Handheld Technology

Will Google Glass Always Be A Niche Interest?

It’s nearly 12 years since Tom Cruise swished and swiped his 3D computer screens in the now iconic futuristic noir movie Minority Report. That strange fictional world of seemingly limitless processing power, massive video databases and elegant interfaces has become an iconic reference point for modern technology development; none more so than in the case of Google Glass.

The very idea that anyone could put on a pair of specs and see a display featuring social media, web browsing, email and whatever else streaming in front of their eyes, until recently seemed far-fetched, something you only see in the movies, and yet Google has managed to turn art into reality. Well, a niche reality at least.

Two years ago I met one of the brains behind Minority Report’s tech scenes, Dale Herigstad. He told me that he had thought for a long time that the future of the user interface is about gesture control and screens not being physical things but projections on walls. Google Glass, it seems, is not quite there yet but it represents a leap forward towards Herigstad’s vision.

Part of that vision, however, did not include a football coach scanning live statistics during a game. Last month Atletico Madrid assistant coach German Burgos became the first person to use a Google Glass application to monitor live match and player statistics, as part of a Liga de Futbol Profesional (LFP) project in Spain.

Also last month, a Boston, US-based hospital became the first hospital to use Google Glass in the ER or A&E department. The pilot programme, started by Dr. Steven Horng at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, enables doctors to scan QR codes of patients to bring up medical notes and information. This, according to Dr Horng, should stop the constant toing and froing from patient back to computer.

Last year, Spanish surgeon Dr. Pedro Guillén pioneered the use of Google Glass in medicine when he hosted the first Google Glass assisted operation in Madrid, performing and streaming live surgery, allowing experts at Stanford University in the US to consult live and viewers around the world to watch the procedure in real time.

More recently, doctors in Alabama have been training surgeons in El Salvador in how to repair cleft palate, while the US Air Force has been trialling Google Glass with its Pararescue Jumpers to help them keep track of wounded soldiers in the field.

There is a pattern emerging. So, is Google Glass a niche thing, suitable just for niche markets such as healthcare, military and football coaching, or is there more to it? As far as the mainstream goes, is Google Glass a solution looking for a problem, or will we all one day be wandering around with the ability to access everything via our glasses, even if we don’t need them to see?

Like people walking around town with Bluetooth ear pieces, Google Glass could be reserved for the overtly nerdy, the self-important men who crave status through gadgetry and lack the self-awareness to realise that people aren’t actually looking at them in awe. And then there is the privacy issue. To be fair, this is not isolated to Google Glass but to wearable technology as a whole, but are we being paranoid? Maybe there is something as simple as human etiquette here where the wearer should just remove the technology in certain environments, in case it could be misconstrued? After all, we have got used to the idea of phones having cameras and most of us don’t go around covertly recording. 

So are Google Glass and wearable cousins such as Epson’s Moverio BT-200 smart glasses or the Meta Pro Spaceglasses breaking the interface barriers and changing the way we think in terms of accessibility to information? 

Tal Krzypow, VP Product Management of eyesight, believes so but of course Krzypow has a vested interest in bigging up the genre because he works for a company that refers to itself as a gesture-recognition technology company.

“Wearable devices such as Glass are fundamental computing devices, an augmenter of our environment and an extension of our memory,” he says in response to a question about whether or not Google Glass could ever be anything more than niche.

“Facial recognition will automatically prompt key information to a sales person when they meet again with a prospective customer,” he adds. “Object recognition will alert a school teacher if one of the students is not with the group any longer during a field trip. When you are on your way home, you may briefly notice the supermarket, but your glass will identify it and remind you of your grocery shopping list. Wearables will simply enrich your life by leveraging your immediate context. Will you be able to live without one? Sure, just as you can leave your smartphone at home.”

Now hold on a minute, I never leave the smartphone at home, on purpose at least. But won’t I look an idiot wearing these things and then gesticulating my way around the frozen-food section?

Krzypow points out that wearables are still nascent and that the perception is outstripping the reality a bit. He does admit however that this is still “a trial and error phase” but believes emphatically that this phase “will yield remarkable and valuable products that people will want to wear and use.”

I’m still not convinced, although it is impossible to ignore the abundance of startups and mobile applications firms that are currently developing for Google Glass. Companies such as BrickSimple are “pumped” about building apps for Glass, including a Battleship game while you are shopping (it didn’t look fun, really) and an in-car app to receive live engine performance data, which of course is paramount in every driver’s mind when getting behind the wheel.

Is this a case of trying too hard to find an application or will all work lead to something more useful and valuable?   

Former IDC enterprise mobility analyst Steve Drake who is now VP of business development at FeedHenry, a cloud-based mobile application platform, admits that it’s still early days and adoption is niche but he believes there is a future here, particularly in business-related applications.

“As with existing mobile apps, wearable tech offers organisations an opportunity to reduce costs by allowing employees in the field to report back to base and get relevant information while they are still on site, thereby reducing, or eliminating the need for a repeat call out,” he says. “For businesses, wearable devices also offer a new opportunity for key industries, including healthcare, public safety, field service, engineering and manufacturing, to increase productivity by allowing employees to gather information while leaving their hands free to complete the tasks they are engaged in.”

He cites a recent example. UK utility company Severn Trent Water recently announced its intention to trial Google Glass so that lone workers can protect their eyes, receive information and provide live feedback on their health and safety status, while leaving their hands free to work.

There are many more examples. Virgin Atlantic has started trialling Glass to identify and check-in passengers; Spanish bank CaixaBank has created an app designed to follow stock markets, locate branches and convert currencies through Google Glass' augmented reality. And police in Dubai are trialling Glass to track wanted drivers and vehicles.

Google has definitely started something.

And as for looking like an idiot? Well that could change too as fashion eyewear manufacturers get in on the act, most notably Oakley, which is currently integrating the technology into a pair of shades, probably for use by covert agents wanting to be Iron Man.

A quick search on Google for Google Glass applications is revealing. It’s spawning a new generation of development, enthusing the tech investment community and finding interesting markets where it seems to be solving real and not virtual problems. For consumers though, the reasoning is more challenging. Google hasn't yet put a firm date on when Glass will have an official full-scale consumer launch probably because it’s still can’t see the wood for the trees on consumer applications, unless of course it counts the few sex apps that are emerging and rename the device Ogle Glass…


Marc Ambasna-Jones is a freelance writer and communications consultant that has written about technology trends and issues for over 24 years for national newspapers, consumer and business magazines. He can be found on Twitter @mambjo.



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Marc Ambasna-Jones

Marc Ambasna-Jones is a UK-based freelance writer and media consultant and has been writing about business and technology since 1989.

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