Q&A with Ivy Ross of Google Glass

Q&A with Ivy Ross of Google Glass

Published on Friday, October 3, 2014.
Ivy Ross

Ivy Ross, head of glass at Google[x]

Ivy Ross, the new head of glass at Google[x], is a balance of both craftsperson and corporate leader. She attended art school at Syracuse University, the Fashion Institute of Technology, and the business program at Harvard. She soon had a very successful jewelry studio making work with titanium and niobium. By age 26, her designs were in the collections of the Smithsonian, the Cooper-Hewitt, Schmuckmuseum Pforzheim, and the Victoria and Albert Museum, among others. She has been recognized as a leader in creative collaboration with innovations such as Project Platypus. Among her awards are a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship and a De Beers diamond award. Her resume is a list of ever more impressive top-tier jobs: Bausch and Lomb, Coach Leatherwear, Calvin Klein Accessories for Men, Mattel, Old Navy, Gap, and Art.com. She has presented at TEDx, lectured at Stanford University, and been the keynote speaker at international design and business conferences.

Ms. Ross recently spoke with me about craft, her curiosity, and her audacious task.

With the technology available today, we seem close to being able to make things without ever touching them. What do you think about that?
I started as a craftsman. For me, the joy of that was the connection to having an idea and manifesting it with my hands because that's how one created things. I think in the future we will be creating things very differently. I remember it was magical to me to take a piece of clay and mold it to what I had in my mind's eye. That’s a very tactile experience, but the magic is really in seeing my vision come alive. I think in the future we're still going to see our visions come alive, it's just the tactile experience may become moving our hands in the air. It's certainly a different experience, but it still is creating something from nothing, having the idea or the vision of what you want to make and creating it. 3D printing and some of these software programs will be the equivalent of a sheet of silver and solder and a torch. We're not at that place yet, but there will be new ways we will be using our hands or our eyes to make things.

I’ve asked craftspeople about that, and I get responses ranging from simply horrified to a non-emotional "Well, when it works for me, I'll use it.”
It depends on what kind of maker you are. I'm a builder of ideas, and so if I have an idea in my mind, what are the tools that allow me to manifest it? There's a time when it's clay or silver and a mallet, and then there'll be times when it's these new tools that we can't even yet imagine. There are some people that would only want to carve wood because for them the joy is feeling the wood and going through certain actions, and I entirely respect that; it's very personal. Some people are going to pick up a tool when it's ready and then choose a CAD program and 3D printer, and others would have no interest in touching that.

You made things early on with your jewelry business Small Wonders. While you weren't doing craft shows, you were aware of that whole arena. What do you think of the current state of craft and its marketplace?
I think makers are in a great position now (or should be) because just like the fashion industry, a tension always exists between two trends. I think the emphasis on "handmade" and "handcrafted" is only going to get stronger as we get more technologically savvy, and there's more technology in our world because people always crave the opposite. Unfortunately marketers are using it, too. I think it is Peet's Coffee & Tea that is marketed as "handcrafted coffee." My husband pointed that out and said: “Isn't that amazing? It's like, really? What's handcrafted about it, the fact that a human hand held the cup under the machine?”

I used to collect baskets and all forms of craft, and then for years I just stopped. Recently, the more technology I have on my desk and the more I'm involved with it these days, the more I'm actually craving looking at those objects again. I just think it's a natural antidote to tension.

The whole online marketplace phenomenon is interesting. In some ways it has complicated the market, and in other ways it's been a good thing. Where do you draw the line between “high craft” and Etsy? The lines are blurring, there's more available because of the Internet now. It used to be there were a handful of galleries that I couldn't wait till I got to certain cities because I knew what my favorite jewelry or craft gallery was in that city. Now you google the name of the craftsperson, and you will find their work; you can engage with it online. So it's a whole different world, but maybe it's my own desire in terms of seeing that resurgence because of the tension of the opposites.

