Google Glass: A case of failed innovation?

Sabita Malla of WWF Nepal explores how Google Glass can help in wildlife conservation.

On Jan. 19, Google pulled the Google Glass from the market as part of what it called “a transition,” which led some technology observers to tag the wearable device as a failed innovation.

The fate of Google Glass didn’t come as a surprise to Jonathan Cole, managing director of software developer Skotkonung.

In 2013, Cole and his colleagues won a seat in the now-defunct Google Explorer Program, enabling them to buy the Glass and see how it can improve the delivery of aid in the field. Skotkonung was exploring the possibility of combining biometrics and the Glass capabilities for registering aid beneficiaries and promoting the safety of aid workers more than a year ago.

But the trial has long been abandoned.

“We just took a very pragmatic view, which was that [the Glass] has a very interesting potential capability but it wasn't going to go anywhere in a kind of near-future time scale,” Cole told Devex.

Speculations abound on why Google closed its Explorer Program. For Cole, though, terminating Skotkonung’s work with the Glass had to do with the gear’s deficiencies. Google Glass didn’t have the feel that it could stand the oftentimes hard conditions in the environment humanitarian organizations work in; although it had a titanium frame, most of the components were encased in plastic. The interface was also not intuitive and “did bizarre things” — for instance, to go up and down the menu required scrolling left to right — that “felt like hard work,” Cole noted.

But the biggest drawback was the battery life. Compared to a modern smartphone with 3,200 mAh, which is enough for a day’s worth of power to run applications using biometrics, Google Glass only had 570 mAh. This only gives an hour of power when used similarly, according to Cole.

Sabita Malla, senior research officer at World Wildlife Foundation Nepal  — one of the five nongovernmental organizations selected by Google to receive the Glass — likewise pointed out the short battery life as a major shortcoming of the device. When she tested it out in late February 2014 to see how the device can help in wildlife conservation efforts, she had to bring a battery backup so she could recharge the device.

Malla starred in a promotional video for the Glass, where she stressed that all the functionalities mentioned in the video, such as GPS, a camera and an app for recording notes that can be downloaded into a computer were all but possibilities.

“It could revolutionize wildlife conservation not only in Nepal, but all over the world because when you're traveling on an elephant, you go out with pens, pencils, binoculars, cameras, so many things, so that's very difficult,” she said. “If the Glass has all that features [as cited in the video], it would reduce so much of our work.”

Malla said she provided Google with feedback on her experience using the Glass, including the tendency of the screen to go blank under bright light. Google, she added, “actually said they would improve the product.”

With the end of its work on Google Glass, Skotkonung is refocusing on tablet- and phone-based applications. The company is currently working with D.C.-based nonprofit New Incentives on plans to expand the latter’s HIV and AIDS prevention programs beyond Nigeria and is in early-stage conversations with NGOs on how biometrics can help track the whereabouts of people who have undergone polio vaccinations and determine if they have completed all their needed courses of vaccines.

Skotkonung, according to Cole, has resold the Glass to recoup the cost of the hardware. The Glass went for $1,500 during its stint in the market.

The idea of wearable technology that allows you to interact and capture information, to view information and to communicate while keeping hands free remains powerful, Cole said.

“I think the Glass got quite close to potentially being able to do that but didn't quite make it to the final transition in this format,” he said. “Who knows, [Google] have abandoned the program, they may not abandon the program, they may just be going through a more fundamental rethink about how they are going to do this. And it may be, and I hope that something does come out [in the future] that gets those sorts of capability.”

Devex has reached out to Google to clarify the next steps for the Glass.

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About the author

  • Ma. Eliza Villarino

    Eliza is a veteran journalist focused on covering the most pressing issues and latest innovations in global health, humanitarian aid, sustainability, and development. A member of Mensa, Eliza has earned a master's degree in public affairs and bachelor's degree in political science from the University of the Philippines.