Maj Isabelle Olsson, Lead Industrial Designer of Google Glass, on Wearable Technology


“Perfection is attained not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away,” wrote Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. At last weekend’s annual Dwell on Design in Los Angeles, lead industrial designer of Google Glass Maj Isabelle Olsson referred to the above quotation from the author who wrote The Little Prince to explain her inspiration behind the “look” of Google Glass. Appropriately, the title of her talk was “Google Glass: Less Is More.”

Based in California, Olsson is originally from Sweden, which gave the world IKEA and incredible-looking tree houses — only two of the many reasons why the country has become the emblem of Scandinavian design. With that in mind, it’s really no surprise that Olsson should be from Sweden as well, and that it’s her job to make all the aesthetic advances we’re eventually going to see with Google Glass.

Olsson at Dwell on Design

She immediately recalled joining the project a few years ago and thinking, “It was time to understand: why are we really doing this?”

Olsson said that it dawned on her in a bus line, watching everyone hunched over their electronic devices. “Isn’t that sad?” she thought to herself. “Haven’t we evolved to be human beings who can stand up straight and walk and use our hands and talk to people? And what if we can design something that lets us live in the moment and have technology be out of the way when [we] don’t need it?”

But with the older prototypes of Google Glass, technology still got in the way: there was a visible imbalance that appeared to favor technology over design. Basically, the early versions of Google Glass looked like nothing anyone would want to wear in public.

Earlier model of Google Glass

“I told the team that we have to remove everything that isn’t completely essential,” Olsson said, echoing the quote by Saint-Exupéry.

So she set out to achieve three principles, the first being lightness: “If it’s not ridiculously light, it doesn’t belong on your face,” she declared.

Olsson also stressed that Google Glass isn’t just about visual lightness, but also simplicity — her next principle: “We had all this amazing technology that we wanted to put into Glass,” she said, “So one of the things we did is, we hid one of the biggest components behind the frame so we could keep one clean line.”

Google Glass Explorer Edition

Olsson’s last objective, and the one she still finds the most exciting, is scalability: “How do we create something that can transform over time and fit different people?”

Right now, Google Glass comes in a variety of colors, with the ability to include sunglasses and, eventually, prescription lenses as well. “With Glass, we really want people to make it their own,” Olsson said.

After showing the audience a video on Google Glass, Olsson said, “One of the things that I find most compelling for myself is the visual communication.”

As a creative person, she admitted to a hatred for email, saying she’d much rather be designing in her studio than sitting in front of a computer all day. For Olsson, Google Glass enables her to collaborate remotely with colleagues, thereby condensing what might be a multi-thread email into a five-minute meeting. “You can really tell stories from your point of view,” she explained.

By way of illustration, Olsson then showed a video featuring fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg, all shot through Google Glass.

Finally, the audience learned more about Google’s Explorer program, and how software developers are currently working to further customize Google Glass based on their findings from the public, which includes educators, medical professionals, and creative types like Diane von Furstenberg. And to discourage any skewed reviews, each participant in the Explorer program pays the $1500 price tag for a unit of Google Glass, because, as a member of the Google Glass marketing team put it, “We want them to be invested in the process.”

I recently had the chance to take Google Glass for a spin, albeit just for a few minutes. The product is certainly amazing — it not only takes pictures and records video from an individual perspective, but shares the material through an app called MyGlass, which also makes better use of Google+.

“OK, Glass — write this article for me.”

Google Glass also gives directions; sends and receives emails and text messages; and of course, Googles things. Essentially, it’s a hands-free, voice-activated smartphone that, right now, happens to cost more than a fairly powerful computer.

While Google Glass is definitely groundbreaking, the question remains: is it worth $1500 — that is, if you’re lucky enough to be invited into the Explorer program? For anyone who loves cutting-edge technology, the answer is a resounding yes. For anyone else, it might take a little more time and deliberation (not to mention cash) to make the investment.

Google is working to expand the Explorer program throughout the year, opening Glass to a wider group in the coming months. As for the price and release date of the final consumer model, that’s anybody’s guess.

In the meantime, “This is just the beginning,” Olsson said. “It’s built to scale over time.”