When I first heard that you got the job of head of glass at Google[x], I realized it made so much sense. How did that happen?
I got an email that said my name came up in a senior leadership meeting. I was highly recommended for this particular role, to lead the glass team at this point in time. Someone threw my name in the hat. I came from being a craftsperson, to design, to product development, and then to marketing. When I was a designer working with my team to design products, I couldn't help but tell the story around it and put it in context. I'm also one who loves to experience new things and different chapters in my life. So when I was recruited to be CMO (head of marketing) of Gap, the person who hired me said, "I've seen you in action and you can't help yourself but to think of the whole idea." In the old days you used to design a product and hand it off to a marketer who would make up a story about it, and I think that doesn't work any more. The story happens at the moment of inception, so for me I can play either role. Having started in product design, understanding marketing, and having led innovations in between, then having designed eyewear for a few years, I could see why both sides felt it was a match. At the time I as looking at some other opportunities, and I thought, "Which one of these would I regret not having tried?" It was clearly Google Glass. The very thing that scared me was the very thing that enticed me, in terms of the audacious task that it is.

My 26-year-old daughter said that Google Glass made sense since “we already walk around with our phones in front of our face...” Can Glass can make the phone and the computer fade into the background?
She’s right that Google Glass would keep you less distracted by bringing the digital world to the physical when you want it, not taking out your phone and looking at it every 10 minutes to see if there's something you need to know… Right now people are at concerts, and they're all holding up their phones, and what you see is they're living the moment through something else. Eyewear is one of the most successful, most ancient pieces of technology ever developed. It was invented 700 years ago and is the first thing that came between our world and our eyes and made us see the world more clearly. Perhaps what Google Glass will become is just the modern version of this technology we call eyewear.

As a society, we don't have any problem looking back at technological advancements and saying "Wow, we really have come a long way." Why do you think some people are put off by Google Glass?
Google did something pretty audacious. They launched something that was truly a prototype of an idea, and I think it was very much a new idea in a new form factor. Originally it was that titanium band, and there really wasn't a story around it that talked about what it was for. I think people looked at it and said "Whoa! That represents a future that I'm not sure I want to go to." By the way, our research shows the majority of people are not positive or negative, but curious, as they should be. My hope is that when we come out with a consumer version it will certainly be accepted, at least we are designing it to be much more acceptable. Its use cases will be more obvious, and clearly it will be first accepted by early adopters. Computing has gone from our desktop into our pockets and I believe it's coming out of our pockets, into our world, and onto us. The question is just what are those form factors in our world and on us, and how do they relate to each other? It's not an "if." It's coming. It's just when and how. It's an exciting space to be in.

How could Google Glass make our experience of the world better?
By bringing the digital world and the physical world together. What does that look and feel like? For me it has to be about enhancing your life experience, not distracting from it. That's why I'm interested. Right now the two worlds are separate, and we have this separate device that we take out when we want to get into the digital world. If it was within our sight, what digital information would we want to bring to the physical world at those moments where it was life enhancing, where it's actually an advantage, where it kept us in the moment? We are able to be "hands free" and use it to take pictures, make movies, enhance an experience in a museum, to have someone see things through our eyes. There's an incredible use case of a physics teacher in the Midwest who wanted to bring his entire class along on a tour of the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland. So, he went to CERN, and his class stayed behind in the classroom on Google Hangout. Wearing Google Glass he took a tour of the lab with his classroom seeing what he was seeing through his eyes on their screens back home. He was conversing with them and they were experiencing this lesson as if they were there with him. To me that is an incredible experience where Glass can bring experiences to people through the visual world that they would not otherwise have seen. I mean, sure they could watch a video online through their computer or a documentary about the lab, but having their teacher’s perspective in real time, to be able to share what he's experiencing, interacting, and teaching them at the same time is something that no other product currently can do. To me that is a great example of a use case where it's about seeing through someone's eyes, and it's incredibly valuable.

I've looked through Google forums and judging from the incredibly diverse and numerous requests for software and hardware capabilities, there is just no end to the potential for Glass. How do you approach its development? 
It's incredibly complex product. You have to have both a long-term and a short-term vision at the same time. We're placing bets on where we see this going and what the right first super-iteration to be offering is — the one that begins to take us all on this journey. How do we start this dialog? And again, only wanting to do things that really enhance humanity, not take away from it, but where does it become a tool? We've used technology to become more and more efficient, and I think we've played that out. Glass is not necessarily only about being more efficient; it's more about what having this extra dimension, brought through your eyes, can do for us. Some are using it now in opera houses to get the translation of the opera. They could still stay in the moment, watching the opera, but in the upper right-hand corner you could just glance up to see the translation if you chose to do so. There are a lot of use cases for travel; say you're in a foreign country and using glass, you can look at road signs in Germany and it will automatically translate it to you, or while you're walking you don't have to pull out a translation guide. You look at the sign, you look at the menu and what you're seeing in your lens is the translation to the language you speak. Those are examples of where having Glass brings the digital world to your eyes, where you don't have to take anything out, you don't have to look down, there's just looking forward, but yet getting the information you need real time. That’s available now.

