Google Glass, the face-mounted computer slated for wide release later this year, could stand to learn a lot from Apple, whose market prominence with mobile devices owes as much to third-party companion products as to its in-house design and engineering expertise. The iPod’s switch from FireWire to the proprietary 30-pin “dock connector” cable in 2003 ditched a standard cable, but the tradeoff was reliable and documented pinouts from which other companies could draw data, audio, and video signals in order to build cooperating products that Apple had no interest in shepherding to the marketplace with its own resources. Upon the unveiling of the iPhone in 2007, the outcry over initial plans to restrict third party developers to Web apps alone was enough to prompt backpedaling and the release of an SDK, which led to the creation of a robust software market. Each accessory and app is both a potential selling point as well as a tether for existing users—if you need to re-buy your cables, apps, docks, mounts, and speakers, even a free phone starts to look a lot less compelling.
Google Glass isn’t a phone and doesn’t have any direct competitors running iOS, but it is still the closest thing there is to a market leader in the emerging world of wearable computing. As such, it currently faces similar strategy questions which could prove just as influential in defining its success. Thus far, Google has remained fairly opaque about its plans for Glass, declining to commit to full final specs or a release timeline, and beta testing prototypes only with a small group of early adopters called “Explorers.” Their participation will be key in a successful product launch; and while many are hard at work coding installable “Glassware” apps using Python and Java, others may want to eventually create hardware accessories. Niche hardware hacking eventually gives way to products from companies like Belkin, Griffin, and Logitech; it’s hard to imagine Glass succeeding in an accessory vacuum.
Those companies will have their work cut out for them. Google Glass is still cutting-edge and, as such, still has a lot of hurdles—the Web browser interface leaves a lot to be desired, for example, and there’s a limit to how many past Google searches you can cycle through (the official word from Google is that you should use a regular computer if Glass proves insufficient in that regard). But one thing Glass absolutely excels at is politeness: when you’re not using it, it really does just go away—the crystal-clear screen seems to fade into nothingness in between actions. This sets a high bar for accessories: technological integration aside, in order to truly feel like a companion product, placement, weight, and general transparency must be almost imperceptible, which is tough to achieve with a product hanging from your face.
The good news is that pathways for accessorizing do exist. By default, Glass uses a speaker that relies on bone conduction, literally rattling your skull (it’s considerably less freaky in practice than it sounds). Even so, one of the most important accessories—crucial enough to merit an official release from Google in the sparsely populated accessory store they opened at the end of October—is a pair of earbuds. Both mono and stereo versions are available, the former included with the Glass explorer package and the latter as an optional $85 add-on. But a Google spokesperson confirmed that other USB headsets would work as well, which means that Glass is actually acting as a host, and the Micro-USB port is not simply a form factor for the plug connections.
So yes, Google Glass has a functional USB port—which should open lots of doors, once the marauding hordes on GitHub have rooted the device, whipped up some alternate firmware, and (just for kicks) booted Ubuntu for just long enough to cause a kernel panic.
Then there’s BlueTooth, well established as the protocol of choice for the mobile-device market, although it doesn’t significantly increase the types of devices that can be paired with Google Glass—how many viable computer accessories that rely on BlueTooth lack a comparable alternative that runs over USB? Nonetheless, it’s another useful vector for connection and communication, and is already used for the Glass smartphone app, which essentially turns your Android phone or iOS device into a Glass accessory.
BlueTooth does have the significant advantage of not being restricted by a physical hardware port; cables and places to put them aren’t a limiting factor, and now that cloud storage is finally widespread, data no longer needs to flow directly from one device to the next.
The second generation of Google Glass also introduced an important new physical modification: a small screw affixes the right arm, where the key components are mounted, to the screen and the portion that wraps around the front of the face. Google indicates that this is a mounting point for prescription-lens inserts, but it could also be used for nearly anything else that works when affixed in that position. This single breakpoint in the sleek unibody design opens up two entirely new customer markets—those who absolutely need to add prescription lenses, and those who might want to add anything else. (On Jan. 28, Google announced a partnership with VSP Global to offer prescription lenses and subsidized frames for Google Glass.)
Of course, depending on the ergonomics of the accessory, you might not even need that screw in the first place, since the Glass frame itself is already arguably a giant mount: you can dangle, wrap, or hang a variety of things from what’s essentially a rail wrapping around your head. If accessories are wanting, Glass doesn’t lack places to put them—blinking Christmas lights, anyone?
Not that accessories need to be physically integrated. Cecilia Abadie is a co-founder and current lead evangelist for Remotte, a handheld remote that aims to facilitate quicker navigation of the Glass interface than is possible using the built-in touchpad placed near the temple, such as navigating through those old Google searches. The device is still a work in progress, and should launch around the time Glass becomes widely available. “Right now there’s just Explorers, and Explorers is not a market,” she said. “The hardest part is not having Google’s roadmap.”
In addition, Remotte duplicates a lot of the functionality already available in the native Glass interface. That such a product is actually useful either points to significant flaws in the native interface that could impede the success of Glass, or alternately a precipitous market position that could be upended by firmware changes from Google. Given Abadie’s concerns about the roadmap, the latter would most likely come without warning.
David Lee is the founder of GPOP, which manufactures, among other things, a series of vinyl decal skins for Glass. He got to work early in the Glass lifecycle, which afforded him a huge lead; his primary technical concern was making sure the touchpad would still function with a skin attached. “People who jumped in early with the iPhone are the ones who took off,” he said. “That’s why I jumped in here. I wanted to work with people to get feedback and iterate on our product, so when Google Glass is actually released I have a real product.”
And the purely aesthetic leanings of his project points directly at another, much simpler challenge for Google Glass accessories. “You see iPhone skins everywhere,” he added, “but those designs are hard to put on Google Glass because you put it on your face every time you go outside.”
Another set of compelling third-party accessories for Google Glass comes from Brooklyn artist and designer Todd Blatt, who churns out his creations using a 3D printer. GlassKap is a set of snap-on plastic attachments, including a pencil holder above the ear arm, or a targeting crosshair glibly modeled after first-person shooter games. His primary impetus, however, was the camera cover attachment. All the privacy concerns raised by Glass (should you wear it in the bathroom?) melt away when the camera is physically obscured behind a plastic shield.
And just like that, with a few cents’ worth of plastic and a willingness to subvert the core product, one of the fundamental problems facing Glass from the beginning now has a partial solution. Even if it had an infinite development budget, Google likely wouldn’t have released some of these trinkets on its own—why include a camera just to block it? But Glass—and Google as a company—needs a robust third-party ecosystem to truly thrive.
Images: GlassKap, Google Remotte GPOP, GlassKap