Why the Segway explains how Google Glass would never have been popular anyway

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Back in 2001, a revolutionary new product was unleashed upon an unsuspecting public. Seemingly lightyears ahead of its rivals, the Segway looked set to change how we get around.

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What was Segway? Essentially, it was a small “electric vehicle” that you stand on and can drive around. It was an unholy chimera of a bike and a mobility scooter for the elderly – with the added benefit that you could be pretty sure that if anyone saw you riding one, they’d think that you were a dick.

Perhaps it was lucky then, that riding one was pretty much impossible because of issues with the law.

In the UK, it was eventually deemed a powered vehicle, so had to obey traffic laws – but it obviously also wasn’t a car, so didn’t meet all of the safety requirements (like having indicators and lights, presumably). As a result, the Segway was de-facto banned in the UK: not legal to drive on either the pavement or the road. Which is why we’re now living in this dystopian, Segway-less present. The device not being able to work with our laws and rules is what killed its success.

Though Segway has found some small success in niche use cases – for example, by security guards on private property, a Segway is not a device that everyone needs.

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So what about Google Glass? Why didn’t it take off? And what does this have to do with Segway? Could Essentially, Google Glass’s downfall is down to similar problems of rules – both codified (as law) and behavioural customs.

Glass was only released in the UK last June – for £1000. Quickly following its introduction, cinemas soon banned the headsets. That same article also talks of gyms and theatres enacting official rules about Google Glass too.

So is it a case of death-by-regulation? Could potential for restrictions have killed off any enthusiasm for Glass in the UK? Why would you bother to pick one up if you couldn’t take it to half of the places you go on a daily basis?

Similarly, perhaps an even more powerful driving factor could be that wearing Glass sends a powerful social signal – and something that could perhaps inevitably end up as a taboo?

The potential downsides of Glass have been talked about at length – and it is not uncommon for anyone talking about Glass to eventually mention the potential creep-factor of not knowing when you’re being filmed and so on. Could this have actively dissuaded potential buyers? Would you buy Glass if you thought that you might get accusatory glances – or even a smack in the mouth – just by sitting opposite someone on the Tube whilst wearing Glass? (If you do get punched in the mouth, please do upload a first-person Vine.)

There’s an (apocryphal?) story that claims the handshake came about as a means to allow the other person to check for a concealed dagger – and to build trust between men in the middle ages. Could removing Glass on meeting someone have become a similar 21st century gesture of respect? And if so, wouldn’t that render Glass meaningless for a great many situations? What would be the point in buying one? Even if Glass never achieved the sorts of sales or widespread use to cause the development of such norms, everyone is well aware of the awkwardness. And if you’re going to wear something on your face, then you don’t want things to be awkward.

Heck, as a smartwatch wearer I’m already getting a taste of what it must be like to be a Glass wearer. There’s been a number of times when I’ve been glancing down at my watch to check a notification, only for the other person to think I was bored with them, and that I was checking the time. Maybe I’m just a bad person – but maybe my watch is forcing me to look at it more? The same will be true for Glass, where when a notification comes in, users literally have to roll their eyes and glaze over in order to see it. Imagine being sat opposite someone doing that.

So could Google Glass be heading for the same mainstream fate as Segway? Could rules and regulations – both codified and customary make the product useless to the general public?

Since 2001 Segway has taken off in a few niche use cases (on a building site when working with both hands, for example) – could Glass be destined for the same? Don’t be surprised if the only Glassholes left in a few years are surgeons, engineers and other people who can’t really use their hands.

James O’Malley
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2 comments

  • An interesting thought, but there were clearly other factors that held back the Segway. They are legal in other countries, including in Italy (“within city limits wherever pedestrians or bicycles are allowed”), which I visited recently and where they still appear to be a novelty item, used mostly by tourists and tour guides rather than as an everyday conveyance.

  • An interesting thought, but there were clearly other factors that held back the Segway. They are legal in other countries, including in Italy (“within city limits wherever pedestrians or bicycles are allowed”), which I visited recently and where they still appear to be a novelty item, used mostly by tourists and tour guides rather than as an everyday conveyance.

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