When Google Glass was launched in 2013, it was supposed to be the future: lightweight AR glasses that could take photographs and give directions from the bridge of your nose. As you know — now that we’re in the future — it didn’t quite pan out. But calling it a total flop would seem unfair, too, given that in 2019, six years after the first prototype first appeared, Google Glass fans still haunt the internet — particularly on Reddit, where r/googleglass continues to see updates years after its namesake’s heyday has passed. Yes, there are still “glassholes.” And honestly? They’re pretty nice.
A primer on Google Glass, in case you blinked and missed its cultural moment or just had better things to do in 2013. Google Glass officially launched that year, first to select developers and then to the general public. A pair retailed for $1,500, which is to say that owning a pair was something of a statement. It said, I can afford to spend an entire month’s rent on this piece of experimental technology and I feel no shame at your awareness of that fact since I’m wearing said technology on my face. My colleague, Intelligencer tech writer Jake Swearingen, once described wearing Google Glass as “looking like the world’s most gung ho laser-tag player.” It’s a description that has stuck with me. The image of the now much-maligned technologist Robert Scoble wearing his Google Glass in the shower has also stuck with me.
It took all of two seconds for the world to declare the expensive, experimental device creepy. Certain wearers of the device were proclaimed “glassholes” — think the type of person you might have just called an “asshole,” now with AR-enabled frames slapped on their face. Somebody created a Wi-Fi jamming program, Glassholes.sh, specifically to spite them. The deathwatch beetle chirped loud and fast for Google Glass. From the New York Times, in May 2013, months before Google Glass was even available for purchase:
The glasses-like device, which allows users to access the Internet, take photos and film short snippets, has been pre-emptively banned by a Seattle bar. Large parts of Las Vegas will not welcome wearers. West Virginia legislators tried to make it illegal to use the gadget, known as Google Glass, while driving.
Google tried its best to counter the accusations of creepiness. Google Glass requires speech or touch to be activated, which would ostensibly tip somebody around you off to its presence. If you wanted to film somebody, you had to be staring straight at them. But it wasn’t enough. People just weren’t ready for Google Glass. The same Times story references an incident at a programming conference in 2013 in which a female engineer tweeted a picture of a man she heard making an inappropriate joke. “She gave me no warning, she smiled while she snapped the pic and sealed my fate,” the man, who was later fired, said of the incident. Today, that interaction feels commonplace. Sure, it’s still uncomfortable and inappropriate to have your image blasted across the internet without your consent — see the gross saga of #PlaneBae — but we now operate in a world where a stranger using a device to surreptitiously snap pictures of you is just reality. Google Glass was just early to the party. Possibly still particularly creepy, but mostly early. Plus, it didn’t help that your everyday (or as everyday as somebody with $1,500 to burn on such a thing can be) Google Glass user wasn’t politely wandering around. They were, if the headlines are to be believed, in your face about it.
In January 2015, Google announced, in a whisper, that the Glassholes’ reign of terror had ended: The company would no longer be developing Google Glass. That wasn’t the end of the wearable AR project, however. Google pivoted to the business sector; in 2017 it launched Glass Enterprise Edition for workplaces like factories. (In addition to modifications for workers, the device now has a red light, like those on video cameras, to indicate when it is recording.)
And, as it turned out, it wasn’t the end of OG GG, either. Glassholes still exist, just not as boogeymen haunting the tech section of your newspaper. There’s a small group of fans still talking and updating and buying and selling on Reddit. Somebody who picked up a pair for $150 and wants help using the device to display sheet music; somebody with questions about installing an older operating system onto Glass Enterprise; another person looking for foldable frames; somebody else trying to fix a broken device; people looking to buy, as well as a number of people asking if it’s even worth it to spend any money on the now-defunct tech. (Spoiler: survey says it’s not.) There is also, weirdly, somebody asking if Google nixed Google Glass “because ‘someone’ was made aware of the book ‘The Circle’ by Dave Eggers?”
Reading through the forum, it seems wrong to regard the dwindling frequenters of /r/googleglass as Glassholes. On the contrary, they seem to bust out their devices at incredibly appropriate moments. “I pretty much only use Glass for taking pictures/video while running/hiking or anywhere I don’t have access to a phone or don’t want to carry one,” writes one Redditor. “It’s a great way to capture highlights of a marathon, for instance, without having to stop and pull out a phone.” “Text notifications. Phone calls whilst driving, pix and video while on the go,” writes another. “I have used it for recording chemistry experiments and reaction set ups,” writes someone else. If you brainstormed words to describe these users, you’d probably come up with adjectives like “wholesome” or “nerdy.” Asshole-ish, or Glasshole-ish, would not be among them.
Having spent some time sifting through posts from members of /r/googleglass, it has become clear that nobody on there is using the devices on an especially frequent basis or trying to integrate the technology into their everyday life. “Personally, I dusted off my own to use on a vacation,” writes one user attempting to convince another not to bother buying the device. “If you plan to buy it as a relic of old tech, sure. To use? No, it’s not a good idea.” (Using Google Glass just to take photos and videos feels less in touch with the original AR vision and more akin to Snapchat’s Spectacles, sunglasses with a built-in camera.) At this point, owning Google Glass is like buying a vintage typewriter you have no intention of really using. You buy it to own it; to remember a specific moment in time — and, let’s be honest, to present yourself as the type of person who is concerned with remembering that specific moment in time — by keeping that moment on your shelf.
Anyway, as one Redditor points out, using Google Glass requires a Google+ account. Google shuttered Google+ in October 2018 after a security flaw exposed the data of half a million people.