Google pulled off what may well be the most thrilling and gutsiest product demo in history.
To show off prototypes of its augmented reality goggles, being developed by an internal initiative called Project Glass, Google hired a team of skydivers to jump from a zeppelin a mile or so above San Francisco.
Wearing the goggles to video the trip in real-time, they took off in wingsuits, parachuted onto the roof of the Moscone West conference center and made a triumphant entrance into the room where Google founder Sergey Brin and thousands of attendees of the annual Google I/O developers conference cheered (a team of extreme bicyclists wearing the glasses did tricks up on the roof, and two people rappelled down the side of the building–but so what).
I’ve been to lots of Apple events over the years, but with all due respect to Steve Jobs, I’ve never felt electricity in a room like this. Sure, it was mostly due to the fear factor. But the excitement was also because the sky-diving was so totally unexpected. It came late in a long keynote that was just about to go on too long. We’d seen the latest flavor of Android, a new 7-inch tablet and were even treated to a surprising “one-more-thing” — the Nexus Q home server. And then, just when it felt like a great time to say “thanks for coming, have a great show,” Senior Vice President Vic Gundotra came out to talk about Google Plus.
“I was getting bored,” said Surith Thukkian, an attendee. “I was playing games on my phone.”
That’s when a somewhat scruffy Sergey Brin came charging out on stage, interrupting Gundotra. With little intro and evidently some heart-felt hesitation, he said they were going to put on a never-before-seen demo.
“This can go wrong in 500 different ways, so tell me: Who wants to see a demo of Glass?” Brin said.
The applause turned to a somewhat surreal disbelief as he described what would be happening, especially when the video went live inside the blimp and one of the jumpers opened a door and peered out. Suddenly, they were off. Only when a relieved-sounding Brin said “chutes are open” was I absolutely certain we weren’t going to all witness the skydiver’s gruesome death, from their own perspective no less. (Ironically, Brin’s most nervous moment came when one of the rappellers went zooming down the building far faster than he expected.) Of course, the risks were actually quite low, as any skydiver would tell you. But I’m not a skydiver, and neither were most of the people in the room.
Although it felt as if the idea had come to Brin that morning, there had been plenty of planning. He had proposed the idea to Google’s communications team eight weeks ago, though most thought he was joking when the idea of wingsuits came up. The team had to work with various government officials to get some regulations changed, including one that forbids opening the door of a zeppelin while in flight .
Technical glitches had been worked out. Someone came up with a filter for the digi-shades, so the sun wouldn’t overwhelm the video stream. I can’t say I understand how this worked, but a Google spokesperson told me that establishing a stong Wi-Fi connection involved taping the skydivers’ smart phones to woks. Yes, woks.
Even as it was occurring, I was thinking how different this keynote was for Google, and how Apple would never do something like this. The Google presentations I’ve attended were perfectly professional and informative, but never imparted any real sense of the company. Even if it was a bit of a gimmick — what role did the goggles have that many a video camera couldn’t do? — this demo celebrated Google’s sense of itself, including its passion for risk-taking and experimentation and willingness to fail (what if the glasses had gone dark in mid-flight?). At Apple keynotes, there’s no doubt the passion is all for the end product, not the process.
All this to show off a prototype of a product that won’t hit the market for some time, and may never be a big seller.
Only trouble now is what do they do for an encore?
“Tomorrow, it’ll be motorcycles jumping over shark tanks,” said Gartner analyst Michael Gartenberg.