Mobility

Wearable tech pioneer and Google Glass mastermind

Thad Starner began developing wearable tech eyewear in 1993, when he wore a computer strapped to his face. In public. He's now the tech lead for Google Glass and the mastermind behind the project.

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In 1998, Thad Starner was transitioning from MIT grad student to professor when he attended a conference that would eventually change the course of his career. Five years earlier, he'd created a pair of wearable tech glasses that he had begun to wear everywhere in public. Including the 1998 conference. Despite the fact that they looked like he'd strapped a computer to his face.

"When you look like I did back then, computer nerds come up to you and say, 'what is that thing, can I try it?'" Starner recalled. At this particular conference, two of the guys who approached Starner were two Stanford University Ph.D. students named Larry Page and Sergey Brin.

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Thad Starner circa 1997 with wearable tech eyewear
CBS/60 Minutes

"I gave them a demo. They were doing a research project. Which turned out to be Google," Starner said with a laugh, since Page and Brin are now well known as the co-founders of Google.

At the conference, Starner had gotten their phone numbers and email addresses but had lost touch over the years. "I tried to call Larry in 2008 after they started the Android project and say, 'Hey, if you're going down this path...' but his cell phone number had changed. Imagine that. So in 2010, I sent Sergey an email to an old email address and I said, 'You haven't seen the wearable computing work for a while. It's getting pretty interesting. Now that y'all are doing Android smartphones, maybe you'd like to come get a tour of the lab?'" Brin responded and said, "Come out to Google and bring your toys and we'll have a demo."

It turned out that Page and Brin had decided a month earlier that the time was right for wearable tech eyewear. So Starner, who was by then a professor at Georgia Tech, ended up joining their team. Brin asked him if there was a chance that his former colleague, Greg Priest-Dorman, might be interested in joining them. At the time, Priest-Dorman was a professor at Vassar and another early pioneer of wearable tech. "I said, 'I don't think we can get him, but to my surprise he was willing to leave Vassar," Starner said.

Starner quickly assembled a team with Priest-Dorman and Georgia Tech students to develop Google Glass. "I brought this small cadre of people into Google X. And so from there we started making a living laboratory and that living laboratory was people using [Google Glass] inside and with other people. Living with it privately," he said. Google X is the private test laboratory within Google. Starner is now the lead technical developer for the Glass Project and Priest-Dorman began in manufacturing for the Glass Project and is now involved in operations.

After developing Glass privately, and taking it off every time they left the lab environment, it was time to test it in the public eye, since there was a limit to how far the technology could be developed while keeping it under wraps. So the decision was made to sell Glass to thousands of Explorers and create a public test laboratory. "This transition allows you to get this device out there and figure out a lot of these issues. It's an ongoing experiment. It's looking at what people do with the machine and making the machine better," Starner said.

Public acceptance of Google Glass

Starner said he hasn't experienced any negativity while using Glass in public. He said the media has overstated the complaints against Glass wearers in public. While wearing Glass at the UbiComp and ISWC conference in Seattle this week, he deftly tapped the side of Glass and turned it on and off. "You can see when this is on," he said, pointing to the small light that appears when Glass is in use. "You can look closely and see what I'm doing. The gestures are socially appropriate."

Priest-Dorman said, "People aren't threatened by eyewear. Both that the device becomes more accepted and more commonplace and doesn't stand out as much."

Starner said that he and Priest-Dorman, "have been wearing this stuff for decades, literally. The average is just really excited by it. It's cool, it's a nifty new thing. The people expressing concerns like that are .1%."

The living laboratory of people wearing Glass in public is essential to future development and upgrades. "You create this living laboratory where you have enough people using these in everyday situations and you find out what the challenges are and what the potential is and you maximize the potential. And making it so obvious what you're doing with it. For example, a lot of stuff is done with speech. I'm literally announcing to the world what I'm doing," Starner said, tapping on the side of his pair of Glass again and giving it a directive.

Wearable tech is fashion

Starner said that wearables are fashion. "The first thing to realize is you have to think about the form factor. Anything you put on the body is fashion."

He said he's noticed a difference in interest in wearable tech even in the classes he teaches at Georgia Tech. He said for years, he would show his tech eyewear, which were once quite large, and ask his students, "'hey, anybody want to stay afterward you can try it out.' I did this for decades and 50% would raise their hand. Now with these modern sensors, you say now, 'who wants to try them and everybody raises their hands.' And because stuff has gotten much more fashionable and it's gotten much lighter, there is all this stuff coming together right now that makes this stuff feasible for the average person. It's no longer the hobbyists and the academics."

Priest-Dorman said the lighter and smaller devices, "lowers the bar."

Priest-Dorman has been wearing an assortment of wearable devices since the 70s. At an industry panel at the conference in Seattle this week, he introduced himself and said, "My name is Greg Priest-Dorman and I'm a wearaholic. I've been voluntarily putting on electronics with my clothing in the morning since 1978 but at the time they were computerized by biofeedback devices." In a separate interview, he said that in the 70s, "I wore a vest with six pounds of equipment on it. Now I've got something on my head and that's it."

Resolving battery and networking issues

The size of the devices was one of the problems that took years to resolve, Starner said. "Another is battery. Another is networking. It's surprising how much people forget about how the network has been. It used to be the cellular network had decent speed but huge latency. The network now is so fast."

In the beginning, the battery Starner used for his wearable tech eyewear, before he began working with Google on the Glass Project, was huge. "It used to be that I ran this thing off of a motorcycle battery. Lead acid gel cell," Starner said. That battery was used from 1993 to 1996 and it weighed 1.3 kilograms, he said. Now, Glass itself weighs only 45 grams.

Going mainstream

Priest-Dorman said, during the conference panel, that he believes properly bringing a product to market is essential for acceptance. "You don't know what it's like to wear until you wear. What I see industry doing is getting the products out there so the people who aren't going to build it themselves can bring others along into this journey and give people devices to help them live a more 'wear' life. If we do it right when we bring a product to market it also helps those who aren't aware of it accept and be aware of it."

Starner said he believes Glass and other wearables will quickly become more mainstream and less noticeable by others. "It will become part of the normal social dialogue." Starner has returned to Georgia Tech and altho his title is still "tech lead", after being involved in the early prototypes and interactions, he now describes himself as more as an advisor to the Glass Project and Ivy Ross is now the product lead and runs the project.

Meanwhile, back at Google, the device that Starner masterminded beginning 21 years ago and that was once worn only by the nerdy set, has already become a fashionable accessory for tech savvy individuals around the globe.

About Teena Maddox

Teena Maddox is a Senior Writer at TechRepublic, covering hardware devices, IoT, smart cities and wearables. She ties together the style and substance of tech. Teena has spent 20-plus years writing business and features for publications including Peo...

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