What Google Glass Really Means

“The future is already here—it’s just not very evenly distributed.”

—William Gibson

During the keynote of day one of Google I/O, Sergey Brin orchestrated a rushed, off-kilter, and stunning display of the company’s revolutionary Google Glass technology. For those unfamiliar with the new product, it is a new type of mobile device—computerised glasses that will give you all the sensors and inputs you’re used to in mobile phones. Think about that for a moment—that’s damn cool.

But that’s not why Glass is important. First of all, the developer preview—very “bleeding edge”, as Sergey described it—isn’t available for another year, minimum. Even then, it’s going to cost $1,500. How eager are you to shell out $1,500 for a new piece of hardware that has a “beta—going to be upgraded” sticker slapped on it? Especially when you’ve never used one before. Yeah, I’m not all that eager either.

So let’s just accept that Google Glass won’t be a commercial, consumer success for at least a few years. This won’t be like the iPhone, where the launch signals a massive shift in the industry and everyone has to pivot within a couple years or be left in the dust. Why is Google Glass important, then?

Go back to the keynote. I want to call out a specific quote:

“We believe, actually, that communication with images, and access to devices that empower people to communicate with images in new ways, are truly revolutionary, and may enable people to connect in new and potentially better ways.”

You know what that says to me? That says Google is taking images very seriously. Think I’m just taking one quote out of context? Think about the keynote. Google+ Events: what was highlighted the most? The freaking images. When was the last time you thought “Gee, this event would be so much more fun if only my invitations were prettier.” I love Party Mode, but is that really a revolution, as it was touted to be? What about the Google+ mobile app: did anyone else notice that images are the most prominent UI element, even for non-image posts?

Google is guiding users to share more images. Why? Well, keep in mind that Google’s computers are almost as good as human brains are at deciphering images.

Thanks to YouTube, Google Image Search, Picasa, and Google+, Google has access to more images than pretty much anyone else. Thanks to being the de-facto leader in infrastructure, Google has more computing power than pretty much anyone else. Google has always been a data-driven company, so when they start guiding their users towards a certain type of data, they rather show their hand.

Google is betting heavily on the future of image recognition. They’re betting that we’ll share more and more in visual ways, and that Google’s vaunted search capabilities (which work wonderfully on text, but need some help when it comes to images) will become less and less useful as the web goes increasingly visual. And they want to be ahead of the curve in image recognition when that happens. How do they do that? More data.

Google Glass isn’t important because it will revolutionise the way you and I interact with devices. It won’t do that for years, and even then, it’s a long shot. Google Glass is important because it’s another step in Google’s quest to cracking the problem of making computers understand pictures.