Storytelling that inspires and delivers vision: Lessons from Google Glass

Telling visionary stories takes more than great tech, it takes imagination, warmth and a devotion to showing a world made better by your inventions.

News of Google’s Project Glass lit up web chatter of the design and tech community. On the one hand it was a provocative leap forward, Google stepping boldly toward hardware that is category defining, and on the other showing a vision of the future that is largely uninspiring.

The biggest problem with Glass isn’t the potential loss of serendipity, nor the messy distractions, how to deal with all the info noise, the complications of making it real, or even the geeky hardware acting as a socially awkward cue that you might not be really paying attention.

We’ll need to work all this out, but let’s talk about the Google’s vision for this amazing tech. Watch the vision video and you see interactions that will all be familiar: Siri like natural language recognition and commands, location and time notifications, weather forecasting, real-time text and video chat, GPS mapping and location sharing, checking in, sharing photos to social networks, etc… There is a subtle shift in stance, from a more sovereign interaction to one that is more transient. With phones we have a more explicit intentional interaction, Glass is more of a dip-in-and-out of the digital experience. Instead pulling out your phone to read your twitter feed for the whole 20 minute commute home, Glass has been envisioned as more of a light technology augmentation to the real world.

But there’s little that’s emotionally resonant. It feels like a demonstration of how you’d do all the stuff you do on your iPhone today in your Glass tomorrow. The focus is on performing tasks that highlight features. It comes across like a technology searching for an application.

I don’t mean to be down on the tech. When I first saw it I was really excited about the possibilities. This is groundbreaking technology making the screen fully portable and hands free, it’s about liberating yourself from the effort required to interact with a phone. Of enhancing your interactions with the world around you. Google’s got their engineers making really cool stuff, but when it comes to imagination or emotional resonance; telling a story that makes you connect with and desire what they are making, it’s just not there.

Let’s look at ways the storytelling could have changed more effectively invite us to imagine a future that’s better with Glass.

Helpful insights beyond the moment

Pushing the local forecast into your eye every time you look out the window seems annoying and obnoxious. Technology is pushing it’s way into your experience.

Apple shows the same need for insight into weather, but it’s prompted by the user who asks about the weather in a city she’s clearly packing to visit. The value of the information is greater to the traveller who can’t just look out the window and get a pretty good idea about the local weather. By giving her a forecast for New York the phone is more helpful, it’s giving her information at a moment where she can make the most use of it. We connect with the experience because we know how difficult it can be to arrive at a destination where we’ve packed the wrong clothes. It’s worth noting that Apple doesn’t even show you the results, they don’t have to, you fill in the details yourself.

The warmth of connection

Next up Google shows your friend reaching out to see if you want to hang out. Sweet right? But no, it feels like you’re forced to translate everything into text instead of simply using your voice to communicate. In the Glass interface chat’s a silent activity with beeps and bleeps for feedback. What if instead you could simply chat, you know, with your voice, it could still be asynchronous, it doesn’t need to be a phone call. Your voice can also be parsed into text, but giving you both allows for a richer deeper connection. You get the warmth and excitement in your friend’s voice, not a text message you have to read.

Thinking a little bit ahead

As you head into the subway Google let’s you know the subway’s not running. Drat. You’ve already hoofed it here, now your only option is to walk.

How much more helpful if Glass knows that you usually catch the 6 and tells you that service has been suspended before leaving home. This gives you a chance to grab your bike instead.

Setting your hands free

Speaking of bikes, how did bike riding NOT make it into the video?

Walking is an activity slow enough to stop and pause to check directions. Biking is fast and to do it safely requires both hands. Glass frees your hands up.

Getting a little heads-up display action letting you know your speed and your distance covered would be a great augmentation to the ride.

Helping you remember the important things

Reminders are helpful, but hardly the stuff of great narrative. Google shows setting a reminder to buy tickets to a show. Meh. I mean sure it’s something you’d want to remember, but as a story there’s little to connect with.

Apple’s not all that much better, the girl who’s running asks Siri to remind her to call Chris when she gets home. Her speed clearly makes it harder for her to type a reminder, and with Siri she can save one without breaking her stride, but it’s so generic we don’t really connect. Why? Because saving a reminder with your voice is technologically difficult, and doing it well has taken some serious engineering. but really it’s about as exciting as watching someone write a list. The magical experience of reminders is when they help you remember the thing you’d have otherwise forgotten, and maybe picking something that would be a real shame to miss.

Walking up to your front door and getting a reminder to call dad and wish him a happy birthday? Now that’s something we can all connect to and see the value.

Making location awareness magic

Next up Google takes us to Strand bookstore. Glass makes sure you know arrived by pushing the location to your eye.

It’s this kind of demonstration that seems like a gratuitous use of technology. Isn’t the big red signage enough of a confirmation that you’ve arrived?

Duplicating the busy information density we experience in an urban environment isn’t an experience you’d really want to sign up for. If you wanted to go seriously visionary why not propose a not-too-distant future where all the signs and advertisements screaming for your attention have been removed. The beauty and dignity of architecture is preserved as the signage is moved into our smart devices like Glass. Then pushing the bookstore name to me becomes helpful.

So next there’s an opportunity to interact with with this guy.

But you don’t take it. You ask your Glass eyepiece instead, it gives you directions for walking 20 feet. There’s a rosy picture of the future. No more interactions with strangers, no basic self sufficiency.

There’s a few ways Google could have taken this to make it more compelling.

Make the store unbelievably busy so that it would be a long wait till you could ask someone for the location of the music section, at least then you’re not being anti-social you’re just resourceful. But still, bookstores have some of the most dependable signage, finding the right section isn’t really all that hard.