Not everything can work all the time. I'm assuming that has to happen to you occasionally… what do you do when things don't work out the way you want them to?
I always expect it, and say: "What can I learn from what didn't work out"? The only thing that is predictable, as they say, is how unpredictable things are. Just when you think you have "the plan," something surprises you. Even more so than ever because things are changing so quickly, we have to be extremely fluid… and resilient. I've never gotten angry over things that don't work well, it's more: “What am I supposed to be learning from this?”

What made you move on from making jewelry? Was there a class at Harvard that told you not to bother with craft shows because of their limits?
No no no, totally not. I am my own leader, and it's really been an organic process. I'm not someone that even has a five-year plan; it's very intuitive for me. I've often said this, I am so grateful for having been a maker with my hands because there is no substitute for having an idea and being able to manifest it with your hands. What happened to me is that I have so many ideas and not enough hands. I went to FIT (Fashion Institute of Technology) to ask, "How do I put my ideas on paper?" to be able to get the ideas out. I was so grateful because there were many designers that were going through the jewelry design program who never made a piece, who only made pieces on paper. My ability to envision things and make them has come from those days and years of making with my hands, I'm truly grateful for that, and I think that it has evolved from putting jewelry ideas on paper to taking the same mental approach and solve problems in handbags or shoes. My dad was an industrial designer. He didn't just do one thing; he solved many problems. He worked for the famous industrial designer Raymond Loewy, where he designed the Studebaker Hawk and re-designed the 7UP bottle, and that problem solving is in my DNA. I'm a child of curiosity, and I go to where I'm curious. I was led by that curiosity, it's as simple as that. It wasn't a strategic move of saying, “I'm never going to make money as a craftsperson,” or “I don't believe in craft fairs,” because I did some of that. It was more that I'm someone who likes to keep evolving and experiencing, and I listen to what goes on in my mind, the questions I'm asking myself. Then I try to find things I can do that can help answer those questions, just as I said about Glass. It's full of questions about what it can look and feel like if you brought the digital world and the physical world together through one pair of eyes.

Most of your career you've been moving in the top-of-the-pyramid corporate world, and now the geeky, technical world as well. At the risk of sounding chauvinistic, what’s it like being a woman with your more creative and inclusive approach in a traditionally male arena?
I got into the corporate world by accident because of my own curiosity. I felt, “I can try that, I can do that!” I ended up staying truly who I was, almost with naiveté, because I was not someone who got my MBA and said, "I am going to be a success in the corporate world." It was curiosity that led me there. I found I loved solving problems and figuring out how to do so with teams of people, and that's a lot of what that work is. I will say that because I had no attachment to it, in some ways I could be more clear. I wasn't going to play it the way others played it. I was going to be in that world bringing my full self to it. And you're right, I did witness — and believe me it's not just men — even women, who you would have to question, “wow, is this the way we get things done?” Luckily because I got into the corporate world in creative departments, what was most important was that one produced things, good things, things that sold or worked. There was less scrutiny on how we got it done. I could truly be myself, be more collaborative, and not be political. I did come to realize later on (years later in fact) that a lot of what I was doing was really to be fearless to bring some of the feminine qualities into the corporate world. And I word it that way because I think we have to stop talking about men or women in the corporate world. It's really about merging the gifts and talents of both the feminine and the masculine in one body. I think I was bringing the feminine principle alive in terms of true real collaboration, and in those days that was not necessarily the norm. I now see that corporations have really changed. In fact, I have to say being at Google, not only am I finding my teammates having high IQs but I'm thrilled to be among people that have high EQs as well. They really value collaboration and it's a very, very different model than the old hierarchical model. In some of these new young companies that have grown, if you look under the covers you'll find that more than you'd imagine has to do with their ability to appreciate emotional intelligence and the value it plays in the corporate world. I've always thought that Human Resources should be called Human Relationships instead. I think some of these newer companies are realizing that, and so what they value is very different that what we valued in companies 10 years ago. At the end of the day, they still absolutely value results and growth, but the way they get there is different. How was the (ACC San Francisco) craft fair by the way, speaking of craft fairs this year, was it more or less well attended?

