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January 30, 2015

Thoughts on the Explorer Edition of Google Glass and the arts

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City Lights’ marketing director, Rebecca Wallace, trying out Google Glass

After years of controversy and slow-burn marketing, Google has retired the Explorer Edition of Google Glass. In their blog post, they mention that they are going to focus instead on “building for the future” and that there will be future versions of Glass. The media has jumped on this and many sources are saying, “Google Glass is dead.” A few passionate tech folks at arts organizations are sighing heavily, because it feels like a promising avenue for engagement has vaporized. The good news is that wearables as a sector are going to continue to explode, and that poses some interesting possibilities for the arts.

There was a lot of excitement about Glass and its potential use in the arts. I “won” my access to Glass by tweeting that I wanted to use Glass to show opera supertitles. After I received Glass and had worked with it a bit, I decided not to pursue this, but I was thrilled to see that Thomas Rhodes at the Fort Worth Opera worked with Figaro Systems and Wolf Trap to bring supertitles to Glass for a performance of Carmen last July.

Glass got a lot of negative publicity. Let’s face it — it creates a creepy feeling. In my Glass tests, I found that if a person wearing my Glass was speaking to someone who was not wearing Glass, the interaction created an “unequalness” that left the non-wearer feeling uneasy. People mentioned that they were not sure if they were being recorded (Glass currently does not have any external visual indicator of recording), and that it was odd for the Glass wearer to be looking up at Glass while being spoken to.

Eye contact is hugely important during personal interactions. As we are social creatures, we evolved to use eye contact, direction of gaze, size of the pupil, amount of sclera (the “white ofthe eyes”) and eyelid position to communicate danger, happiness, or a sense of trust. I believe that one of the reasons Glass creates social problems is that wearing Glass is a physical barrier to eye contact, and this lack of contact can create a sense of distrust. Have you ever felt uneasy around people wearing dark sunglasses, because you couldn’t see where they were looking? Same idea.

Glass also encourages the wearer to look at the Glass screen, and therefore not look into the eyes of the other person. Nobody likes to talk to someone who is looking around the room, gazing at their phone, or just generally not “paying attention.” In many cultures, it is important to make eye contact and perform encouraging physical movements (head nods of agreement, for example) to give active feedback to the other person. Glass made it hard for these niceties to happen as they normally do, and these deviations from the social norm may have been what caused various street skirmishes such as this assault in San Francisco.

With all the craziness and privacy concerns around the use of Glass, I wonder if it was Google’s intention for this version of Glass to be successful at all. Glass has taken so much heat, especially for the idea of “you’re recording me” — when we are on hundreds of CCTV cameras each day and don’t think about it. In the background, wearables that measure all kinds of other data about you have quietly come to market. With Glass as the “bad guy” anchor, there has been very little focus on privacy concerns for other wearable tracking devices.

For the arts, Glass’ options are now more limited, although people will be playing with creative hacks in their garage. We won’t see hundreds of audience members using Glass to engage with some yet-to-be-experienced high-tech theater anytime soon. Museums are not going to find a lot of return on investment in creating special Glass-based exhibits, because the installation base of Glass users is small. In my talks with arts-organization leaders, this type of “next-generation engagement” was the dream of Glass. I had thought that a venue might make Glass available to a limited number of patrons on request, similar to accessibility equipment, but unless you’ve purchased a bunch of them before last week, this isn’t going to happen for a while, either.

Existing Glass devices will be of benefit where one device can impact many people in some way, not the other way around. For example, from the production and operations side, Glass could offer an easy, hands-free way to check people into venues by scanning a ticket for a barcode, or recognize the face of a donor buried deep in a crowd (it’s coming, folks). It might be able to quickly count the number of people in a huge venue, or assist stage managers with running a show (“OK Glass, what lighting cue am I in?”). These “one-to-many” applications fit in with Google’s current idea that Glass is more useful for business applications.

However, I feel that Glass’ main contribution to the arts can be its ability to allow us to see the art from the eyes of the artist. For example, in one recent experiment, I used Glass to create a video of an actor’s perspective from the trenches of WWI in City Lights Theater Company’s production of Truce: A Christmas Wish from the Great War. As a hands-free video device, Glass’ first-person perspective could enhance our understanding and empathy for the artist. Conductor Cynthia Turner has been livestreaming her point of view during concerts and artist Gretchen Andrews uses Glass to share her perspective while painting. As a tool for unique content creation, Glass can grow to be widely used in the arts with great success.

I believe that Google will come out with a new version of Glass at some point, but I do not think it will be called Glass. It will be branded to be something new, will have a much longer battery life, and will be much less obtrusive, as well as much less expensive. By dreaming up Glass, Google has created marketing conditions for competition, with companies such as Sony, Microsoft, and others creating their own smartglasses, which will drive innovation and experimentation. The field is about to get messy with a lot of these devices coming onto the market, but that is a chance for arts marketers to experiment at much lower cost points.

If your cultural organization wants to play in this area, remember that it doesn’t really matter if you use Google Glass or some other type of experimental technology. As long as you are creating a unique cultural experience, you will draw attention. And attention is a metric we need to keep increasing our capacity for measuring in the arts.

About Ron Evans

I am an arts marketing and consumer psychology researcher, and principal consultant at Group of Minds. I advise leaders on behavioral psychology, marketing & technology to nudge audience behavior. Get in touch via email, on Twitter, or Google+: +Ron Evans