The Elephants In The Google I/O Room: Glass And Plus

Google’s two-and-a-half-hour keynote address at its I/O conference today was filled with developer news. A new design language for Android, cross-platform concessions, watch apps, a health platform and much more was shown off.

But even a stretch of presentations that had one attendee asleep in his chair apparently wasn’t enough runway to allow a mention of two troubled Google children: Glass and Plus.

Google+, the company’s attempt to unify its various products with a webbing of identity and social, was barely, barely mentioned at all during the keynote. Last year it took up a major chunk of the presentation and the year before it felt like a Google+ plus Glass keynote (complete with skydivers and biking on the roof of Moscone) with a smattering of other stuff thrown in.

This year, Glass wasn’t even mentioned, and no presenters wore it on stage. Even when the discussion turned to wearables — an ideal time to work in its face computer — Google had nothing to say.

Not Google Glass

Not Google Glass

Instead of Glass, Google gave us Cardboard — a clever corrugated paper device that turns your Android phone into a crude VR headset. VR, ironically, is a divergent fork of next-generation visual computing from Glass’ augmented reality.

Both of these products have been intensely high-profile efforts for Google over the past couple of years. To see them get almost no stage time at their major developer conference raises some questions.

For Google+, the lack of mentions are likely due to several factors. First, the ‘father’ of Plus, Vic Gundotra, left Google this year. Around that time, we heard from several sources that certain aspects of Plus, like the wonderful Photos product, could be getting the standalone treatment. And the ‘rest’ of Google+ would be relegated to a single sign-on service that acted as a platform, instead of a holistic ‘product’ of its own.

Maybe this is just a ‘rebuilding’ year for Google’s Plus, or maybe it’s the beginning of its transition into a supporting, rather than starring, role.

As far as Glass goes, this has been a bad year for publicity. The inclusion of a camera on the device was probably inevitable, as shooting hands-free photos and video was its marquee ability at launch. Without that, it didn’t do a whole heck of a lot.

Unfortunately, the camera also opened up Glass to an intense allergic reaction on the part of folks who feel that the way it allows unobtrusive recording is invasive. Even if that group of people is relatively small, the cause has not been helped at all by a series of really crappy ’spokespeople’ who have been aggressive and obtuse about the way that they both use the devices and advocate for them.

When I spoke with Google X head Astro Teller earlier this year, he made a fairly eloquent case for widening the conversation out to all cameras and surveillance, rather than focusing on Glass, which he called the “world’s worst spy camera.”

But Google has certainly pulled back from trumpeting the device during its keynote, if today’s program was any indication. Even a hardware revision announced this week didn’t warrant a mention.

“Glass announced all of our news earlier this week and ahead of I/O so the Chrome and Android announcements could take center stage today and tomorrow,” said a Google spokesperson in response to this article. “Glass’ presence this year is similar to last year’s. We have a basecamp demo areas on the first floor [of I/O], more demos on the second floor and a bunch of breakout sessions.”

I’m personally of the opinion that something very much like Glass, if not Glass itself, is going to be a part of our computing future. The experience, when it works well, is just too compelling. There is a metric ton of privacy and convenience issues to sort through first, of course, and Glass as it stands is certainly physically and psychologically off-putting to some.

Back when I wrote about my first experiences with Glass, I said that “using Google Glass really makes me believe that the wrist computer will be the defining intermediate wearable computer which breaks the ice, not the ‘face’ computer,” and I still think that’s true.

But, to paraphrase Teller’s full chat at Disrupt here, I do think that the concept of Glass as a way to remove layers of interface and interaction that stand between us and the power of a connected device is certainly worth iterating on.

But I fear that Google may have flown Glass a bit too close to the sun too early. Yes, it has plenty of money and resources to keep iterating on the concept, but designer frames are not the way to do it. Glass is a very cool hardware prototype that was given to the public too soon. Now, even if the end result is amazing, it faces an uphill battle against years of misconceptions and mishandling.

If the project had been mentioned at the event, it would certainly have gotten some positive feedback from the (many) Glass Explorers in the audience. But would it have drawn much of a response from the world at large? We’ll never know, and if Google is rethinking its approach to the Glass rollout, we may not next year either.

More applause than the (scant) mention of Google+ integrations? Google in India and a Flappy Bird parody called Tappy Chicken. No chance of applause for Glass.

Article updated with statement from Google.