There are cheap, Chinese-manufactured knock-offs of just about everything these days — so why not a knock-off of Google's new $1500 augmented reality glasses? At almost the exact moment that Google started to announce the winners of its Google Glass developer program, Chinese search giant Baidu (the “Google of China”) started to release details about its own Google Glass-like prototype, known as Baidu Eye. While it’s easy to dismiss the new Baidu Eye as just another copycat innovation from China, it also raises questions of just how quickly the rest of the world is catching up to Silicon Valley.
Amidst rampant speculation in the media (including some initial doubts as to whether it was just some sort of April Fool's Day prank spun out of control), Baidu’s PR people have been making the rounds in order to clarify what its “ocular wearable interface” really is. It looks and sounds a lot like Google Glass. There’s a small LCD for augmented reality display, voice control, image recognition, and speech recognition for Mandarin. There's also something called "bone sensing". While the Baidu Eye is surely in a much more rudimentary phase than anything Google has — Baidu itself admits that the Baidu Eye hasn’t even gone out to external developers yet and there’s only one known photo of the Baidu Eye in action — it does suggest that maybe this whole augmented reality glasses concept really does have a future.
Of course, there’s a lot that could go wrong with the Baidu Eye. Just because Baidu has, or at least claims to have, everything Google has (maps, news, search, social networking, browser) and has already produced a cheap Android smartphone for the price-sensitive Chinese consumer market doesn’t mean that it can produce a knock-off version of Google Glass. Then there are the Chinese government censors to worry about. If they have a panic attack every time someone uses Twitter, it’s frightening to think what they’ll make of augmented reality glasses suddenly popping up in Beijing or Shanghai.
Yet, despite these drawbacks, in the back of your head, there may be a nagging thought: the Chinese seem to be able to copy just about anything these days. Aren’t the Chinese the ones who managed to knock off Kate Middleton's wedding dress in less than 36 hours? Wouldn’t they be capable of taking a number of photos from Diane Von Furstenberg fashion events featuring Google Glass, splice together live video footage of Google Glass in action from SXSW, combine all this with first-hand accounts from developers of what Google Glass feels like and eventually have Google Glass-like prototypes ready to ship by 2014?
Then, if all this rapid copycatting fails, the Chinese government could ban Google Glass from its own consumer market until Google capitulates the way Apple recently did — or at least create enough of a bureaucratic bottleneck for their citizens that they’d choose the cheaper Baidu Eye over a more expensive Google Glass. Remember: the long arm of the Chinese government can reach deep into the inner workings of the Chinese economy. Which might just be why, according to initial indications, Google wants to keep the manufacturing of the Google Glass as close to home as possible.
The Baidu Eye is just the latest reminder that we live in a global, interconnected world where ideas and innovations zip around the world in nanoseconds. Silicon Valley no longer has a monopoly on innovation, only a head start. Baidu may end up copying Google not because it wants to, but because it has to.
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