How Apple could succeed where Google stumbled with smart glasses

Apple is reportedly developing smart glasses.

While we’ve long heard about smart glasses -- including, but certainly not limited to, Google’s early but ill-fated foray -– it’s the reported smart glasses in development from Apple that have the potential to finally go mainstream.

Indeed, Apple is allegedly looking to add a pair of digital glasses to its wearables portfolio in a project that, per Bloomberg, is “still in an exploration phase” and would be introduced in 2018 at the earliest.

Citing “people familiar with the matter,” Bloomberg said the device will connect wirelessly to iPhones and display images and “other information” in consumers’ field of vision.

Not surprisingly, it could also include augmented reality, making it Apple’s first hardware targeted directly at AR, Bloomberg said.

Per Bloomberg, Google Glass failed in part because the battery died quickly, but also because consumers didn’t like the design and had privacy concerns.

According to Chris Carter, CEO of big data firm Approyo, Apple now has the potential to rework what Google did using the data provided by its users.

“Apple feels that data helps them in the quest to take over where Google left off when they stepped away from Glass," he added.

And this careful maneuvering is really textbook Apple.

“Apple is rarely the first into a new market. It prefers to stand back, watch what others do and then [debut] a polished product that addresses the shortcomings of previous attempts,” said Sam Costello, business analyst of creative technology at marketing and technology agency Digitas. “While Apple’s AR glasses are just a rumor right now, it’s a safe bet that the company has paid close attention to the failure of Google Glass and what Snapchat is doing with Spectacles. If Apple delivers a product in this space, expect it to build on the best elements of those products and add Apple’s characteristically thoughtful user experience.”

Snapchat Spectacles are sunglasses with video cameras that record ten-second Snaps and wirelessly add those Snaps to Memories on Snapchat. The platform released Spectacles via pop-up vending machines called Snapbots in November. Locations to date reportedly include LA and Tulsa. What’s more, a map allegedly lets consumers know where they can find the pop-up vending machines next.

Per Jeff Malmad, managing director and head of mobile and life+ at media and marketing services company Mindshare North America, Snapchat has key advantages in the short term because its product has “fun mass appeal” and its glasses are more about casual enjoyment than Google’s glasses, which were positioned at a lofty vantage point as the wearable of the future.

“It’s affordable and fun, especially the marketing of Spectacles,” he said. “With Apple, one of the challenges in comparison is that the product will likely be more expensive and more complicated to bring to market.”

Nevertheless, Jake Bennett, CTO of agency Pop, said mass market successes like Pokémon Go – and presumably Snapchat Spectacles – will pave the way for widespread adoption of augmented reality and digital glasses, giving Apple financial incentive to release a groundbreaking product.

Costello agreed it’s possible Snapchat Spectacles could lead to mainstream adoption of glasses from players like Apple.

“Snapchat has a large and passionate user base that could help normalize this type of device,” he said.

Tom Edwards, chief digital officer of agency at marketing company Epsilon, too, said Snapchat, whose glasses are “focused on enhancing and simplifying a fun and engaging experience,” could provide a path to mainstream adoption or interest in the technology. And, from there, Apple has an opportunity to take learnings from Google and Snapchat to see which aspects of the previous technology may translate to an Apple product.

“Apple’s approach to building third party ecosystems is also key as this model will provide more value to the consumer and expand the opportunity to create experiences that enhance users’ lives,” Edwards said.

However, Jason Snyder, CTO of brand experience agency Momentum Worldwide, observed glasses from Apple and Snapchat are, well, apples and oranges.

In fact, the patent Apple filed related to digital glasses has use cases around note taking, he said.

“The filing published in 2015, but it seems people are interested now because of Snapchat [Spectacles],” Snyder added. “But the intent of the Apple glasses seems to be different. It includes a lot of biometric factors and other ambient data sources to try and make sense of a personal narrative by providing additional context. The patent gives a few examples of what it could collect from a conversation, for example, audio, video, facial recognition, respiration patterns, pupil dilation, blinking, tears [and] redness. So a lot more than Snapchat [Spectacles]. And a lot more than Google Glass did as well.”

However, Snyder also noted it’s unclear what the actual Apple product may include -- if there's ever even a product at all.

