Isabelle Olsson is dressed in head to toe black, her Titian hair and gold heels shiny bookends on an otherwise monochromatic column. The color palette seems like a conscious decision by Google Glass's lead industrial designer, who has opted for one of the new Google Glass designs in black as her facial accessory. Olsson has swapped her usual custom rose gold and cotton-colored Glass for a charcoal headset that has a pair of matching titanium frames attached, and somehow the computer aspect of her faceware becomes almost invisible.
Despite an unbelievably enthusiastic embrace from the likes of Vogue and Diane Von Furstenberg, Google Glass has, up until this point, had a bit of a fashion problem, with brave wearers getting saddled with the unflattering nickname "Glasshole" for their blatant cyborg vibe. The prospect of public shaming doesn't do much to persuade those on the fence about wearing Glass to opt for an accessory that evokes such strong reactions. For the less evangelical, the headgear looks too odd to even consider wearing in public.
The latest designs released Tuesday, however, look less like something out of a sci-fi movie and more like timeless, fashionable frames. Contrary to rumors, Warby Parker had nothing to do with the design process, at least not for this round. All of it was done in house by Olsson and her team. The frames, an extra attachment that screws into the main hardware and available for an additional $225, come in titanium, rather than horn-rimmed, flavors—all of them a shade of black Olsson calls anthracite. "This is Curve, what I’m wearing today, it's a little more fashion forward," Olsson explained to Fast Company.
Indeed, on Olsson, the dark, round specs—even with the screen protruding off her face—look like more high fashion than tech-infused face-piece. And, even though she has crafted an ideal outfit to showcase Glass, the non-prescription glasses don't just suit her round, bright face. When I tried on a pair, it made me want to update my (not-connected) corrective glasses to something more modern.
"It's extremely hard to design a few styles that work for a lot of people," Olsson explained. Yet, the four available shapes—Curve, Thin, Split, Bold—aim to do just that. So far, we can attest they work for at least a handful of people: me, Olsson, and all the gorgeous models in Google's new promo.
"We investigated people's favorite styles out there. What do people really wear?" Olsson asks. They key, it turns out, is simplicity. After looking at the thousands of different options in eyeglass retailers, Olsson found that eyewear comes in eight shapes. "We took some of those but then infused our sense of minimalism and lightness—which is part of our DNA—and simplified them into these iconic styles."
When she talks about the Glass team's genetic underpinnings, Olsson doesn't just mean her Scandinavian roots. Though, growing up in Sweden, she surely absorbed some of her simple-is-better aesthetic through osmosis. But, more specifically, Olsson has hired like-minded designers, who believe that technology should be crafted more like an ageless heirloom, an object we hold dear. "I don't look to tech for inspiration. I try to go to the furniture fair in Milan every year," Olsson explained. "What inspires me about that is that there can be a piece of furniture created and 50 years later it's still amazing; it still feels modern and fresh. I think that’s really what I'm looking to do."
The first public version of Glass didn't quite have the elegance of, say, a Bouroullec Brothers couch, Olsson's favorite piece of furniture at the moment. (The Glass basecamp in San Francisco has two.) But, as she explains, the team has come a long way. "I first got presented with this and told to make this beautiful and comfortable," she said while holding up a clunky pair of off-white plastic frames with a large green circuit board fixed to the side. It's an accessory that now would serve as a perfect Glasshole Halloween costume.
Unlike a sofa, the Glass team had no general concept of what head-mounted wearable technology should look like. As something that sits around one's eyes, glasses are the logical template. But Glass and a pair of corrective eyewear have different purposes. First, the team had to craft a piece that put all the necessary components into something usable that didn't look ridiculous. Getting there involved a series of trade-offs, from both Olsson's design team and the engineering side. "You have to be empathic and understand certain limitations," explained Olsson.
Again, Olsson looked to simplicity as her guiding principle. "There's so many things that are overwhelming about our lives, especially technology," she explained. "I think it’s our duty to simplify things, not to overwhelm people, not to add things, not to complicate things."
Given the technological requirements, Olsson took Glass a long way from the taped-together components Google threw at her to the somewhat dorky apparatus seen in the wild today. But even she will (almost) admit that the first version available to the public wasn't what most people would consider stylish. "The original Glass was really designed to be a standalone thing, a lifestyle device that makes a statement," she said. Indeed, not everyone wants to scream "smug computer geek" with a sky-blue display and a metallic bar across their face.
Having optional frames attempts to appeal to those people. The Glass team tested various colors, finally deciding on that particular shade of not-quite black because it looks good on most skin tones. Since the frames are detachable—Glass comes with a screwdriver—and sold separately, dedicated Glass wearers could, in theory, buy different styles for different moods. Olsson also hinted that in the future the frames would come in other materials and shapes. (With help from Warby Parker, perhaps?)
In addition, the availability of lenses opens Glass up to a whole new set of people: glasses wearers. The frames can be outfitted with prescription lenses. Google has trained optometrists and partnered with vision plans. But, the process shouldn't be foreign to any eye-care professional, Google assures.
While that will likely get a chunk of interested people to buy Glass, empty lenses will have just as wide an appeal. One of the biggest deterrents for even tech-inclined people of the original device is that it stands out too much. At the end of last year, Wired's Mat Honan wrote up his year with Google Glass. His main takeaway: Everyone called him an asshole because he looked like an asshole.
Ultimately, he urged readers to get past that. "Glass, and the other things like it, won’t always be ugly and awkward. At some point, it’s going to be invisibly indistinguishable from a pair of glasses or sunglasses," he wrote. Today's announcement certainly brings us much closer to that paradigm, even if, ultimately, Glass still looks like a connected headset attached to a stylish pair of glasses.
But, it's worth seeing this as a step in an inevitable direction, argues Honan. "Because while you (and I) may make fun of glassholes today, come tomorrow we’re all going to be right there with them, or at least very close by. Wearables are where we’re going. Let’s be ready." Are you ready?