Shaking Up Social

Let’s face an uncomfortable truth: social media has permeated almost every aspect of modern life. You turn on the TV, your favorite show has a hashtag to go along with it. You try to find a job, you have to make sure your LinkedIn and Facebook are updated and “clean.” You strike up conversation with a friend, and they expect you to have seen a random tidbit they posted online. We’re essentially living in two worlds: one in which we interact with other people, partake in life experiences, and are surrounded by opportunities and challenges; and another that we struggle to keep up to date with the rest of our lives in an effort to “connect” us with our peers.

Despite whatever pretense of interpersonal connection these social networks project, they aren’t the ones working to enrich our lives: we’re the ones working for them. And that fact is becoming increasingly clear to most of these networks’ user bases.

This isn’t the result of any social networking company being inherently evil or anything of that sort, it’s just the most accepted and proven monetization model of a free service. The networks want to keep their services free for users, so they pay the bills by letting advertisers run ads on their site. To make the ad space more valuable, the networks use the data users have given them (interests, activities, location, etc.) to give advertisers a more targeted way to choose which users see their message. With this added value, these networks have a major selling point for companies who are interested in reaching a very specific demographic.

Alternate first rule: Don’t talk about free services. (Reference: see second rule.)
The first rule of a free service: If you aren’t a paying customer, you’re probably the product being sold.

While this is the way Facebook and similar networks have been operating for quite a while, the series of leaks regarding the NSA and data privacy in general have resulted in a mass paranoia regarding how our data is used. People have noticed how intrude these services really are, and are either leaving the networks (albeit in relatively small numbers) or are looking for alternatives that encroach less on their personal privacy. In light of this, there’s been a lot of press about a new contender in the social networking field: Ello.

Ello is a social network built on the concept of being the “anti-Facebook”: instead of selling your data and delivering ads to you, they promise to be ad-free and minimalistic, with the option of purchasing advanced features to enhance your user experience. In doing this, they are effectively selling an idea rather than a product, which is all the more apparent when you look into their manifesto. This is definitely a disruption in the current social networking space, as it shuns everything these websites have been built on in the current era.

Not pictured: Google+ collecting data without anyone explicitly using it.

As elegant as the idea behind Ello is, though, there’s a crucial flaw with the plan: it isn’t a sustainable business model. Social networks are offered as services, which require a constant revenue stream to deal with things like server upkeep and maintenance. Ello’s current revenue plan is to remain both devoid of advertisements and free to users, which mean the new features they develop have to be consistently convincing enough to get a large number of people to buy in if they want to turn a profit. However, with such a prevalent view that social networks should be free for everyone, there’s only a small percentage of users who would ever pay to enhance a service like this. This model has only really worked for services like LinkedIn, which promise real-world returns (like an actual job) in return for some investment on the user’s part. Unless Ello can deliver something like that, it isn’t likely to stick.

This is why I believe the social networking businesses of the modern era will happen in a cycle: Services start out user-friendly while gaining investors, then are forced to enact a sustainable business model at the expense of the end user, who then becomes disgruntled and migrates to a friendlier alternative. MySpace dominated the market first, then Facebook supplanted it, and now the market is once again primed for upheaval due to the recent downturn in public opinion. My theory is that the best way to upend Facebook et al. is through a major disruption in the business model and a practical social product, and Ello is right in trying to shake things up. However, they haven’t created a strategy that can actually carry the service in a sustainable way.

Advertising in itself may not be the piece that needs to be removed from the social networking model - these businesses’ fault may just be in the way they handle their user’s data and the pervasive nature of their ecosystems. A new competitor’s monetization strategy can’t compromise their end users’ notion of privacy, and must serve a purpose people will actually see significant value in: ideally, something more than being able to award fake Internet points for a picture of a cat and a dog playing together. These companies need to keep their customers as the ones who benefit, while also using their technology in such a way that enables their own sustainability and keeps the customer base coming back for more.


Google Glass Isn't the Future - But It Paves an Interesting Path

When information first started leaking about Google’s augmented reality headset, Google Glass, the tech industry instantly clamored over the profound effect it would have on the entire technology industry. Google took the challenge of introducing a novel product category that people had never seen outside of science fiction, and reactions ranged from erratic excitement to critical caution. It was a risky move, but Google had a plan to make sure the technology lived up to the many promises it had made.

As it turns out, Glass didn’t quite live up to all of these promises, but Google still released an impressive prototype that suggests great things to follow.

I’ve been working on a research project involving Glass for the past 4 months or so, and have gotten a chance to develop for, tinker with, and evaluate many aspects of the hardware. I also had the opportunity to experiment with smaller side projects for these smart glasses during this time, including an Imgur client triggered by the phrase “OK Glass, waste my time,” and a simple modification to the hardware itself which improves usability and the cultural stigma of wearing Glass in public dramatically (pictured below).

I refrained from doing this for 3 days after coming up with the pun. Not sure why.
Googley Glass: One of the many reasons why I shouldn't have nice things.

Developing for Glass

The first thing I investigated upon getting a hold of Google Glass was how well it worked as a base piece of hardware. At its most basic, Glass is comprised of a trackpad, a camera (which was much higher quality than I expected from such a small unit), and a small glass prism. This prism projects a floating rectangular display - using the power of magic and dreams, I assume - which appears to hover in front of your face whenever the hardware is active. Though a far cry from the initial claim of “augmented reality,” it’s still very cool to experience.

