“There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.”
Ken Olsen, founder of Digital Equipment Corporation, 1977
Tim Cook may well have been Steve Jobs’ right hand man and the operations genius at Apple, but his prediction that Google Glass – and augmented reality glasses as wearables – will “not likely to be a mass-market item” may well end up in the list of well-known incorrect tech predictions.
Tim Cook’s statement “I don’t know a lot of people that wear [eyeglasses] that don’t have to” presents a false dilemma. It’s meaningless to compare eyeglasses which are designed with one purpose alone (change the focal point of incoming light) to a portable always-on device with a rich set of functionality even in their first feature-limited pre-release version. People with 20/20 vision justifiably do not benefit from eyeglasses, but they certainly can benefit from getting navigation when walking or driving, reading or sending emails and messages, doing search, taking pictures and a lot more – all on the go.
Vision is the most powerful input sensor we humans have for learning about and defining our reality. Any reasonable technology that adds dimensions to our vision will become a multiplier of our sense of comprehension, connectedness, and productivity – and hence will become highly desirable, which will drive sales and will create a positive loop of further investments and improvements.
Augmented reality glasses, or active glasses for short, are a perfect example of such a technology. If Google can pull off a good enough first version – which by all accounts they are on track to complete – they will create an entirely new market. This will be similar to how RIM created the market for smartphones with the BlackBerry. Whether Google dominates this market in the long term, or whether another competitor figures out a better user experience and displaces Google Glass is another story that does not invalidate the success of active glasses as a product category.
Sure, the first generation may lack important features, may be harder to use than people would want it to, and may be priced out of reach for a significant percentage of potential customers. However, those who can afford it – technology enthusiasts, experts in the field, trend-minded people, and the affluent, if history is to be used as a guide – will support the growth of the technology through a few generations. By the third or fourth generation, active glasses will be sufficiently simple to use, powerful, and cheap enough to be an indispensable object for most people.
So far, some 8,000 enthusiasts have written application letters to Google asking for the privilege to pay $1,500 USD to obtain a pre-release copy of the Google Glass. That number of users with such strong passion for the product will be a huge asset to Google and will help them tremendously in creating a successful product.
According to Forrester Research, an estimated 12% of the US population – or some 21.6 million Americans – said they would buy Google Glass if it were available in stores now. With this kind of interest for a product that hasn’t shipped yet, it’s hard to see what could prevent active glasses from becoming a mass market. The most commonly cited obstacles to the adoption of active glasses can be easily refuted. Here are the top 5 problems and how they can be addressed or why they are not as critical:
- They can be used to invade privacy. And so can a cell phone, a photo camera, a camcoder, or a voice recorder – there is no fundamental difference.
- They will be banned by businesses and legislation. While this is a possibility, existing bans for using cell phones – for example while driving, while watching movies, or while waiting in line in certain establishments – have not prevented the broad adoption of cell phones.
- They will cost too much. Early adopters and investments will bear some of the initial cost. Some costs could be amortized and distributed through various annual or bi-annual service plans. And, as sales volumes go up, economies of scale will drive the per-unit cost down.
- They won’t work well. Sure, version one will not work as well as the imaginary ideal product or the initial concept video. But, if it is sufficiently revolutionary, it will create enough demand to justify investments in subsequent versions.
- They won’t work with prescription glasses. What? The team that pulls off this marvel of technology will not be able to solve a problem appropriate for an undergraduate course in mechanical design? Really?
If anything stops active glasses from becoming a successful mass product, it will only be a better product. So far, the only obvious competitors in this space are retina implants which are still very, very long ways away, and brain implants, for which even the basic science is in its infancy today. So, unless Tim Cook meant that one of these technologies would displace active glasses, have no fear – our very own active glasses are being manufactured as we speak.