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Google Glass could have been the hit of SXSW. It wasn't

It's hard to rise above the noise of hundreds of products and tons of marketing. But while Google brought Glass to SXSW, it didn't try very hard to grab the spotlight.

Google co-founder Sergey Brin wearing Google Glass.
James Martin/CNET

AUSTIN, Texas--Did you see the hundreds of people walking around SXSW this week sporting Google Glass and promoting the search giant's much-hyped new augmented reality product?

Don't be disappointed if you missed them. It didn't happen.

Google was in town this week, showing off its hot high-tech eyewear, both at a branded booth alongside a series of other prototype products, and later at a panel. But it didn't avail itself of the chance to give the vast majority of the thousands of geeks at SXSW a peek at Google Glass. If the company was hoping to elevate Glass above the noise of hundreds of other products and what seems like a million marketers here in the Texas capital, it missed a great opportunity. And that's too bad.

"I'm surprised they didn't have 1,000 people walking around with them on," said Weston Sewell, an Austin-based Web developer. "I kind of expected that."

Maureen Belderink, a SXSW attendee in town from the Netherlands, agreed. Though she heard people talking about Google Glass in a number of sessions, she said those mentions were more general, and she wasn't even aware that Google had been in Austin with the product. "I haven't seen any and that surprises me," Belderink said. "If I was Google, I would be all over the place with those."

For months, the tech industry has been buzzing about Google Glass, and in recent weeks, the company has begun letting people see the hot product. It was spotted at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona last month, and founder Sergey Brin talked about it at TED.

But at SXSW, some people weren't aware Google had brought Glass to town.

"Were they here?" asked SXSW attendee Andrew Hyde, who travels the world advising tech startups. Hyde added that he's been thinking a lot about Google Glass since seeing Brin's TED talk, and he worries that with the first release of the product, Google will be putting out features that misunderstand how people use technology. "It's going to be exactly like Android," Hyde said. "That's the fear."

For his part, Sewell said he knew that he could have gone to see Google Glass at SXSW, and even wanted to, but found himself too busy with other panels and meetings to take the time. In fact, though, he said that he and some friends had been talking about their surprise that Google Glass wasn't generating much buzz during the show. "I don't think they broke through the noise," Sewell said. "I kind of expected them to, but I heard more about" Leap Motion. And of course, many would say the biggest story of the week was Grumpy Cat.

Sewell was hardly the only person who thought that Google Glass might be the talk of SXSW 2013, the way products like Twitter was in 2007, Foursquare was in 2009, and to a lesser extent, GroupMe was two years ago. "Every year there was something big," said SXSW attendee Andrea Martinez, "and I was thinking maybe [Google Glass] would be it."

And for a little while after the company's panel, Twitter was full of chatter about the hot product. But that buzz didn't last. "The big bulk of it was short term," Martinez said.

Ultimately, it's hard to tell if Google is happy with the attention that Google Glass got during SXSW. It may not have been interested in creating a giant splash, perhaps preferring to reach a specific target audience with its limited exposure to the product. All the company will say on the matter is that, as a Google spokesperson told CNET, "We set out to help developers and entrepreneurs start imagining what they could do on Glass."

One person who has been thinking about Google Glass a lot is science-fiction author and longtime SXSW mainstay Bruce Sterling, although probably not because Google had brought Glass to town this week. Yesterday, at his annual closing rant, Sterling mentioned the product a number of times, even going so far as to say "I've become something of a Google Glass fan."

As a sci-fi author, Sterling said, he's written many times about heads-up displays that have some of the features of Google Glass. As a result, he suggested, he's very familiar with the idea of products like this.

On the other hand, he said, he wonders if the product might have a slightly darker side than Google would like people to think it has. It could be "evil Google Glass," Sterling said, featuring "buggy, abusive software [that] grabs attention, and disrupts users' days. How do I know these things? Because they're already present in Android today."