What if instead, you could walk into the supermarket and as you walk the isles Glass uses your location and shopping list to simply pop-up items for you to grab from the shelf? Now you’re doing something you can’t really do today. It’s helpful, and kind of cool. There’s no way you could ask the cashier to show you where all the items on your shopping list are located. With Glass shopping list assistance you’re able to walk into a store you’ve never visited, grab everything on your shopping list which happens to have been updated by your partner just a moment ago, and leave, sure that you’ve got everything you need.

Continuing in the bookstore Google shows you checking to see if your friend has arrived at the bookstore yet. No you don’t just walk out to the street or wait for him to come grab you, you use Glass to seek his location and it tells you he’s half a block away.

Creepyness aside, it’s not saving you from a lot of work or discomfort. You could have just stepped out to wait for your pal on the street. Just cause you can do it doesn’t mean it’s inspiring or visionary. Location awareness of other people is a hard thing to do right. Even with friends there’s lots of privacy issues, and anyone who’s seriously tried to make apps that leverage the power of tracking has ended up with low adoption or swift negative reactions.

Moving on you follow your buddy to a nearby coffee truck. Your first instinct is to check in. Seriously? OK, maybe Google needed to show it to compete with Foursquare, but come on, this isn’t particularly engaging for us viewers.

Also, one day in the future you’ll still need to manually check in? If checking in is your thing, can’t it just be something background and automatic, or at least less of a process? In the Glass vision it would be the same amount of work to do it with your phone.

Improving connections

So you get a cup of joe and then part ways with Paul.

Sure there’s a cut or two to edit out the stuff that’s not showing off Glass, but this makes the story mostly about you using your friend Paul to find a good cup of coffee which is something you could have just messaged him about. The heavy focus on showing off the technology has robbed the story of its humanity. First you didn’t chat with the bookstore clerk, then you only meet up with a pal to get insider info. You seem like a cold jerk.

Apple takes a totally different approach to telling the story with Facetime. The phone is used to bridge the gap, to overcome the barriers of physical space.

The phone frames the entire interaction but instead of getting in the way it falls to the background. You quickly find yourself transported into a deeply intimate moment, the story connects instantly, and you empathize with the people and appreciate how the technology makes this kind of emotional connection possible. The people here clearly care for one another and value spending this moment together.

After parting ways you come across a cool piece of street art. You want to share it and in a second can capture the image and upload it.

The process is simple, simpler and easier than pulling out a camera. It’s effortless and really shows a sweet way to capture images. Here again the magic of the tech is clear, but the story fails. Street art is hip, but people are what matters, humans are innately drawn to faces.

What about grabbing a few photos of your buddy while hanging out?

And how cool would it be if it auto recognized your friend and added the pictures to his image stream too?

The last scene is easily the most enchanting. It feels a bit contrived, but we’re willing to overlook it because it actually shows how this technology might bring us closer together.

It’s one way video chat at first, and because there’s no camera looking at your face your friend can’t see you. What’s the next best thing? Sharing your view.

It’s a delightful ending for an otherwise uninspiring story. But it didn’t need to be that way. When we tell stories, especially around a future shaped by new technology it’s important to keep the focus on people. Our gadgets and tools aren’t the point, they are means, not the ends. Every twist and turn in the story should help us see a world that is made better, not just different. When you present a vision, strive to deliver a story with deep emotional resonance. We don’t need the technology to be perfect, or the applications mindblowing, but we do need to see through it to the deeper more essential need, that is our desire to be connected, to have meaning and share life with one another.

Delivering enchanting experiences

A final thought. An Apple commercial for Siri shows a girl on a roadtrip gazing up into the night sky and wondering what the Orion constellation looks like.

Siri delivers a nifty image.

Google, Glass was made to best this! Looking into bright glowing phone to try to match it against the night sky would be a terrible experience.

With Glass you simply look skyward. Glass can magically connect the stars for you.

Now that’s the way to learn about the night sky.

9 Comments

Jonathan Beerhalter
Best blog post I've read all year.
Vanessa
Fantastic blog post! Loved how you pulled apart the flaws in the user stories and then added in better suggestions for use cases. Thanks.
Vanessa
Fantastic blog post! Loved how you pulled apart the flaws in the user stories and then added in better suggestions for use cases. Thanks.
Rich Harris
Really good read, thanks. I had a 'meh' reaction to the video but couldn't really put my finger on why until now. The comparison with Apple speaks volumes about Google's technofetishist culture. But another aspect of their culture is openness, which is why I'd be surprised if developers weren't able to create the applications you envision very quickly once the hardware is released. Glass is just the platform, not the product.
Rich Harris
Really good read, thanks. I had a 'meh' reaction to the video but couldn't really put my finger on why until now. The comparison with Apple speaks volumes about Google's technofetishist culture. But another aspect of their culture is openness, which is why I'd be surprised if developers weren't able to create the applications you envision very quickly once the hardware is released. Glass is just the platform, not the product.
Rich Harris
Apologies for the double post - Movable Type barfed.
Vino
It's hard to disagree with fantastic insights proffered here and I like Google
Prakash
Those are some of the things I had when I saw the google glasses for the first time. No and almost little interaction with people around you.
Alex
Really great, thank you very much, very pragmatic. Doesn't Facetime's assault on our heartstrings represent an attack on emotional self-efficacy? Doesn't visually dictating our relationships diminish the boundary and variety of those relationships? I think it feels more like a sales mechanism then a respectful manner in which to present a new technology. Google introduced a new platform, a new space, and then said very little new about it. In some ways it feels a little more about stimulating discourse over defining a product, though I have my doubts the google had this intention. It is interesting and great that this allowed for your response which allowed me to sit and think for a while about this new space and how it defines the old.

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