Glass suffers certain usability issues, as is to be expected from a first-generation product. The general paradigm of the trackpad has the user swipe back and forth to scroll through lists, swipe down to go back, and tap to select a menu item. However, the trackpad often confuses gestures, resulting in some frustration when attempting to navigate menus quickly. The battery life of the unit is also abysmal: if you plan on using Glass for any extended period of time, you may be out of luck. (Google has actually stated that Glass is designed to be used in short bursts in their Do’s and Don’ts for Glass Explorers, which may be partially due to the battery life issue.)

I’ve also observed other minor issues about the hardware, such as the fact that the unit runs hot under any sort of load, and the fact that the frame design has nothing to keep the Glass on your left ear should you decide to look down, creating a fear of moving your head too quickly while wearing it. Both of these concerns illustrate some shortcomings in design for the device, which likely should have been considered more highly for a unit Google wants people to wear on their faces.

In short, here’s how I see the Google Glass headset as a developer:

"Magic cyber cube" sounds a bit more whimsical than "glass box thing."
Google Glass, as seen by developers.

Through the Looking Glass

The technology behind Glass is innovative, there’s no doubt about that. However, I believe it’s important to consider the cultural implications of disruptive products such as this. Glass is as much a fashion accessory as it is a gadget, as it requires users to wear it through most of the day in order to capitalize on its utility. With this role, it is expected that Glass provide its functionality without otherwise impairing the wearer’s day to day life.

However, this is not the case. In my experience wearing Glass, I spent the entire day making a semi-conscious effort to look past the little magic prism that resided directly in front of my face. In conversations with others, I noticed that Glass obstructed some interactions, and observed those with whom I was speaking looking back and forth between my eyes and the suspiciously unassuming camera that also happened to be staring at them from beside my eyes.

Another interesting aspect of Glass is that no one knows what you’re seeing. All anybody else can see while the wearer interacts with Glass is that person swiping and tapping on the trackpad, leaving others to simply stand there and look bewildered. This leaves a large amount of ambiguity, more so than when someone takes out their phone to respond to a text (or even checks a notification on a smart watch, for that matter). This wouldn’t be an issue if there weren’t already privacy concerns surrounding Glass, such as whether or not a person is being filmed by the unit at any time.

If you navigate any sort of menu with Glass in public, odds are you will attract the confused stares of those who are witnessing you staring intently into nothing and twiddling with your robot glasses.
Google Glass, as seen by bystanders/acquaintances.

Now, this doesn’t even take into account the cultural status of Glass. Glass is one of the most expensive and distinguished gadgets on the market, and is really only worn by the tech-savvy and rich. People’s reactions to seeing it in public can be radical, with multiple accounts of wearers being mugged for the headset, particularly on the West Coast. Clearly, those with criminal intent see Glass as an easy target, which isn’t easy to argue with.

The silver lining: You will be able to walk more than 10 feet without somebody asking to try on your glasses.
Google Glass, as seen by burglars on the street.

Even so, the majority of people I came across were genuinely interested in the technology and excited for the opportunity to try it. Many of those who tried the hardware took a while to adjust to Glass’ unique control paradigm, and were generally enthralled by the unprecedented experience, yet skeptical of the device’s use case. It’s worth noting that I never wore the device in public areas - only in my place of work and in certain buildings around my university - but I never had any reactions as violent or derogatory as some Glass Explorers have experienced. Overall, there was a wide spectrum of reactions ranging from the most whimsical enjoyment to a generally unimpressed “huh,” though the device seemed to have an inexplicable allure to most/all of the people who approached me.

Much expensive. Wow.
Google Glass, as seen by the general public.

The Future Google Created

Given all of these critiques, as technologists, we have to remember that Glass is a first-generation product. Google not only had the task of creating a product people would love to use, they also had to lay the groundwork for an entire genre of wearable tech - and in this task, they have set the path for a very interesting future.

The design of Glass is inescapably distinctive, which results in a “double-edged sword” challenge. On one hand, it will probably never truly be accepted into popular culture in its current form, as it’s just too different for many people to comfortably handle. On the other hand, this shock factor lowers the risk of entry for other Glass competitors who want to create more normal-looking smart glasses. With Glass having gained the amount of notoriety it has, the public has been forcibly adjusted to accept that this sort of technology is out there, and a company that can manage to fit this technology in a more accepted form could have the golden ticket to making these gadgets practical.

Glass has also offered solutions to several of the problems facing the genre of smart glasses, such as interaction style, control layouts, and potential intrusiveness. While these solutions aren’t bulletproof by any means, they give competitors a template to base their future efforts on, and provide a concrete implementation of the ideas needed to make a device like this a success.

Personally, I believe the future of these devices will rest on what competitors do to ensure that their products succeed as fashion accessories, as well as gadgets. The smartwatch industry faces the same issue, and both of these subclasses of wearable tech have a ways to go before they become ingrained in society in the same way as the smartphone, if that’s even achievable for these devices. Most (if not all) of the technology needed for this revolution already exists, it’s just a matter of putting it together in an appealing and practical way - and then proving a practical use case that will entice people to bite the bullet and accept these devices as the wave of the future.