The Next Big Thing That Wasn’t (but still may be someday)

Image of a Google Glass
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May 26, 2017

Remember a few years ago (2014 to be exact) when we were all told we’d be walking around wearing glasses that live-streamed the internet? Titles such as the New Scientist proclaimed how this game-changing tech would transform the world, citing the possibilities of surgeons consulting on operations from miles away and diabetics monitoring and managing their conditions – that and the obvious frivolity of using a new and novel gadget in the first place. Google Glass was also released to a maelstrom of safety concerns: What if people use Google Glass while they are driving? What if people are distracted while they are walking along the street and step out in front of a car? What if people wearing Google Glass while they are driving hit the people wearing Google Glass who step out in front of their cars?

Three years later and how many innocent lives were lost to the distractions of Google Glass? In fact, have you ever even seen anyone wearing one? It’s a classic case of tech missing its mark; over-hyped and under-thought. In fairness to Google Glass, its usefulness has also been widely discussed: Wired magazine notes that it would be brilliant for managers to monitor staff safety in an industrial environment and Wikipedia has an entire section devoted to its medical applications – from its use in trauma helicopters to breastfeeding support. But it never reached the point where people wearing them became the norm. It has since retreated to the lab to be rethought (and concerns over privacy addressed) and is due to be re-released this year.

So why didn’t it take off in the way it was expected? Gartner has coined a great term: “peak of inflated expectations,” in other words it couldn’t possibly have lived up to the hype. It’s a familiar story for tech. Take virtual reality, hailed as ‘the next big thing’ in 1990s. Cumbersome goggles and gloves enabled the user to see a ‘blocky’ version of reality. It wasn’t the best. In fact it was terrible. It had no practical application beyond its own novelty factor and was soon forgotten about. Then in 2015 a strange thing happened:. virtual reality resurfaced as a gaming option, a very good gaming option, and … as a publishing format. As strange as it sounds, respected news outlets began to experiment with VR to bring documentary-style news items to readers. It is the kind of rethinking the medium that is probably taking place at the Google Glass lab as we speak.

So Is VR The Next Big Thing For Publishing?

To paraphrase a Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism report: no. It still involves a cumbersome headset that is expensive, even when subsidized by the news outlets themselves. Then there’s the issue of monetization, how can the subsidized hardware and the content be supported by the publishers? If the answer is ads, then how can these be targeted for better effect and not interrupt the user experience? Last, but by no means least, content. It doesn’t yet deliver a better experience than documentary video reports on news websites and there are reports of it being a bit, well, dull. Which is a shame because there’s huge potential for publishers. Sending a journalist the scene of a crisis to record events as they unfold is exactly what news organizations should be doing – rather than staid interviews and pieces to camera after the fact. VR, and Google Glass, could capture the truth of the events rather than conjecture, offer first-hand perspective and above all, powerful storytelling. If only new tech could overcome the hype, it might just prove to be invaluable.

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