How do you get millions of people to shell out hundreds of dollars for a device they don’t know how to use, have heard likened to the Terminator and would have to wear on their face?
That’s the question facing Google ahead of the launch of Project Glass, Google’s high-tech glasses that can snap photos, translate phrases and offer directions, all via a small glass cube suspended over the wearer’s right eye.
Though Glass isn’t slated for public release until later this year, Google is making an early version available for purchase to a limited group of people, who will be selected based on their answer to the prompt, “If I had Glass.”
With Glass, Google has pioneered an unprecedented approach to wearable technology and a novel way to access the Internet. But having negotiated the technical challenges of building Glass, Google now faces the task of convincing people to buy and wear the device. Google has to take a groundbreaking device born from its top-secret lab working on sci-fi feats -- and make it seem normal.
In a push to be sure Glass looks more like a status symbol and less like a science experiment when it makes its official debut, Google is expanding its definition of early adopter to include "real" people -- those outside the Silicon Valley scene -- to help acclimate the world to Glass. These recruits represent a strategic marketing push to teach the general public how and why to use Glass, and assure them they'll look just fine doing so.
"It’s not yet clear what message wearing Glass sends. Who adopts it early on is going to play a part in creating that image, which is why the early adopters are so important,” said Bryan Bollinger, a marketing professor at New York University's Stern School of Business. “If you’re using Glass, it’s right there in your face, so the message it says is really important. And right now, I don’t see what Google’s brand is besides being seen as a company that's proficient from a technical point of view.”
Because it’s worn prominently on people’s foreheads and offers an unusual style of screen, Glass’s ability to crack into the mainstream will depend on whether it can shift social, etiquette and style norms.
Thus far, the Glass “look” has alternately been described as “freakish,” “ridiculous” and “pretty goddamn nerdy.” Even Mark Zuckerberg, the ultimate reshaper of social norms, wondered if there might be something a bit off about wearing Glass. “How do you look out from this without looking awkward?” Zuckerberg asked Google co-founder Sergey Brin at an event earlier this month, according to Forbes.
Rather than letting traditional, tech-savvy early adopters alone define Glass, Google has launched a campaign that seems designed to put Glass in suburbs, subways and airplanes.
The company announced last week it was expanding its Glass Explorer Program in a search for “bold, creative individuals” -- a description that seems more germane to an exclusive social club -- to be among the first to try Glass. The “Explorers” selected for the program will be eligible to purchase the $1,500 glasses.
Judging from the scenarios highlighted in the teaser video for Glass, Google's “bold, creative individuals” might include skydivers, sculptors, parents, ballerinas, horseback riders, amateur pilots, adventurous travelers and runway models -- in short, cutting-edge members of the creative class. In keeping with Silicon Valley’s preference for showing hipster-types in ads, Google's official photos of Glass almost exclusively depict youthful models and men with scruffy chins wearing Glass, against Brooklyn-esque backdrops.
But Google is also expressly hoping to attract parents, business travelers and active outdoorsy types to Glass, said Google’s Steve Lee, director of Project Glass. He noted the company is eager to get the gadget into the hands of a broader range of people than the several thousand, mostly male techies who signed up for Glass at Google’s I/O developer conference last summer.
The editor overseeing The Huffington Post’s parenting section received a personal invitation from Google to get an “exclusive demo” of Glass. And Glass videos have shown parents using the glasses to snap pictures of their little ones or help kids video chat with distant relatives.
“Diversity is key,” a Google spokeswoman told The Huffington Post. “We’re set on getting a really diverse base of people who are going to take Glass out into the world to have a diverse range of experiences that we can’t anticipate in a conference room."
Google has seized opportunities to put Glass on the brows of the rich, beautiful and famous. Last year, Google put Glass front and center before the fashion world with help from designer Diane von Furstenberg, whose models strutted down the catwalk in the glasses during her fall fashion show. Yet the Explorer program suggests Google sees a limit to what can be accomplished with highly paid celebrity spokespeople -- like BlackBerry’s Alicia Keys or Microsoft’s Gwen Stefani -- and instead wants potential Glass buyers to hear about the device from friends and neighbors.
But even if a carefully curated crowd of early adopters offer inspiration for how to use Glass, the ultimate test will be in how naturally people can use the device, observed Ideo design director Arvind Gupta. Bluetooth headsets and Apple earbuds both let people talk on the phone by speaking into the air, yet the former has had far more difficulty shedding its stigma, Gupta noted. The New York Times reported that Google planned to work with eyeglass makers, such as Warby Parker, to develop a range of frames for Glass, and Google has designed its glasses so that its key component -- the screen and the hardware powering it -- can easily snap onto other frames.
"The biggest key to Google Glass's success is not just how it looks, but whether you can control it in a way that doesn't make you look foolish or crazy," said Gupta. "It's not just about looking cool when you put it on. You also have to feel cool."