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Google Glass is still misunderstood, says the guy who wore them in the shower

Commentary: Forget the privacy issues -- it was a long list of other shortcomings, social and technical, that doomed Glass. Can Google learn for the next go-round?

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Tech blogger Robert Scoble, one of the earliest Glass owners, thinks the challenges for the device didn't have to do with privacy. James Martin/CNET

I'm still very bullish about wearables, particularly the ones for your face.

Yes, Google Glass had its problems, but that's because it was released too early. It was a misunderstood product that could stand up to neither expectations nor criticism.

Many people think the privacy concerns about its camera are what killed it. I totally disagree.

Glass introduced us to a new way of socializing. That new thing messed with our social mores. And Google didn't know how to respond.

Let me explain.

The whole way the company introduced Glass, back in 2012, was to jump out of a zeppelin over the Google I/O gathering and show live video coming from headsets mounted on skydivers as they landed on the conference center roof in downtown San Francisco. That right there convinced me to run to the back of the room and lay down $1,500 to buy a pair.

I then wore them every day for more than a year. Including in that infamous shower photo.

During that year, I demonstrated Glass to more than 500 people. Most were excited by what they represented: a new kind of assistant that would help you live your life and let you capture your life in a new way. We love capturing our lives, don't we? Just go to a concert and you'll see thousands of smartphones and GoPro cameras hoisted into the air, recording everything about the experience.

It wasn't for everyone, though. When I was at the Coachella music festival last year, several people voiced disgust at someone wearing Google Glass. (It wasn't me. I had already stopped wearing them in public).

I wanted to know why. It turned out their disapproval had nothing to do with Glass' recording capabilities. How do I know that? Because there were hundreds of smartphones capturing the scene, not to mention a professional video crew.

So what was going on there? A new problem that we don't have good language to describe: they messed with the social contract we have with each other.

If I pull out my iPhone in the middle of a conversation with you and start playing around, you might think that's rude (it is). You can challenge my behavior by saying, "Is Facebook really more important than me right now?"

But with Glass you can't see what I'm doing. It's just always there, potentially dividing your attention and interrupting the conversation. There are no cues to tell me whether that's so.

Since you can't really say anything about it, your response might be to come up with something else to get me to take them off. "Are you recording me?" or "Those things are ugly." Or as tech writer Sarah Slocum learned in a San Francisco bar, people might even get violent.

In August 2014, I went into one of the San Francisco restaurants where Google Glass had been banned. I looked around and counted 12 cameras: They were in people's hands on smartphones. There were also Macs and Windows machines, with cameras and microphones, sitting on desks and being used. There was even a Samsung smartwatch, which has a camera built into its design.

So clearly the restaurant and its patrons weren't too concerned with recording devices. Something else earned the ire of patrons and owners: This messing with our social contract.

See, we've evolved to look into each other's eyes to judge trust, interest and focus. If a screen is suddenly put between us, it screws things up.

Google isn't going to give up, though. First, it led the investment of half a billion dollars in a new startup, Magic Leap, that is creating a new kind of computerized glasses. Second, we keep being told that Google is bringing back Glass.

And it isn't just Google.

Microsoft is getting a lot of hype for its Hololens glasses. I've visited startups in the San Francisco Bay Area, Meta and ODG, that are also building augmented-reality glasses. There will be more. Baidu is working on a pair in China. Kopin, a company that makes military glasses, showed me a prototype that has a screen about half the height of the little one in Glass.

So Google is still working on Glass. Even if it's misunderstood, does it have a chance of success? Yes.

Where Glass fell short

There is still intense interest in the future of on-the-face computers like it. And Google can fix the perception of this as a privacy-ruining gadget by adding a red light to the front that would shine anytime its recording capabilities were turned on (something that smartphones don't have, by the way).

Google could also fix the social contract problem by making Glass easier to take off and put in a pocket, or hang from your neck. The next pair must be foldable (y'know, like normal glasses?) for just those occasions where you want to enter a bar -- where people might not like you wearing them -- or a movie or going on a date night.

We also have to teach the geeks that these glasses just aren't appropriate to wear everywhere. Including in the shower.

So other than messing with our social contract, here's a list of the real problems with Glass:

1. The device didn't deliver good-quality video. It wasn't sharp and the battery lasted only 45 minutes when recording. Not to mention that Glass got very hot when trying to record video. I heard that all these problems were due to the way video was handled in software, so it's fixable.

2. The launch pissed me and other people off. I didn't mind paying $1,500 to buy a prototype. But it turned out I had to do a lot of free PR and R&D for Google, too. People constantly stopped me in the street and asked to try them on. At more than one conference, people surrounded me, asking to give them a whirl. The BBC, Bloomberg, and many others also wanted to have a look. It's ridiculous for Google, a company that makes billions of dollars per quarter, to have charged early adopters for these, particularly because it was such an incomplete product.

3. Glass never worked well with iPhones. Sorry, most of my friends use iPhones. Most startup CEOs use iPhones. Of the 200,000 attendees at Coachella, the world's most influential music festival, it seemed like 90 percent of the people were using iPhones. Since Google forced me to use Android with these, they lost my interest as the rest of the world I cared about was building for Apple first. Don't believe me? Look at how popular Apple's smartwatch is compared to smartwatches running Google's software.

4. Glass never improved in any real way. I expected to see massive updates over that first year. They never arrived. At times, I wondered what the heck was going on at Google and whether it really believed in this product. Turned out those skeptical thoughts got louder and louder until one day I visited Google's campus and noticed no one was wearing them, even executives who had funded the project. It was this lack of passion that pushed me away. If execs aren't going to wear them, then I knew the project was doomed. I had witnessed this when I worked at Microsoft and saw how poorly Microsoft's employees treated its tablet PC efforts. It wasn't until Apple released the iPad a decade later that Microsoft truly cared about tablets.

5. It didn't meet my wife's or my friends' expectations. The first day I got them home, my wife Maryam (who took that famous shower photo) asked, "Will they tell me anything about people I'm looking at?" The expectation is that these things will augment the world around you. Sort of like how the app Blippar shows you stuff when you aim it at a box of cereal. But Glass did none of that. And guess what: The speaker sucked so I could never hear. The microphone sucked, so I couldn't use it in noisy rooms. The mirror corroded if you got salt water (er, sweat) on it. It was fragile. Imagine if Apple's watch had so many problems? The press would have a field day beating it up.

Truth is, unlike the Apple Watch, Glass just wasn't a good product and it wasn't complete enough to sell to the public. It really pissed me off when Google tried to get everyday users to plunk down $1,500 for a pair. That was fleecing of an unsuspecting public, I thought, and played a role in my turning against the product. It's one thing to do that to early adopters and developers who are used to putting up with a lot of problems. But it's totally another to get the everyday user into a poorly finished product. If an Apple Watch is $400, Glass should be in the $500 range, not $1,500.

Unless Google is only going to sell them to companies.

All that said, there's still a lot of demand for these things. I know hospitals and other enterprises want to use them. I want to use them, if Google fixes the problems and make the devices more affordable.

To wrap up: Glass was misunderstood. It wasn't privacy concerns that doomed Glass, it was the product's inadequacies -- even for fans like me who thought we would never take them off. In the shower or out of it.