I'd say the attendance probably hasn’t changed that much, but I did the best I ever have there. I figure I'm going to retire someday, and I'll keep making work, but I'll make just what I want to make. I'm trying to do more of that now, and it's working out.
Nice. I do think people feel when you're in coherence like that, doing what you want to do, making things that you want to make, that energy transmits. It's the same thing in the corporate world when you are doing what you are really good at, when you find a job that really leverages what you are best at. That's what I did at Mattel with Project Platypus. Most companies would say to someone, “Here is what you are not good at, so you need to work on it.” I would rather look at what you are good at and think of how I could amplify that. It's exactly what you were just talking about now; there is some magic in you making what you want to make and because you are happier making it, that transmits. People feel the energy attached to that object or that piece of jewelry because you were more coherent with yourself.

That takes a kind of confidence though, and I've been such a worrier about every bill or doing what people expect of me… it’s just so much noise that I still have a hard time not paying the most attention to it.
I'm not saying it's easy because we all have that anxiety. I used to give advice like, "I'd rather be a waitress and make my money some way entirely differently to support my passion, because without being able to exercise that passion, life is no fun.” But if you have to sacrifice too much or make too many compromises, I don't think that's good either. You have to be smart about that. Clearly if you spend more time making the things you like best, you're not pulling out the tablecloth before removing the silverware. You are slowly migrating to that, so you are not doing anything stupid. You have a way of testing the waters and evolving to that, which is really nice, because I don't think anyone should quit their day job. You have to get there sensibly.

I heard you repeat a quote about the “opposite of play.”
I sit on the board of the National Institute for Play. The head of it is Dr. Stuart Brown, and he told me that the opposite of play is not work, as people think; it is depression. When he said that to me I thought, “Oh my god, that is so true!” That's why play has a bad name, because we think you're either playing or working. I've been a big proponent of play, playing with ideas. Some of the successes I've had inside companies in creative departments are from insisting that people play more. Play is without having an end goal; it's when your mind is truly free, and if we don't do that enough it is not because we're working, it's actually depression. I think in part that's why so many people in America are depressed. Our lives don't allow us to play enough. Play is also where you break your routine. There are so many tasks to managing your life and it's become so complicated, including managing all our various technologies, that I just think we need to play, exercise that muscle more, be more spontaneous.

I have a 16-year-old, and in two years he's going to be looking at college, and after that looking for a job. You’ve certainly travelled that road, and you are seeing where technology is going. What would you tell somebody who's just trying to figure out how to get their career started?
First of all, things are speeding up so quickly that there are going to be careers when he gets out of school that don't even exist today. So try not to lock yourself in early and say "I want to be x." I think that is wrong, although I'm a real strong believer in passion. If instead of worrying about what you want to do, ask, "What am I curious about? What do I want to explore? What is making me happy when I'm engaged with what I am happiest doing?” Really elevate the conversation with yourself around when you feel most yourself because there are those moments I think where you are more in resonance with who you are. What are you really doing? What's that activity? Then go deeper into that, and then those careers will reveal themselves. I see so many people that are obsessed with what the job is versus what they are curious about and happiest doing. Even though technology is ramping up, there's technology, there are people, there are so many different tracks. I think the future is going to be, "How does technology help humanity overall?" Frankly I have the options I came to and do what I've done because I started doing what I loved to do at the very beginning, which is making things with my hands. Most importantly, I realized that it evolved from making things with my hands to what I call "making magic," creating something that didn't exist before, with teams of people. If I didn't start by spending time doing what I love to do, I never would have realized what it was that I was really “loving” about the doing. I don't know if that makes sense, but my advice is to do what you love, and be conscious about why you are loving what you are doing, because sometimes it's not the actual doing, the physicality of what you are doing. You have to be more abstract about it, and then be curious enough to say, “Well wow, if that's what I really enjoy doing what would it be like if I put this mind of mine to something else?” But that's me! You know, all I know is how I feel and I think. The beauty is we are each individuals. I know that when I speak about it, that's how I got to be where I am, and I am just grateful for all my life's experiences and all the people I have met along the way. They’ve been wonderful chapters in my life. I see the thread, and I am grateful for being able to exercise who I am in all of those chapters.

Keith Lewis is a jewelry artist in New York state.