Google's Teller says Glass and other wearables need to be cheaper

Astro Teller, head of the Internet giant's skunk works research lab, talks about Glass, future pricing and how the smart eyewear has become a "poster child" for privacy concerns.

Richard Nieva Former senior reporter
Richard Nieva was a senior reporter for CNET News, focusing on Google and Yahoo. He previously worked for PandoDaily and Fortune Magazine, and his writing has appeared in The New York Times, on CNNMoney.com and on CJR.org.
Richard Nieva
6 min read

Astro Teller, head of the Google X lab, says wearables, including Glass and smartwatches, need to get cheaper to attract a mainstream audience. James Martin/CNET

When Astro Teller, head of Google's secretive Google X research lab, addressed a Vanity Fair gathering of the technorati in San Francisco last month, he said convincing people to wear a smart device on their face or any part of their body is a "tough" sell.

How tough? Companies need to make devices useful enough to compel you to attach them to your body, he said at the time.

But there's another catch: Wearables, from Glass to smartwatches, also need to be cheaper -- a lot cheaper -- before they go mainstream.

"Every time you drop the price by a factor of 2, you roughly get a 10 times pick up of the number of people who will seriously consider buying it," Teller said in an interview at Google's Mountain View, Calif., headquarters. That means "two more rounds of halving in price" for most wearables before they're an attractive buy.

For certain products, like $30 or $40 pedometers, a big price cut probably won't make much of a difference, he said. "But for a $200 watch, or Glass, or anything in between, I think it's sort of fair."

For Google Glass, which costs $1,500 today, cutting the price in half twice would mean a drop to $375 -- though the company said it couldn't comment on a price target or timeline for any cut. But Google, which generated almost $60 billion in sales and $13 billion in profit last year, could absorb the cost cut -- if it did want to make Glass a mainstream gadget rather than a novelty. Analysts who dismantled the eyewear and appraised the value of the individual parts pegged the total costs of Glass' components at up to $150. That means, right now, Glass seems to be selling for at least a 900 percent markup.

Glass was developed at Google X, which also is working on driverless cars, smart contact lenses and Wi-Fi-beaming balloons. It is one of the highest-profile products in the wearables market, a new class of devices making waves in the technology industry. What was once a dream of science-fiction writers -- a computer that's always there to respond whenever you want -- is becoming a reality. Market research firm IDC projects that from the end of this year to 2018, wearable shipments will increase nearly sixfold to 111.9 million units.

But it's not the "Star Trek"-type utopia we all imagined. Not yet.

Price is a definite barrier, and Google isn't the only company facing the "How much?" question. The Apple Watch, Apple's first wearable, works only with the iPhone and will be released early next year with a starting price of $350. Various versions of the watch, including the 18-carat rose and yellow gold editions, are expected to cost more, though Apple hasn't detailed pricing. Samsung and Sony also sell smartwatches with sticker prices in the hundreds of dollars. Meanwhile, a classy Timex watch still goes for less than $40.

Another concern for wearables is a cultural one. Glass has become a sign that Silicon Valley may be falling out of step with the rest of the world.

Since it was unveiled in 2012 in a live demonstration that included skydivers and stunt people repelling down a San Francisco building, Glass has been the subject of fascination, ridicule, debate and scorn. The derision was so great that Google in February created a set of etiquette guidelines for Glass users. (Sample: Don't "be creepy or rude, aka a 'Glasshole.'")

Technology enthusiasts, cultural critics and artists from Silicon Valley to Wall Street to Middle America continue to debate the merits of Glass. The central question: How will Glass fit into our society?

Glass' opponents have been vocal. The device has been banned from some bars and restaurants, and lawmakers in at least eight states have written bills to outlaw its use by drivers in cars. In October, the Motion Picture Association of America prohibited moviegoers from donning any wearable tech with recording functions, including Glass, in theaters. Glass also seems to be losing traction among developers, according to a Reuters report last week.

Glass supporters, meanwhile, see all of this as resistance to change. Teller argued that millions of people who carry smartphones already have cameras and microphones in their pockets when they are at bars or attending movies. Glass, he says, won't "move the needle" on the number of recording devices in the world anytime soon.

Teller seems acutely aware of the polarizing effect Glass can have. Sitting in a small, nondescript meeting room in the Google X building, he talked about the kinds of moments a Glass wearer can capture. "If I were going to take a picture of you..." he said. "I'm not going to take it, but I could take it..."

Even when talking to a reporter who understands the technology and follows the company closely, Teller is careful not to make Glass feel like an intrusion.

"It has become a bit of the poster child for some of those issues," said Teller of the privacy concerns about Glass. But he thinks the conversation will eventually shift to a broader one about the complications that come from living in an increasingly wired world. "That is the right conversation to have," he said. "There isn't an easy answer for that. But it's not really about Google Glass."

How Google Glass became Google's Glasses

Teller has two small studs on his left earlobe. He wears a rubber band to keep his salt-and-pepper ponytail in place, and he's dressed in a loose-knit zip up sweater, jeans and brown flip-flops. But the first thing you notice is his Google Glass, which he dons every day.

His version of Glass has a narrow turquoise casing running along the right side of it, attached to an otherwise innocuous pair of thin-framed prescription glasses. Of all the things he is wearing, Glass is the only thing you would call "smart." His sweater, for example, doesn't collect biometric data to track how healthy he is and his earrings don't double as oxygen monitors. At least not yet.

Teller thinks that will change in the future: Glass will be just one of the connected devices you'll wear all over your body, each gadget with a different purpose, he said. That view is part of the new philosophy Google has taken with its ambitious project.

When Glass debuted two years ago, Google cast a wide net for the device and thought of it more as an "academic exploration." "We have this incredibly powerful platform -- lot's of capabilities," said former Glass head Babak Parviz in 2012, talking about the product on stage after the live skydiving demo.

Teller said Google Glass' true "calling" is to be smart eyewear, instead of something more all-encompassing. Seth Rosenblatt/CNET

Now, Google believes its true calling is as just one of many devices you'll eventually strap, hang and place on your body. "When we started Google Glass, we did not see as clearly as we do now that's really Glass' calling: to become smart eyewear," Teller said. "Rather than thinking of ourselves as a computer, and trying to give you computer-like functionality, it's better to start from the understanding that this is a pair of glasses, and say, 'How smart can we make these glasses for you?'"

Teller isn't alone in thinking an all-in-one approach won't work for wearables. Devices with specialized purposes seem to be gaining steam over all-purpose monoliths, said Paul Saffo, a Stanford University professor and futurist who has been tracking Silicon Valley for decades. "The saw on a Swiss Army knife is perfectly fine," he said. "But you're not going to use it if you've got a real saw next to you."

Glass wasn't always clearly meant to be glasses. When Google co-founder Sergey Brin unveiled the product onstage, the model he wore was a sleek, thin band running across his forehead -- more Geordi La Forge than Sunglass Hut.

Today, Google is taking a more fashion-forward approach. In January, Google added a prescription frame option. Two months later, the company inked a deal with Luxottica, maker of Ray-Ban and Oakley, to make Glass frames. In May, Google replaced Parviz, with Ivy Ross, a fashion industry veteran with executive stints at Calvin Klein, Coach, and the Gap under her belt. Parviz has since left Google for Amazon.

But even as Google refines its approach to wearables, Teller said it will take people awhile to adjust to new social norms. "It's going to be a bit of a bumpy ride," Teller said. "But those are healthy tensions -- and that's good."