What’s it like to wear Glass in China?
Beijing is more recently known for its crazy pollution (image links), so it was a real challenge shooting over the past week or so while I was there. It’s my fifth time to Beijing, and the pollution gets worse and worse every time. This means that shooting things far away is very difficult, because it gets fogged out like a video game that can only handle a few polygons at a time.
I was most interested in the reactions of people to Google Glass in China. I’ve noticed people’s reactions in a few places so far – In San Francisco, Toronto, Auckland, and now my hometown in Queenstown, New Zealand. For sure, people’s reactions in China were totally different. Now, of course this is all anecdotal, so you can hardly figure out a cultural trend-line from my observations, but it is interesting nonetheless.
I was a bit paranoid to wear them through the airport, in customs, and near military or police. There was always a mild panic they would abscond with them and stick me in a white room with some sort of Chinese Agent Smith.
I did indeed have an “encounter” with a guy from the military very close to Tienanmen Square over by the National Theatre. I was taking photos with Tom and some local friends that worked at Google and another small startup. One of the security-military guys came up to me and was very interested! Mostly just sort of tech-fascinated, though, and curious. I didn’t sense any danger in the interaction, so I didn’t turn around and run. My goal in China was: “Don’t run from the military,” so I tried my best to meet that goal.
Anyway, he got really close to the Glass and my friends helped me translate what he was asking. He was trying to figure out how it worked and was fascinated that you could get the internet to work on it. He then asked to try them on, and he loved them! He spent several minutes playing with the menus and even said, “Okay Glass, take a picture,” which it did (amazingly, even though his accent was rather thick!) While he was smiling the whole time, he was also trying to say a bunch of different things because he was mesmerized by the idea that you could talk to it! Everyone had a really good time and we were all laughing. For some reason, when he tried to speak English, he sounded exactly like Borat.
So that was my only interaction with the government-machine complex. Other than that, all my interactions were with the rest of the Chinese population.
How the citizenry of China reacted to Glass
First, let me tell you about the reaction from the more western world (SF, Toronto, Auckland, Queenstown) where I have a fairly consistent experience.
Whenever I am in public, people my age (I am 41) and younger are SUPER interested in the glass. Especially younger people. When I walk through the streets, I must get approached by a dozen (or sometimes, many many more) people per hour who say the following things (other Glass Explorers will probably agree with hearing these things): “Wow what is that thing?” “Whoa, is that Google Glass?” and “This is the first time I’ve ever seen it!” and “How much does it cost?” (man I get that one A LOT!) and “What does it look like?” and “What can you do with it?” and, well, the list just goes on and on.
The point is that people in the west are just so excited and mesmerized by it — they come up and engage and want to know more, try it, play with it, etc. Now, I do notice people a lot older than me are a bit more standoffish, unless they are really into geek culture. They look ponderously at me, clearly thinking, “What is happening to our world?” I had one older guy in the elevator at the Four Seasons shake his head dismissively and sigh, but that was the MOST negative reaction to about 1000+ people that have seen it.
One group that seemed SUPER excited about it was black guys! Haha… I guess I could say African-Americans, but I saw several groups in Canada too, so I don’t even know what — is that African Canadian? Err… I’m not a journalist… so, I’ll just… dispense with all the labeling and let’s just say, err… well… groups of non-white-people that gathered on the street. This happened like eight times! They would get really excited and say things like, “Wow, that’s the Google Glass!!!!” “I gotta get me some of that!” “That looks TIGHT – how much is it!!” Haha it was great… I went over to talk to them all and they had so much fun with it. My guess is that more “white” people would have reacted like this too, but they are sometimes more reserved. Haha… man, I know… what a generalization, but I’m just telling you what happened to me.
So, let’s talk about China. Crickets. Man, they just would look at me curiously for a second and then turn their heads away. It was really interesting. Very few people came up to me, and they were usually younger (teens and twenties). But, mostly, they was just silent about it. I attribute some of it to not speaking English, but I think there was something larger going on.
It may be a combination of vestigial communist cultural reactions to strangers and general “out-of-the-box-shock” at seeing the Glass. Now, the Chinese are as technophilic as their Western counterparts. They are iPhone and iPad crazy! You go into any Starbucks, and upwardly mobile and middle-class people fill every seat and stare at their iPhones. Apple did a great job of marketing there, and the “lifestyle” of a high-end tech user is quite aspirational. It’s a wonderful sign of wealth and upward mobility, which is very important in their new money-driven culture.
There is something still broken in the Chinese culture, I’m afraid. It’s the cultural idea of innovation and design. It does indeed exist in pockets, but there is not a cultural “worship” of technology innovation like there is in the West. For that reason, I think we’ll continue to see the “bigger” ideas (that are well executed!) like Glass and others come from the West. I had lunch with Kevin Kelly, who spends even more time studying the Chinese culture. He recently visited several dorm rooms all over the country and saw that they had very few (or often, none) aspirations beyond making money. He said there were no posters on the wall, and when he asked them who their “heroes” are, they could not give any answers. It’s strange indeed, and may point to a larger cultural issue. I hope Kevin writes a book about it!
A Nice Glass Story from Beijing
This has nothing to do with the story above, except as a really cool use-case example of Glass.
At the airport, I got a local simcard so I could use the Chinese internet through Glass. I really had no problem at all! I could get maps, emails, send messages, and Google stuff via voice. One day, I was with Tom and we were driving by Tienanmen Square and there was a strange flag I could not recognize. So I said, exactly this (yes, it was a malformed question): “Okay Glass, Google What flag is it that has a gold lion on a red background and an orange stripe and a green stripe.” Immediately, it came back and said “Sri Lanka”! Wow! It even showed me a photo of the flag and visually brought up the Wikipedia entry on the Flag of Sri Lanka. Now, WHY the flag of Sri Lanka was hanging over Tienanmen Square was another question I did not ask. I figured that Sri Lanka probably just invaded overnight and had hoisted their flag to signal victory.