"Something like this has never been created before," says Steve Lee (pictured, left), one of Fast Company's 100 Most Creative People in Business and the product lead for Google's Project Glass—the company is developing the futuristic eyeware at its secretive X lab. Much has been written about the project, but few details about the device itself have emerged outside concept designs and video.
Following Google's announcement of Project Glass, Fast Company talked extensively with Lee to learn more about how his team is turning this work of science-fiction into a reality.
FAST COMPANY: We've seen what you envision Glass becoming, but what can the current prototype actually do right now? How long is it away from being market-ready?
STEVE LEE: I can't speak to specific product release timelines, because quite frankly, we don't really know [when it will be ready]. But I can say that we definitely didn't put out that video with the intention of it being some futuristic video that's many, many years away. In terms of what's running on the device right now, several of those things that you see in the video, we do have prototype versions of those. So Maps is one example: You can see a Map of where you're at, and search for a nearby restaurant. That certainly exists on the device, and it's my hope that we'll be able to deliver on several or many of the other things that are in that video—possibly some other things as well.
Personally, I view Glass as more than just a geo-product. The photo-taking experience, we think, is really a key aspect to this. But also the mapping and navigation and location services will really bring a new type of experience on this device.
It's very early though. There's no doubt we're going to learn a lot more over the ensuing months that'll affect the product development, feature priorities, and so forth. I can definitely say as a product manager and someone who is execution-oriented, I wouldn't be on this project if it was like a five-year endeavor. We did not want to create a "Google in 2019" video. Most of the things in the video are things that we've prototyped, or are of our existing Google services. The big challenge is getting them to work well on this new form factor.
An earlier report from The New York Times indicated Glass would go on sale by the year's end, for between $250 and $600. Is this true?
I don't know where that information came from. I can just say that that's pretty aggressive timing. It's really a challenging project, and even if we have some of the software from the video running on the device, there's so many other engineering and technical and manufacturing challenges. What was provided in that article didn't come from our team.
Tell me about building the prototype. How many iterations did you go through before this one?
Depends on how exactly you define a prototype, but at least dozens if not hundreds—certainly hundreds of variations and dozens of prototypes.
Of course, historically Google has done software and Internet [products] and things like that. This is somewhat of a new foray for us into hardware—and not only hardware, but things you wear on your face! It's true that Google doesn't have a lot of manufacturing experience, but no one in the world has a lot of manufacturing experience [with something like this]. So there are all kinds of new challenges and issues that are new to the majority of us, though we do have some people who have been doing these types of projects for decades. But our process is really about building rapid prototypes.
I mean, I had no previous experience with wearable computers beyond, like, a watch. So from day one, I started putting these devices onto my face and understanding the ergonomics and the social factors and comfort issues beyond just what kind of cool functions we could add to the system.
Could you describe the early iterations?
You've probably seen pictures from the MIT Media Research Lab or other wearable computers historically. Generally speaking, they are large, sometimes there is a backpack involved. That's the kind of thing I was wearing initially. [At first] we just threw a laptop into a backpack and that was the computing power. Of course, with other prototypes, we tried to put the computing power into the device itself. We've tried prototypes where there are cables running from the device that's on your head down to a control box or to your phone.
So you were running around Google's campus with this backpack and glasses on?
That's why our announcement was so momentous for our team. Because until then, for our testing, we had to keep it confidential and within the confines of our office building. And trust me, that's frustrating. Imagine you were trying to invent a GPS sportswatch but couldn't go outside and use it while running or biking! We announced publicly the existence of the project, because: one, we wanted feedback; and two, we wanted to start testing this in real-world scenarios.
Now, the prototype that we showed—and that Sergey [Brin] has been photographed wearing [Ed note: And Sebastian Thrun]—I've personally been wearing it everyday out in the real world. I even took it into a San Francisco bar to test out that social situation.
We all know what happens to new, secret products at bars in San Francisco.
Well, first and foremost, I didn't leave them behind! I was actually meeting a bunch of friends there. I'd been working on this project for a long time, and for the first time in my career, I couldn't really talk about my project with my friends. So they were curious. But with other groups of people, I would walk from my car to the bar and back to my car—running into a bunch of people—and literally no one said anything. It didn't seem like people noticed.
I've found in my limited observations so far, the vast majority of people don't even notice it. When I went running on this track, for example, a woman there was like five feet from me. We were having a conversation, and she didn't blink an eye. But I've walked around the streets of San Francisco, and I encountered some people who do a double-take.
The ultimate goal here is to serve everyone and make this is a universal device. So that means people that wear eyeglasses, or tend to wear sunglasses or contacts, or people who have perfect eyesight. That's a really hard problem—to accommodate everyone. Nevertheless, we've prototyped lots of different form factors to accommodate all those folks.
Will this technology one day be on contacts?
I mean, that's definitely a long-term thing. At this point, it seems like a natural evolution. Certainly if you make the technology invisible, a lot of people would say that's attractive. But maybe instead of that perspective, you could argue that something like this could be thought of like jewelry—something that is bold and prominent. Something a person wearing it is proud of. In that case, you wouldn't want it to be invisible—you want to show it off, like, Hey! I'm part of the future.
Obviously the latter [perspective] is a challenge. It's risky. Is it iconic and cool, or iconic and geeky?
Do you guys look to sci-fi books and movies for inspiration?
To a certain extent. Some people on the team are total sci-fi geeks. Personally what I try to bring to the team is actually somewhat of a reality check. Because a lot of the sci-fi books and movies speak to augmented reality and how you have a display that overlays the entire world that's immersive. I think, long term, that is where the technology will head. But that's actually not what we're going for right now.
Are there some brainstormed ideas you consider too sci-fi?
We evaluate each idea on a number of dimensions. First is technical feasibility: If it can't be done in a reasonable time frame, then nothing else really matters. Other dimensions are user acceptance and societal acceptance. This is a challenge because in some ways, since this is a wholly new form factor and device, we want to innovate and bring whole new ways for people to interact with it. So we don't want to be afraid of introducing new concepts to people.
But at the same time, if we go overboard or make poor decisions, that could have negative consequences in terms of how early users of this could be perceived by other people, and how they feel about using it. It's a really delicate balance, but it's certainly another really important factor regarding whether to bring a particular feature or technology to the prototype.
Watch for the second part of this interview later this week.