Epson VP talks binocular smartglasses and European expansion

Paul Steels, Vice President of Business Europe, discusses wearables, expansion and how printing will change, but won’t die.

You’ve probably heard of Epson. But the Japanese tech giant is mostly known in the west for its printers and projectors and not a whole lot else.

However, since Global President Minoru Usui took charge of the company in 2008, he’s tried to change that. There’s been efforts to switch the company’s R&D efforts away from what the competition is doing and towards concentrating on the customer. Some of the recent results have been the new Eco-Tank printers and the PaperLab, a (relatively) small recycler that uses very little water, as well as new cloud-based POS offerings.

“We've got to start shouting about ourselves, which we haven't done,” says Paul Steels, Vice President of Business Europe. “In the UK I think we're less well-known, and to be frank if I look at our market share in the UK we've not done such a great job in business printing. But €38 billion in Europe is a massive market opportunity.”

Part of Epson’s new charge is a major push into Europe, where the company plans to increase its workforce 10% over the next 12 months - largely in sales and marketing - and open offices in Germany, Spain and Portugal.

Steels cites the strength of its Point of Sale business in retail, its projector technology in education, and of course its printing business, but promises more for 2016. “You will be seeing, over the coming year, a significant increase in communication of our technology.

“There's going to be a big increase in advertising around the benefits of business inkjet and Epson technology, and a number of key announcements around Epson business inkjet products and integration into other environments going forward. There's lots of things we've got to do but it’s all about communicating the message.”

Printing green

The concept of a paperless society has been around for over 30 years now, but given the focus on printers, it’s unsurprising to hear the company isn’t too concerned about demand for printers suddenly drying up. “I think in the long term you won't have the paperless office,” says Steels.

A new study recently published by Epson showed that 83% of workers in Europe felt a ‘paperless office is unrealistic’, with 86% in the UK saying a ban on paper would harm their productivity.

“Of course as you get generations that are used to tablet-based and electronic copy-based working, there's the potential for decline. But that's countered also by the fact there is a massive increase in digital content and some people by their very nature  – I’m one of them – print things out and read them, proof them.” 

Instead he predicts a change of habits: while the days of people printing off 100 page reports might be a thing of the past as they read them in digital form, smaller knowledge worker-based material will continue for a long time.  But as well as adapting to changing print habits, Steels says the company’s offering around low-carbon (it claims up to 92% reduction) makes Epson well-placed to target companies concerned with Corporate Social Responsibility.

“The growth in the CSR agenda is significant. Some of it's caused by compliance, but a lot of it is because they want to. But wanting to and being able to, because of the costs, are two important things you have to marry together.

“With our technology we can deliver on cost, productivity and to the green agenda, which becomes a really big tick in the box. Next year you’ll see a lot of growth in that messaging from us.”

Epson has hinted at moving into industrial scale 3D printing in the past, but when asked if the big push into Europe includes consumer-grade products akin to those from HP, we’re told they’re “looking at it” but there’s nothing specific on the horizon yet.

Epson & wearable tech

Outside of printing, Epson has some real surprises. At a UK press event in November, Epson launched the Moverio Pro BT-2000; its second generation of enterprise-focused smartglasses.

“I think a lot of our customers are quite surprised when we start talking about capabilities and the range,” Steel says. “Where printers are a really practical example of where we can grow, the glasses are a great example of what you can call step-change growth, because it's a completely new business and a new market, not just for us, but for many in the industry.”

While there’s been plenty of focus on wearable tech for consumers, Epson is going straight for the enterprise user. “The focus is in business, we could do a consumer focus but actually for these glasses it's really a business focus,” Steel explains. “For a consumer, wearing glasses is a fashion thing in many respects, it's got to look right. In business, it's not. Like hairnets in a factory - you've got to wear them because they add value to the business. These devices, working with the right software, are going to really, really add value.”

Steels admits that the likes of Google and Microsoft probably have the edge when it comes to software, Epson is working hard to partner with ISVs and he feels the Movario has plenty to offer aside from a low cost - $700 compared to $1000 for Google Glass or $3000 for the HoloLens developer kits – chief among them Epson’s 50 year history in sensing products.

“If you look at Augmented Reality [AR] glasses, it's not just about the optics technology and an overlaying image, it's also about movement, it’s about sensing. And that in terms of computing going forward, one of the critical things is, are computers going to be able to sense?

“What we do, as Epson, is produce the best hardware technology to enable the software, and that's something that's been lacking,” he says. “In terms of hardware, we have an advantage because we have binocular proven tested hardware. When you put them on, the most important thing about overlay is that it is really bright and crisp and yet you can still see through, and that requires some significant optics technology.

“Now Google has done great work with Google Glass but they're one of those which is parked at the moment. Google Glass is monocular, while our technology is binocular, not monocular, which is really important for Augmented Reality.”

It’s not just traditional B2B use cases such as logistics where the company sees smartglasses gaining a foothold. Epson is working with Oxford University on a project that allow people with partial vision to see the world far better, something which fits into President Usui’s idea of using his company to help with quality of life.

 “You see the reaction from these people, it's life-changing,” concludes Steel, “because they can pour a cup of tea, they can actually see the thing, an outline of it, rather than having something completely blurred.”