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Editorial: Google Glass contest elicits mild uses for wild tech

Brad Hill

Google's #ifihadglass contest advertises for "bold, creative individuals" to start carrying pre-production builds of Glass later this year. Since most people flatter themselves as dauntless and inspired, Google's challenge casts a wide net and applications are piling into Twitter. The contest apparently also seeks prosperous individuals willing to pay $1,500 for the prize, plus travel expense to pick it up. There might be good fiscal reasons for Google's parsimony, but I can't help noting that the $12 million of revenue generated by eager beta testers represents five-thousandths of 1 percent of the company's market cap, or one-tenth of a percent of its liquid cash.

Putting aside whatever demographic-shaping is in play, the more interesting question is whether Google will find its desired 8,000 bold creative types. The applications do not foretell blazing originality among foaming early adopters. If there is a depressing strain of mediocrity in the #ifihadglass Twitter stream, perhaps it speaks less to human limitation and more to intrinsic constraints of the device as it is currently understood.

A survey of #ifihadglass Twitter applications (which, by the way, are formally called "essays" in the contest rules, and wouldn't Thoreau be pleased) reveals two things. First, most people aren't trying very hard. Google encourages photos and short videos along with the tweets, but those media enhancements are rare. Applications of fewer than 50 words may also be posted to Google+, but I restricted my research (hey, if tweets are essays, my trolling can be research) to Twitter because I don't know where Google+ is, and am not certain it truly exists.

The second facet of the Twitter supplication stream is its categorical quality -- not unlike the Academy Awards, so neatly do the creative works order themselves into groups. The contest challenge is to describe how you would use Glass. The answers fall into broad divisions:

Record Everything: This is the obvious use case for a media device that you don't have to pick up or put down. It imagines Glass as a dash cam, where the user's forehead is the dash. I did not break out response types by percentage, but variations on this theme occurred frequently in my sample. Applications of this sort will probably not meet the jury's guiding criterion of "the most compelling possible uses for Glass." Unless the judges get desperate.

Share My Unique Life: A subset of the Record Everything bucket, these tweets presume the applicant to be uncommonly interesting, especially when engaged in undisclosed daily activities. One tweet promised (threatened?) the world would "live in my shoes." Another committed to "share an incredible life with the world."

Travel: Many submissions pledged to organize global jaunts if Glass were bestowed. Starting with what, for some people, will be a long journey just to get their hands on the prize.

One Special Moment: Short-term thinking is evident, sometimes to good effect. One pre-nuptial couple promised on video to us Glass during their wedding ... and the honeymoon.

Praise Google: This is the suck-up category in which applicants promise to be viral marketers for Glass.

Put Glass On Things: Especially animals. I do hope the judges pick some of these. I know I would not be able to resist clamping Glass on my dogs.

Gushers: The core thesis here is, "I should get Glass because I think Glass is the most awesome thing ever."

Humorists: Clearly not trying, except to make their followers laugh. Examples include, "I would put my phone down, get some friends, video car accidents and show my new friends." And, "I would stare at my hamster eating and save every precious moment." And, "I'd look like elves had given up building a monorail to connect my ears."

GTD: Productivity-minded hopefuls are among the best candidates in my opinion, as they lift the device's floundering use-case prospects. One tweet envisioned surreptitiously taking pictures in class instead of notes. (That was possibly a joke; see the Humorists category above.) Another student bent on real self-improvement thought it would be valuable to let his archaeology professors watch his work on digs in the field. That guy has to get one. Another interesting appeal: "I would caption everything (I am deaf) using a speech recognition software and language processor that I am helping to develop." (Not to be cynical, but I wonder about copycat submissions, and whether fact-checking is baked into the contest.)

Demonstrations of Skill: These rare and mighty submissions inarguably illustrate creativity that must be attractive to the judges, even if the applicability to Glass is uncertain -- as in this Android wrist mount, and this 15-second movie. Those are the people Google should give Glass to. (Forget the $1,500 crap. Why is Google willing to risk excluding a rare creative individual who can't afford an expensive and probably buggy gadget?)

In a recent interview, a Glass developer explained that the product concept came to life for her when she observed a long line of people waiting for a bus. Every head in line was buried in a screen, and all hands were busy holding those screens. The product vision solves that scenario by simultaneously bringing technology closer and moving it out of the way. I'm not alone in loving that vision, and standing ready to eagerly adopt wearable computing. But the mundane underlying truth is that Glass is a smartphone with a new form factor. In fact everything that observers know now, a year or so before launch, tells us that Glass is less functional than an average smartphone. (That could change.)

Removing hands from mobile computing provides an incalculable usability gain. But let's remember this about hands. They distinguish us as humans, and hands do most of the creativity in the world. Genius without hands goes nowhere. Human civilization was built with opposable thumbs. Is it a mystery that #ifihadglass contest applicants can't think of anything interesting to do with a handless device? Pics, vids, mapping, texting, sharing. Notwithstanding functions I might be leaving out, at this point it looks like a rudimentary mobile feature set. Nimble as hell, but not very capable aside from that.

I expect the business and product impact of Glass to be tectonic. I will want one. But its usefulness points rather to the ordinary than the extraordinary.

Brad Hill is a former Vice President at AOL, and the former Director and General Manager of Weblogs, Inc. His planned use of Glass is turning on the video and staring blankly into space.

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