2013-07-24

Co.Labs

What You Learn About Google When You Buy Glass

I was a plus-one at the Glass concierge in New York City last week and watched a friend go through Google’s subtle indoctrination process. Okay, Glass--show me Google’s motivation for making this process so carefully orchestrated.



On a Friday afternoon, as a Google Glass concierge offered me champagne, I asked him if Glass had ever appeared in his dreams. I was undergoing the Glass treatment as a friend's plus-one (or, in Google parlance, +1) and I wondered just how deeply this was going to penetrate his subconscious. The concierge laughed and nodded: Once he had dreamed that he was being attacked by wild turkeys, and in the dream, he had reached to his face to take a video. The dream turned dystopian when he realized he wasn't wearing Glass.

The process of buying Glass in New York City is built to feel artisanal, down to the location, which is in a loft space across the street from Google's 14th Street office. You go to Chelsea Market to buy some organic yogurt. Then you go upstairs to pick up Glass. Everything is right with the world.

Except it doesn’t make sense. The artsy, backlit Glass sign, the fancy visitor badges, the wet bar, the kiosks made of minimalist scaffolding where you experience Glass for the first time. All of this is so far from the crazy niche experiment that is Glass. There is definitely no "beta" label anywhere. Remember when even Gmail, arguably the most robust Google product besides search, carried a Beta label for years? This is a different Google.

Beta software seems to be increasingly popular among normal users who like the exclusivity, and Google is riding the wave hard. Glass was available to about 2,000 developers at I/O last year and has been rolling out to about 8,000 consumers--whom Google has somewhat condescendingly dubbed “Explorers.” The company even launched a campaign called #IfIHadGlass where people tweeted creative ideas about how they would use Glass and were then chosen as testers. The product is supposed to be early in its development. So why is it getting such a polished marketing treatment?

As I sat on my industrial stool watching a Glass associate fit my friend’s device to his face, I could pinpoint the unease. The customer experience was supposed to be warm and exciting, but underlying it was a creeping tenor of desperation. This carefully engineered moment had been totally overwrought. All of the trendy branding and deliberate effortlessness--the "store" made of found materials--smacked of a very big bet. After all, the only thing you polish this much is a product you think people aren’t ready for: You don't want to spook your audience. Nearly everything Apple released under Steve Jobs was shrouded in secrecy because nearly everything they built was so ahead of its time that it necessitated serious user-friendliness to prevent alienation. This feels like that. The Glass Store is a front, behind which looms an immense and unstoppable vision.

But what is the vision, exactly? Google claims that “Explorers” are discovering the possibilities of Glass for the first time, but perhaps the program is more like a space for adjustment. Google, after all, is a display advertising company. When it starts selling customized, location-specific ads suggesting tampon offers three days before someone’s period--and presenting those offers on your face--people might freak out. Explorers are emissaries sent to tell the populace there is nothing to fear, and the Glass concierge is there to ease them into their new role. Once you start having panicked dreams about turkeys, you know they’ve got you.

[Image: Flickr user Ted Eytan]




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