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David Zax

A View from David Zax

Ads on Google Glass Will Never Work

An ad delivered straight to the eyeball feels like a violation.

  • April 19, 2013

Some curious information came to light this week about Google Glass. For a company that owes its solvency to advertising–95% of its revenue comes from it–remarkably, Google is planning an ad-free experience for its on-eye computing experiment. At least, for now.

This is a wise move, for several reasons. First, if only in sense made famous by the “Social Network” movie: Google Glass has been born in the spirit of experimentation, and it should remain in that phase for a while. “We don’t know what it is, what it can be, what it will be,” went the dictum from that film: “All we know is that it’s cool.” And as Justin Timberlake (Sean Parker) also famously intoned: “Ads aren’t cool.”

Ads aren’t cool. And yet we tolerate them at the top of our Google searches. We tolerate them in the wings of our Facebook pages, and in the banners of our favorite publications. We tolerate them on Hulu–and even on Hulu Plus!

But will we tolerate them on Google Glass–soon, or ever? Will we tolerate them on Google Glass even if, or when, the device somehow insinuates itself into our lives in the canonical and enduring way that the smartphone has?

I haven’t had the privilege of sampling Google Glass yet, so I don’t know a whole lot about the user experience firsthand (first-eye?). But I can tell you that I’m skeptical that ads will ever find a comfortable home on the device, for two reasons.

First, my understanding of Google Glass is that as a heads-up display, its mission is to add a layer of data to your experience of life, while still maximizing the amount of visual real estate left for reality. Each of us, now, is used to a full and unencumbered visual experience of the world in front of us; we walk around, and though we may occasionally distract ourselves with a glance at our smartphone, we are not accustomed to having a constant Terminator-style overlay of supplemental data to process.

If Google is to train us to tolerate this supplemental overlay, they will need to do so very gently. Google is essentially trying to make fighter pilots of us all, in creating a mass experience of heads-up displays. This is a field that is only beginning to be studied, but one thing’s clear: the average person is going to find this disorienting, at first. The world in its blooming confusion is challenging enough to process as it is, and while Google’s acclimating us to its new layer, it’s not going to have any visual real estate to waste on ads. You can’t train people on a new experience of reality and sell them cleaning products at the same time.

The second reason I’m skeptical about the project of ads ever succeeding on Google Glass is that it simply feels too close for commercial messages. We tolerate ads in all the places I mentioned and more, but we don’t wear our laptops in front of our eyeballs. There is a literal and metaphorical distance that we feel when see an ad on Facebook, on Google, or even on TechnologyReview.com. We tolerate ads when they are out there, in a space that is distinct from us. We need ads to be at arm’s length.

But wearable computing is a new frontier. Google Glass is something like a prosthetic, evoking imagery of cyborgs. Will we tolerate ads that we literally wear? How close is too close, when it comes to a commercial message? When is a pitch a violation, rather than a nuisance? I think the day that Google or anyone has me feel as though I’m wearing an advertisement will be the day I stop using their device.

I may be unique in this; I’ve always had an aversion to wearing clothing that displays a brand prominently, while others enjoy doing so. What do you think about the idea of having an advertisement delivered, some day, the merest distance from your eyeball?

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