“The design of the Snapchat [Spectacles] is good and a lot of reviewers like it. It's also at a reasonable price point. And the utility is simple for people who embrace Snapchat as their social sharing utility of choice,” Snyder said. “The complexity implied in the Apple glasses is a whole other level. I'm not sure what one would do for the other in terms of adoption. I will say the more the technology can disappear – the more it’s like magic – the higher the adoption will likely go regardless of price and functionality.”

Matt Anderson, CEO of creative agency Struck, also pointed to experience and said if Apple thinks about the potential for capturing, sharing and streaming instead of making just another display to add to phones, tablets, desktops/TVs and watches, it might actually succeed -- and “especially if they’re thinking about the evolution of FaceTime and augmented/virtual reality. Again, it can’t just be another notification center, it has to expand our experiences – not just replicate them,” he said.

Indeed, Michael Nicholas, entrepreneur in residence at media network MDC Media Partners, said Apple’s advantage has always been in “an unmatched commitment to total experience design and total control of an integrated hardware and software ecosystem to execute it."

Jeff Liang, chief digital officer of media agency Assembly, agreed Apple’s key strength is in integrating hardware and software, as well as in its advancement of Siri as an AI tool, which gives Apple a better chance of creating successful wearable products like smart glasses.

“The integration of software and hardware is extremely critical in the success of wearables,” Liang said. “This is evident with Apple Watch as other manufacturers have tried and failed to launch earlier versions of smart watches, but could not match the success of Apple Watch.”

For his part, Edwards points to style.

“One of the fundamental issues with Google Glass was the lack of style [and] technology. The look was very industrial,” he said. “There is demand for integrated technology that combines fashion and function. The key for Apple is the focus on design and usability combined with a passionate base of advocates that will drive initial adoption.”

Further, Snyder said the development of AR glasses is likely a sign of the exponential growth and adoption of technology across categories and it is safe to say sufficiently good technology has caught up with consumers’ desire to have smart glasses.

“Whether this is their moment or not is up to everyone to decide if we need our lives augmented in that way,” he said. “It's also a question of functionality, ease of use and appearance. So the calculus isn't that simple. But if it's cool, reasonably priced and does something useful that causes habitual behavior…then, yes -- it's the moment of smart glasses.”

Jason McCann, executive creative director at brand strategy and design agency Red Peak, pointed to potential applications like getting directions without having to look away from the road or reading texts without having to look at a phone or watch as sources of consumer value that could drive that aforementioned habitual behavior.

And Mike Grehan, CMO of intent-based marketing firm Acronym Media, took it a step further and asked, “What if it’s possible that AR is a nice byproduct and that you can really improve and enhance a person’s vision with augmented spectacles? What if the big deal is that having specs connected to your phone…actually helps you see better…as well as the other fun stuff?”

Shiva Vannavada, CTO of marketing agency iCrossing, however, is a bit more measured in his assessment, saying we can call into question the vision that Apple and its leadership are chasing with these rumored glasses.

“Granted, they are a phenomenal company that gets more right than they do wrong. But this move makes them seem like they are chasing versus leading,” he said. “You have a legacy of this brand that is bringing to market wildly beautiful, user-centric products -- some like the iPhone that changed the game completely for the entire media and tech world. Given the recent product history of Apple and what we know of these types of glasses, I'm not sure we can give them the benefit of the doubt. However, a VR product with more similarities to Samsung Gear or Google Daydream makes more sense.”

At the same time, Vannavada underscored his excitement about the potential of smart glasses. But, he said, it will be a few years before the technology goes mainstream.

“The one that I am playing close attention to is Magic Leap. It is going to be based on glasses, but the form factor is yet to be determined,” Vannavada added.

However, Malmad said not to spend too much time worrying about semantics.

“When people talk about smart glasses, they shouldn’t get caught up on the wording. I would expect something similar to what Samsung [Gear VR], HTC [Vive], Microsoft [Hololens], Facebook [Oculus Rift] or Google [Daydream] has deployed,” he said. “This would be welcome by consumers, developers and marketers as Apple has proven that first-to-market is not their approach. Phones and MP3 players were in market before the iPod and iPhone and look where Apple is today.”