Oculus Rift, Google Glass: “Failures” That Lead Tech Trends to This Day

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These two products were letdowns at first. In hindsight, they were trendsetters.                                                                                     

Carter Liebscher|
March 29, 2021

Virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) have been at the top of many year-end top-tech lists, and while some companies have successfully integrated VR and AR into its offerings, others have been lagging behind.

Facebook’s Oculus, which has produced a suite of VR headsets, and Google’s smart glasses plainly named Glass, are the two most notable brands that, in essence, started the VR/AR trend only to fizzle out shortly being brought to market.

While popular media derided these products and their executions—how could two tech monoliths fail so magnificently?, many think—some voices have come out to say there’s a lot to learn from these two case studies.

Namely, despite these two particular products not making the splash Oculus and Google expected, the underlying technology was trendsetting.

The Oculus Rift was surely a commercial letdown, selling only 300,000 of the 1 billion headsets the company expected in 2019. The physical clunkiness and shortsightedness of the VR experiences just weren’t attractive to consumers. The future possibilities of the product, though, were there under the surface.

I really hope VR is on its way to becoming more mainstream, more exciting, and less underwhelming. But we scientists can only present new technological solutions, to help make VR a more comfortable and enjoyable experience. Ultimately it is down to VR developers to learn from existing success stories and start delivering those “killer apps”. The possibilities are limited only by imagination.

“The main problem with virtual reality? It’s almost as humdrum as real life,” Joel Abrams, The Conversation

Google Glass had a similar fate: The product was rife with privacy issues and aesthetic downsides. Some believed, however, with just a little more time and testing it would’ve taken off.

This isn’t to say that Glass is a bad piece of hardware; it just wasn’t ready to be thrown into the consumer market. If anything, the product was still in a beta mode. It had a lot of obvious kinks that Google needed to work out. The device’s safety and privacy issues were also legitimate and predictable, and Google should’ve taken the time to consider them before giving the product so much publicity.

“Google Glass Isn’t Dead; It’s the Future of Industry,” Andrew Heinzman, How-to Geek

Despite the issues with the products’ markets (and issues with the products themselves), there were still upsides to the products that made them at least somewhat attractive—and groundbreaking—later on.

What do the Oculus Rift and Google Glass stories say about the overall state of innovation? Must organizations fail spectacularly in order to succeed? Can only large organizations bounce back from such innovation letdowns?

The answer to those two questions is a resounding no. While “failures” in innovation are often indications of an organization actively innovating, it’s not necessary to go big and give up when it doesn’t pan out: Small wins pave the way for larger wins. Similarly, large organizations aren’t the only ones who can retool. SMEs, particularly those with an employee-centric Culture of Innovation in place, can take a step back and retool their process when a product doesn’t reach their initial goal.

Here’s what else your company can learn from the Oculus Rift and Google Glass narratives.

What Your Company Can Learn from Oculus Rift and Google Glass

Big companies get big through innovation

When taking stock of their own innovation efforts, many companies look to the best-of-the-best successes for inspiration. Amazon Prime, Post-it Notes, even Flamin’ Hot Cheetos: These are all C-suite-backed, employee-sourced innovations that made organizations household names.

Companies become renowned when they innovate and try their hand at different things. 3M, for example, would’ve stayed large in the their industrial and health care markets but wouldn’t have tapped into more average consumers without Post-it Notes. Frito-Lay wouldn’t have formed far-reaching partnerships if it didn’t empower its employees to act like intrapreneurs.

While Oculus Rift and Google Glass may appear as two companies trying their hand at anything to stay relevant, the two products are actually indicators of the Facebook’s and Google’s roots as innovative organizations. While they may have fumbled reaching for the stars, they got there in the first place because they took the time to invest in innovation early on.

Patience and practice win out over one and done

Habitual innovation is the key to innovating at all—at least successfully.

Too many organizations believe that all it takes is one successful product or service, one that edges them out over their competitors for the long-term.

Unfortunately, that’s not always how market competition works. It’s also not how successful internal innovation works. Employees won’t have long-term buy-in for a program if senior leadership is looking for one large, quick win and nothing more.

That’s not to say annual hackathons or Shark Tank-like events don’t have any impact—it’s that they have the greatest impact when they’re part of regular innovation efforts.

A solid Culture of Innovation is what’s needed to drive organizational growth during periods of innovation focus and during “normal” operations.

Those closest to a product or service have the best idea on how to improve it

One of the ways Google tweaked the Glass to success was to take a step back and understand who the product was for. Google discovered that the average consumer doesn’t necessarily want the Glass, but there are prime use cases for the product in manufacturing—and that was discovered through active listening and experimentation.

It’s like trying to fit a square peg in a round hole: If it doesn’t fit, try a new slot.

One of the best ways organizations can realize better understand their product is by communicating with the employees who interact the most with a product and who thus understand its consumer base. Not only will that organization reorient its offerings to success, but it also engage its employees for the long-term.

Companies that invest in their employees see 24% higher profit margins than those that don’t. On the flipside, disengaged employees cost employers $3,400 for every $10,000 in annual salary.

Investing in your employees is investing in innovation is investing in your organization.

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