News Column

Google Glass Designer Models New Tech

August 9, 2013

Nellie Bowles

isabelle olsson
Isabelle Olsson wearing Google Glass (photo: Google+)

In a new lounge at Google's downtown office, a blue-eyed young woman named Grace Petersen stood by the window wearing black-and-white wingtips, jeggings and a computer on her face.

As one of the first instructors for Google Glass, a new piece of technology that is worn like glasses, her job was to ease someone into the experience of using the tiny, voice-activated computer whose monitor and camera float above the right eye. Google calls the training space "Basecamp," and with its panoramic view of the Bay Bridge, along with salted chocolate chip cookies and two bartenders at the ready, it's a sort of techno-spa.

By the end of this summer, tens of thousands of customers -- so-called Explorers -- will be wearing the little devices. Within the year, Glass -- and Basecamp -- will be available to the public.

Across the room, a small coterie of Glass-wearing guides surrounded a tall, red-haired woman who spoke with a strong Swedish accent.

In black leather Helmut Lang pants, a pink manicure and a large Givenchy purse, Isabelle Olsson, who lives near Union Square, looked as though she might be there to be fitted for her first pair.

She is, however, the lead industrial designer for the entire Google Glass project.

When she decided to work from the San Francisco office rather than the Mountain View headquarters for the day, the design team came with her.

Olsson, 30, moved to San Francisco five years ago to work for Yves Behar, founder of design firm Fuseproject. "I came to California to do design that changes the world," she said. "Which sounds a little beauty pageant-y, but it's true."

She had no intention of working in tech. "I'd been designing jewelry, watches, fashion."

As a jewelry designer, she had made herself a ring she called Engage, which had a flat gold top with a grid of holes and a piece of string. "The idea was to stitch the initials of the fiance into the gold," she said. "It's also a bit sarcastic, because a lot of people get divorced so you can take the thread out and put it back in."

In 2011, while she was working at Fuseproject, a recruiter from Google reached out to her via LinkedIn. Olsson came in for an interview without knowing what the job was -- "I told her, 'You know, I don't think Google is my thing.' I didn't even have a smartphone. I had one of those phones for old people because I thought it looked cool."

When she arrived at the Google X laboratory, where Glass and other devices were being developed, she found a bulky, plastic mockup made with a 3-D printer, with green electronics boards taped to the sides.

"They were like, 'Could you make this something you want to wear?' And they gave me total freedom. It's the dream for a designer."

She came up with a set of design principles for the team: lightness, simplicity and scalability.

"I didn't want to design tech, so I took more inspiration from furniture," she said. "Furniture has to be iconic, timeless."

Olsson, who studied industrial design at Lund University in Sweden, said that wasn't considered a particularly unusual major for a woman.

"In Sweden, industrial design is 50-50 men/women. I was surprised how few women (designers) there were here," she said. "I don't understand it -- when you design things, you have to design for everybody."

To make Glass wearable, she made design choices that were counterintuitive, especially to the mostly male engineers.

In the beginning, the engineers had thought the electronics should be symmetrical on both ears -- "It's actually better if it's asymmetrical, so it balances on the ear and doesn't weigh down on the nose."

They had put the screen right in front of the right eye. "But you really don't want it so close, so we moved it up so people could make eye contact. We leave everything unblocked -- hands free, ears are free, eyes are free."

Glass comes in colors called charcoal, shale, cotton, sky and tangerine. The engineers also made one with a clear plastic frame that exposes wires and hardware.

Olsson sighs when she picks it up -- "It is, how should I say it, distracting." When someone brought her an unopened Google Glass package -- a square cardboard box -- her voice got soft.

"The box is matte, the lid floats off, then frosted velum on top covers the glass," she said, stroking the thin paper layer over the Glass. "I was obsessed with this paper -- the dramatic preview -- but it's also calming."

She wanted the box to, like Basecamp, ease consumers into what might be a scary gadget.

"It's such a new device, I wanted every touch experience to be calming. So first you see just the silhouette through the velum before you touch it."

Under the paper, Glass was lodged into a cardboard tray. When she lifted it out, the cardboard tipped to expose a set of neatly rolled cables and a carrying pouch made of Japanese microfiber.

"It feels natural but it's still technical," she said of the material. "Imagine if you opened it and found an old-school leather bag. It would feel wrong. This isn't a heritage product."

Google, she said, is designing prescription and sunglass attachments to go with Glass.

"The line between tech and fashion are continuously coming together," she said, her black spiked bangles clinking as she snapped on a set of sunglasses. "This is not a static thing anymore."

She moved out to the balcony and leaned against the railing.

"The worst place to demo Glass is in a conference room," she said, standing with the Embarcadero waterfront and bridge behind her. "When you get your Glass, this will be the first photo you take."

Nellie Bowles is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: nbowles@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @NellieBowles

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