much less once they’re ready for mass distribution, maybe by the end of this year).

So what can we do with this marvelous invention? We can take pictures and videos as we’re looking right at something, instead of having to hold up a camera, smartphone or tablet. And you also can check your email while pretending to listen to a speaker without resorting to the tell-tale downward glance.

What else? We don’t know yet. Even the guys who are ready to give millions of dollars to developers don’t know.

Here’s Bill Maris of Google Ventures: “When you first see somebody wearing Glass, you might think ‘What can that thing do?’ Well, quite honestly, we’re wondering the same thing.”

John Doerr of KPCB: “This is a platform so new, so unlike anything before, that we can’t guess what the killer apps will be. But, believe me, they’re coming.”

Marc Andreessen: “The thesis of Glass is profoundly transformational. And as with the Internet and smartphones, a huge amount of work will be done by third-party developers to fully realize the Glass vision.”

It’s perfectly fine that none of them know. They don’t have to. They just have to fund development and hope for the best. That’s basically how the VC business works.

But you can be reasonably certain that Google Glasses are unlikely to provide wearers with the ability to fly, have X-ray vision, see the future, see dead people, make your teenager’s adolescent years more bearable, or make you younger. The mad rush to develop apps for Google Glass will focus primarily on delivering information to wearers. That’s more evolution than transformation, I’d say.

Will there eventually be “killer apps” for Google Glasses that don’t already exist in some fashion for smartphones and other computing devices? We’ll find out, but probably not for a long while.

To me, that’s what would have to happen to fulfill the promise made by tech author Shelly Palmer, who spoke in early March at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona and had this to say (as reported by CITEworld’s Ron Miller):

"Now we have Google Glass. Think about how different a human who has that kind of power is compared to someone who doesn't. You can walk around and see the world with augmented reality. How much more powerful does that make you than a person who has to reach into their pocket to look something up? And how much more powerful than someone who has no digital life at all?"

In the former case, I’d say not much. In the latter case, I’d say a smartphone would accomplish pretty much the same thing.

I could be missing something here, I admit. I emailed Palmer and asked if he could provide specific examples of the power Google Glass would confer to a wearer. If he replies, I’ll add in his comments.

And if any readers have ideas about how Google Glass might transform our world, feel free to weigh in below. I’d be especially interested in ideas for enterprise applications and how Google Glass might give someone a competitive edge in business.

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