Google Searches for Style
People wearing Google's glasses are transported to a strange new world in which the Internet is always in their line of sight. But for people looking at the people wearing those glasses, the view is even stranger — someone wearing a computer processor, a battery and a tiny screen on her face.
As Google and other companies begin to build wearable technology like glasses and watches, an industry not known for its fashion sense is facing a new challenge — how to be stylish. Design has always been important to technology, with products like Apple's becoming fashion statements, but designing hardware that people will wear like jewelry is an entirely different task.
In a sign of how acute the challenge is for Google, the company is negotiating with Warby Parker, an e-commerce start-up company that sells trendy eyeglasses, to help it design more fashionable frames, according to two people briefed on the negotiations who were not authorized to speak publicly because the partnership has not been made official. Google and Warby Parker declined to comment.
(Read more: Eyewear Maker Warby Parker on Growth, Innovation)
Jawbone's health-tracking wristband, Up, for instance, was designed by Yves Behar, the company's chief creative officer and a well-known designer who has worked with fashion and furniture companies. Apple, which is said to be making a smart watch, has assigned some of its top designers to make curved glass that is comfortable and aesthetically appealing.
On Wednesday, Google began accepting applications to choose a small group of people to buy an early version of the glasses, called Google Glass. It hopes to sell Glass to the broader public this year, according to two people briefed on the plans.
The frames do not have lenses, though Google is experimenting with adding sunglass or prescription lenses in some versions. They have a tiny screen that appears much bigger from the wearer's perspective than it does on the frame. Glass wearers can take pictures or record video without using their hands, send the images to friends or post them online, see walking directions, search the Web by voice command and view language translations.
The glasses reach the Internet through Wi-Fi or Bluetooth, which connects to the wireless service on a user's cellphone. The glasses respond when a user speaks, touches the frame or moves the head.
For Google, the glasses are a major step toward its dream of what is known as ubiquitous computing — the idea that computers and the Internet will be accessible anywhere and we can ask them to do things without lifting a finger.
The glasses will eventually incorporate several Google products, which could become more useful when they are in front of a user's eyes rather than on a phone or a computer screen.
For instance, the latest version of the glasses can provide walking and hiking directions from Google Maps, alerts from Google Now about a coming meeting or a traffic jam, and video chats from Google Hangouts.
In a video released on Wednesday, Google offered ideas about what to do with the glasses. A ballerina could record and stream live video behind the scenes and onstage; a tourist in Thailand could ask Google to translate the word "delicious" while eating noodles on a boat; or a family could video chat over a long distance with a relative on her birthday.
Other seemingly far-fetched uses are not far off. The glasses could be used to play an augmented reality game in which the real world was annotated with virtual information. Google has such a smartphone app, called Ingress. Users could photograph an object or building and the glasses could identify it, something that is already possible using Google on phones and computers.
Though Google warns of technical bumps as people use the glasses, it has already solved many of the technical challenges. The biggest obstacle now is getting people to use them.
Though Google employees have been spotted wearing them in the San Francisco Bay Area, they receive strange looks, for example, from a bartender who made fun of his Glass-wearing patrons.
Privacy advocates worry about a day when people wearing glasses could use facial recognition to identify strangers on the street or surreptitiously record and broadcast conversations. On a more mundane level, rude behavior like checking e-mail during conversations would become much easier to hide.
"Changing behavior is much more challenging than changing technology," said Olof Schybergson, founder and chief executive of Fjord, a design company that has helped clients build wearable devices.
Then there is that fashion hurdle. The frames now look like wire wraparound glasses with hardware along one side.
"If you look at other wearable pieces of functional technology, there's a reason they're not ubiquitous. There's a reason we all make fun of someone wearing a Bluetooth or a BlackBerry holster," said Daniella Yacobovsky, co-founder of BaubleBar, an online jewelry retailer. "Is it useful? Of course it is. Do I look like a tool? Yeah. I'm not going to wear it."
Google's design team has made Glass's look and comfort a priority, according to a person briefed on the company's design process. Designers first made it in black, thinking it would flatter everyone, but they added colors because black frames can look heavy on a fair person. The glasses, which 18 months ago weighed eight pounds, are now lighter than a typical pair of sunglasses. Engineers have worked to shrink the components so wearers look less like cyborgs.
In addition to considering partnering with Warby Parker, Google is doing other things to recruit the fashion-savvy, particularly women. It could open retail stores where people can try on the glasses, according to news reports. At Fashion Week last year, models wore colored versions on the runway for Diane von Furstenberg, and the designer made a behind-the-scenes video wearing the glasses.
(Read more: Highlights From New York Fashion Week — Fall 2013)
Google is showing women wearing the glasses in many of its public relations photos. Several members of the Glass team who speak publicly are women.
But the excitement about Glass so far has come from software developers for whom the glasses are the ultimate status symbol. Other than Google employees, they are the only ones who have been permitted to wear them for more than a few minutes.
Next, Google says it is looking for "bold, creative individuals" who want to try the glasses. People who want to apply have until Wednesday to write a post on Google Plus or Twitter telling what they would do with the glasses. Posts must be 50 words or fewer and contain the hashtag #ifihadglass. Those chosen by Google's judges must pay $1,500 for the glasses and attend an event to pick up the glasses in New York, San Francisco or Los Angeles.
"The big question is, Why on earth would you put something like this on your head?" Babak Parviz, the leader of the Google Glass team, said in a previous interview. "If you do things that are very useful, it becomes fashionable."
—Written by The NYT's Claire Cain Miller