How Google Glass became a punch line

How the must-have wearable gadget met its abrupt demise.
Joseph Evans, a student pursuing a doctorate degree at the University of South Florida, takes photos and video with his Google Glass unit while teaching a class. WILL VRAGOVIC   |   Times (2013)
Joseph Evans, a student pursuing a doctorate degree at the University of South Florida, takes photos and video with his Google Glass unit while teaching a class.WILL VRAGOVIC | Times (2013)
Published February 6 2015

This is a story that involves lots of public intrigue, a futuristic wearable technology, a secret laboratory, fashion models, skydivers and an interoffice love triangle that ended a billionaire's marriage. This is the story of Google Glass.

From its unveiling in 2012, Google Glass was considered "The Gadget," yearned after by everyone from nerds and chief executives to chefs and fashionistas. It was the must-have toy that was going to set the gold standard for a new class of wearable computers.

Time magazine named it one of the "Best Inventions of the Year." It got its own 12-page spread in Vogue. The Simpsons devoted a show to Google Glass. Glass did the rounds on the morning and evening shows, and countless YouTube videos. Presidents from around the globe tested them. Prince Charles wore a pair. As did Oprah, Beyoncé, Jennifer Lawrence and Bill Murray.

But perhaps the biggest splash took place last month when, out of nowhere, Google announced that Glass, as we know it, was going away.

To understand what went wrong, we need to travel back a few years to Mountain View, Calif., deep inside the sleek offices of Google. There, the company's founders and a handful of trusted executives came up with a list of 100 futuristic ideas.

Excitement grew for a new genre of wearable computers that could be attached to skin or, possibly, worn like glasses. By late 2009, Eric Schmidt, then Google's chief executive, approached Sebastian Thrun, a genius jack-of-many-trades researcher at Stanford University, and recruited him to build out these ideas. Thrun temporarily called the lab "Google X," hoping to choose something better later.

According to several Google staff members who worked on the early stages of the X project (all of whom would discuss the project only with the promise of anonymity), the lab soon found a covert home on the Google Campus. There, the lab's first project was born: a sort of virtual-reality-type thing that would later become known as Google Glass.

Thrun recruited a slew of rock-star scientists and researchers to work on Glass, including Astro Teller and Babak Parviz, both at the forefront of wearable computing, and designer Isabelle Olsson. Before long, Sergey Brin, Google's co-founder, joined to help run X.

It's important to note two things about Brin here. At the time, he was married to Anne Wojcicki, a genetic-testing entrepreneur and the mother of their two children. Second, he had a reputation at Google for having what has been widely quoted as "project attention deficit disorder," becoming obsessed with one project and then sauntering off to the next.

Google X and the glasses project managed to stay under wraps for more than a year.

Nearly everyone at X was in agreement that the current prototype was just that: a prototype, with major kinks to be worked out.

There was one notable dissenter. Brin knew that Google Glass wasn't a finished product and that it needed work, but he wanted that to take place in public. Brin argued that X should release Glass to consumers and use their feedback to iterate and improve the design. To reinforce that idea, Google decided not to sell the first version in retail stores, but instead limit it to Glass Explorers, a select group of geeks and journalists who paid $1,500 for the privilege of being an early adopter.

The strategy backfired. The exclusivity added to the intense interest. Public excitement detonated.

"The team within Google X knew the product wasn't even close to ready for prime time," a former Google employee told the New York Times. The Google marketing team and Brin had other plans.

But tech reviewers who finally got their hands on Glass described it as "the worst product of all time," aptly noting that it had abysmal battery life, and that it was "a product plagued by bugs." Privacy concerns were raised, with people afraid of being recorded during private moments. It was also banned from bars, movie theaters, Las Vegas casinos and other places that did not want customers surreptitiously recording.

Glass went from being coveted to becoming a punch line.

Then, in early 2014, a scandal hit the Google X labs. A love affair had developed between Brin and Amanda Rosenberg, a marketing manager on Google Glass. Brin was leaving his wife for Rosenberg, who was in turn leaving her boyfriend, who also worked at Google.

From there, Google Glass seemed to wither away. Early X employees left. Brin, who was dealing with the fallout of his affair at Google, stopped wearing Glass in public, too.

And that's how we arrive at last month, when Google abruptly announced that it was shuttering its Glass Explorer program. It has largely been reported as the death knell for Glass.