Google X Display Head: Smartphones, Tablets, Apps are “Mind-Numbing”

10/10/13Follow @curtwoodward

Millions of consumers may be drooling over the latest versions of their favorite smartphones and tablets, amazed by the sharp displays, powerful cameras, and panoply of applications.

But deep inside Google’s experimental hardware unit, where people work on crazy-sounding ideas like driverless cars and balloon-lofted wireless networks, all of that electronics-store stuff is starting to look pretty boring.

“So much of the talent in my industry has gone into, in the last five years, making just yet another cellphone, yet another tablet, or an iPhone app, or an icon,” said Mary Lou Jepsen, who runs the display division at Google X. “And it’s so mind-numbing.”

What’s Jepsen working on that’s so cool? That’s a secret, of course—but it’s big enough that she’s only been sleeping a few hours a night, Jepsen told attendees at MIT Technology Review’s EmTech conference in Cambridge, MA.

“I’m now running a super-secret, stealth part of Google X that I can’t tell you anything about today. I’m really sorry,” she said with a smile. “Maybe next year. Probably next year.”

Until then, regular Joes have plenty of weird things to consider.

Google X, the Internet company’s secretive R&D lab, develops so-called “moonshot” ideas under the direction of company co-founder Sergey Brin. Its known projects including the famous robot-driven car, a system of wireless Internet transmitters attached to stratospheric balloons, and wearable computers.

The most ubiquitous poster child is currently Google Glass, the company’s Web-connected, voice-activated computer display that looks like a futuristic pair of sunglasses minus the lenses. And it’s just an early step toward widespread wearables, Jepsen said—comparable to Henry Ford’s first breakthrough car.

“If we use the automobile analogy, we believe this would be the Model T,” Jepsen said. “It’s lightweight, it’s comfortable, it’s cool.”

Asked by Tech Review editor Jason Pontin about the skeptical case—do most people really need a wearable computer display?—Jepsen said that glancing at a face-mounted display isn’t that much of a leap from the constant smartphone checking many people find themselves drawn to.

“It’s basically a way of amplifying you. I’ve thought for many years that a laptop is an extension of my mind. Why not have it closer to my mind, and on me all the time?’” she said. “It’s a fantastic device to augment what I can do quickly. It’s just so fast for taking photos, it can get you information—you become addicted to the speed of it.”

And in any case, it’s certainly not boring.

“I interviewed a month ago a recent college graduate from Stanford—a mechanical engineering degree. She was already on her third cellphone or laptop and bored out of her mind,” Jepsen said. “She graduated in 2010. I think it gets depressing. It was so exciting three years ago.”

Curt Woodward is a senior editor for Xconomy based in Boston. Email: cwoodward@xconomy.com Follow @curtwoodward

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  • Christopher Noble

    The title of this piece could be true, but not in the way the author intended. Maybe the constant chatter of ubiquitous personal devices is “mind-numbing”; addicting us to the adrenalin of reactive stimulus responses, and making periods of unstimulated reflection uncomfortable and foreign. I feel sorry for the recent Stanford graduate who is already bored.

  • Mike Hunt

    Mobile computing was boring to me from day one. Good to see others catching up…

  • Tyhudg

    Google Glass is so overhyped it is ridiculous.