What Apple's ads and Google's Glass say about how we interact with the world

Written By Sun-Times Wire Posted: 12/19/2013, 03:55pm

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I got an email last week inviting me to trade my original Google Glass Explorer Edition hardware. Dagnabbit, dropping it in a prepaid box and sending it away meant I wouldn’t wear Glass during my day to New York on Sunday to see the jingletude, but I did it anyway. I didn’t want to risk getting dropped onto some kind of waiting list.

(Why?)

( … )

(Because … well, because I would have received the new hardware slightly later. I am a weak and imperfect man.)

The first revision to the Google Glass Explorer Edition hardware ... now with optional USB audio.

The first revision to the Google Glass Explorer Edition hardware … now with optional USB audio.

The email from Google assured me that the new hardware wouldn’t be different in any revolutionary way, and nope, it isn’t. I carefully photographed mine before sending it away and I can’t detect any differences. I suspect that they’ve improved the internals so it can handle whatever Google has planned in 2014. Sometimes a mobile device doesn’t need a new camera or a super-hot next-gen CPU to become akin to a brand new device. Sometimes, all the maker needs to do is add more application RAM.

I haven’t had a chance to do much more than set it up for my phone (as before, it was an easy five minute process) and then drop it in a charger so it’s ready for future revels.

The only twist I discovered inside the box was this new USB earpiece. Glass has a brilliant bone-conducting soundpad on one of its sidepieces; it lets Glass speak directions and alerts to you without any need to wear an earpiece. It works a treat in most environments but it can’t compete with heavy street noise.

Google has maintained an open and active channel of communication between its engineers and its vocal, highly-engaged community Google Glass Explorers, so it’s no major surprise to me that they added this new feature. I can still use Glass without the earpiece, and I still think Glass is a better experience when it’s not blocking any of the holes in my face. But! Now I’ll have the option of actually hearing what it’s trying to tell me when I’m walking on a sidewalk alongside traffic.

I’ll write some more about Glass soon. I’ve had it since June and although I don’t use it every day (or even necessarily every week), whenever the thought “This is a perfect scenario for a wearable, 100% hands-free computer” occurs to me, yes, it turns out that wearing my Glass was a huge win. For example, I shoot much more travel video with Glass than I do with any other device. Why? Because: if what’s going on in front of me is so genuinely interesting that I want to capture it on video, it’s certainly interesting enough that I’d like to see it firsthand instead of through a phone screen, right?

Google has a ways to go before they figure out how to express Glass’ core concept in a way that’s practical and relatable to the majority of consumers. But its core concept is strong. We should be interacting with the world directly, through our factory hardware — sight, sound, smell, touch. Doing it indirectly, through our gadgets, is a second-rate experience that’s ripe for revolution.

This is why Apple’s “Misunderstood” ad misses the mark for me, slightly.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ImlmVqH_5HM

It’s a beautiful little film with a big-hearted payoff: this kid uses his iPhone to shoot photos and video of the family Christmas celebrations, and (with just the tools on his phone) assembles a sweet little movie that he shares with the gathered familial masses. I get that. I really do. But whole first half of the ad is spent showing the times when the kid was looking at the screen and interacting with the device. It necessary for the payoff (“hey, we thought he was ignoring his family, but that totally isn’t true!”), I know. It causes a problem, though: that’s all we get to see of the product for 45 long seconds. We spend a lonnnnnng time (by commercial standards) thinking poorly of this kid’s relationship with his iPhone, and by extension, the iPhone itself.

I had a similar problem with Apple’s “Photos Every Day” ad, released in April:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NoVW62mwSQQ

It’s another strong message that sells one of the iPhone’s best points: the iPhone takes superb pictures with next to zero effort. If you’re walking down the street with your friends and see something worth snapping, you can stop, get the shot, and be back with the group in just a few quick trots. If you were jogging to begin with, you can stop, snap this gorgeous landscape, and resume your pace.

I do it all the time (jogging? God, no: I mean “stopping to take photos”) and I do it with the exact opposite of regrets. That’s real life. But Apple is choosing to highlight “people interacting with the world through a device screen” and “a kid paying more attention to phone apps than to three generations of family members” during a commercial. An ad can look like a short film, but it mustn’t ever forget that it’s a creative machine built to show the positive and aspirational nature of the product.

I probably would have enjoyed “Misunderstood” more if they’d abandoned the basic concept of the end-of-ad twist entirely. This ad would have made a powerful statement if instead of shot after shot of the kid focusing a screen, the first half was shot after shot of the kid making the same gesture over and over and over again: putting the phone down.

Don’t even show him shooting photos and video. Show me a montage in which he puts the phone in his pocket and jumps on the sled. He lowers the phone and laughs with his cousins because the goofy photo came out so well. He hurriedly flicks the wake/sleep button and drops the phone on the table so he can pick up cutlery and dig into a piece of pie. Over and over again: show him putting the phone away, not the activity he was watching through the screen, or the time that editing and assembling the video took away from human interactions.

(Aside to the fictional kid: but I sympathize. I, too, have a certain countdown timer that vibrates at the back of my neck after XX minutes of uninterrupted social interaction. I earnestly defend your need to find a quiet place every now and then where you can reset the clock and wind the mechanism so you can set it running for another XX minutes. And bravo to you for using your alone time to make something that your family clearly adored. End of aside. Oh, wait: you should totally read Matt Fraction’s “Hawkeye” comic. Have you seen it? It’s awesome. OK. I’ll leave you alone.)

Afterward, we still see that wonderful video, consisting of all of the photos and video he collected quickly and efficiently and perfectly. That’s a stronger message: he was out there, experiencing love and life, and he wanted to capture those moments and share them. A magical device made it easy and helped him quickly get back to the real world.

Apple should be showing off the fact that the iPhone steals away as little of your time as possible. Why are people smiling so naturally in a photo shot with an iPhone? Because the perfect photo happened during the first try, with one big button to push instead of menus of settings. Show me a group family photo in which a third have strained smiles and another third look like they’re about to throw something at the photographer, and I’ll show you a picture shot with an Android phone.

A Google Glass holiday commercial would be … somewhat different. On the plus side, it’s easy to show people who are wearing Glass and not allowing their gadgets to interfere with their ability to fully engage with the world around them. On the minus side, it’s damned-near impossible to show people wearing Glass who don’t look at least marginally goofy.

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