Slow Roll-out Builds Frenzied Anticipation for Google Glass

Google hasn’t been known for its must-have consumer products. But by parceling out a small number of units of its revolutionary new device to developers and fans in advance of next year’s launch, it is creating an Apple-like mania.

The future is here, folks. Google Glass has rolled into beta testing phase and for the past few weeks, some lucky early adopters have been strapping thin wire frames onto their faces and seeing what’s otherwise limited to that old-fashioned glass on the iPhone screen. Nearly 10,000 total pairs will be sent out to Google’s “explorers”: comprised of winners of the #ifihadglass contest and developers who signed up for the program at Google’s IO conference last year. The lucky recipients still have to shell out $1,500 for a pair.

With a measured rollout and vibrant online community, the Google team has expertly crafted an anticipation level and comprehensive user experience previously reserved for Apple’s latest and greatest. “This is unlike what most folks are familiar with around traditional product launches,” says a Google spokesperson. “One of the things that makes it different is that we’re releasing this to developers first.”

Google has certainly fostered an ecosystem in preparation for the Glass’s debut. Eager recipients have been posting hardware stats, app (called Glassware) ideas, and experiences with the product on personal blogs and numerous Google Plus communities. The Society of Google Glass Enthusiasts has nearly a thousand members in its location-specific groups. Online, developers, techies, Google employees, and curious outsiders swap discussion and speculation.

Glass’s staggered release has tuned the already high anticipation levels around the futuristic device into a feverish pitch—so much so that any sighting of, or experiment with, Google Glass in the past few months has made headlines.

In New York City, Gothamist has been tracking Glass sightings for months. And as pairs trickle out from Google’s headquarters, Glass stunts have made the rounds online, like Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly donning them on TV, to explorers posting viral experiments, or tech blogger Robert Scoble infamously showering with a pair on. There’s already even a Tumblr called “White Men Wearing Google Glass.”

Google says the hype is simply a byproduct of its tech-friendly roll-out. “What was certainly the intention was to get it in the hands of developers first, this is the group that will take Glass to next level,” said a Google spokesperson. "That was absolutely deliberate. And then obviously to get it in the hands of consumers through the #ifihadglass program is also a great way to showcase the diverse, inspiring ways this technology can be used.” As part of an effort to reach out beyond developers, Google invited the masses to post 140-character propositions to Google Glass on Twitter; 8,000 lucky winners will receive the product.

Intentional or not, the hype has been building for months. For non-Glass receiving citizens, a sighting is cause for excitement. “Is that what I think it is?” a fellow bus passenger asked Glass-clad Michael Evans in Washington, D.C. last week. “It’s exactly what you think it is,” he replied. The software engineer had won a foundry hackathon after Google’s IO conference last year, and was rewarded with a free Google Glass. Two weeks ago, Evans picked up the Glass from Google’s New York headquarters—the first day they were available. The experience, he said a few days later, was very personal, “like a little party,” with so-called “Glass guides" there to show you the ropes.

“Every single person I know has wanted to try them on,” Evans says, laughing. “No one has been like, ‘Oh it’s not for me.’” (Even this writer admits to accosting a Glass-wearing Google employee in a New York City park.)

Evans is enjoying an unexpected side effect of having connectivity at eye-level. Whereas before he would pull out his phone for every vibration, he says he can now view the notification and Glass and determine whether it’s important without casting his eyes elsewhere. “It’s trying to avoid this culture of looking down,” he says.

“If I had Glass I’d see everything differently,” read Bruce Burke’s winning tweet to Google’s #ifIhadGlass contest. A marketing officer at tech startup M-ize in Tampa Bay, Florida, Burke included a picture of a sunset. “I’m real into contests,” he said. “I won the phone I’m talking to you on.” Burke was driving home from a day on the beach as we spoke, and wished he could have snapped a shot of the gorgeous sky. Pulling out a phone while driving 80 miles per hour isn’t really feasible, but snapping a photo via Google Glass might be.

Burke was notified of his contest win three weeks ago and is awaiting the invitation to pick up his new gadget in New York. He says he’ll head straight for the Empire State Building and see if the service is good enough to host a Google Hangout from the top.

#ifihadglass contest winners have already showcased some incredible uses of Glass. Physics teacher Andrew Heuvel streamed his bike ride through the world’s largest particle accelerator at CERN back to his classroom in Michigan. “Those are all the kind of things that are really inspirational and will help people better understand the wide and diverse applications this product is going to bring to the world,” says the Google spokesperson.

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The new technology has sparked the entrepreneurial spirit in Burke, who says he’s brainstorming how to monetize the Google Glass. “If you have a five-star resort, world-class event, I’m there and I will broadcast it live for everyone to see,” he says. “All these people want to show off customer experience, real life. How can I help broadcast that for them?”

And as Glass arrives in the hands of explorers, eager developers are getting to work building Glassware applications and sharing their experiences with those still waiting. Ethan Bresnick doesn’t have his own Glass--he’s only 13 years old—but he’s been making short films about the Glass-wearing experience since February, using a 3D printer mock-up of Glass and interviewing those wearing the real deal. Bresnick’s efforts were only the third or fourth time Glass had been filmed by a non-explorer, and his videos made the rounds on Glass’s online communities. Bresnick plans to use the device as a filmmaking tool when he finally gets his own pair.

If Glass is the future, then perhaps Bresnick is the epitome of Glass’s integration. He whizzes through the hardware and software specs, speculates about its capabilities, and discusses hopes for continuing his Glass video series. “A lot of people think it’s really futuristic, but the reality is they’ll be out in 2014,” he said.

Can you wait?