The wearable computer

Google Glass (aka Project Glass) is a futuristic eyewear-as-smartphone concept coming to the consumer market in early 2014.

Figure A

Basically, it’s like a set of computerized eyeglass frames (Google is working on models which will go over existing glasses) running the Android OS, which features a voice-activated interface and a display which gives the wearer the ability to access and produce data. The device has internet connectivity and can look up or send information, provide directions, generate photos and video, and otherwise be used to “augment” your environment by adding a technological layer onto your surroundings. A small screen appears above and to the right so Glass doesn’t block out what’s in front of the wearer.

Figure B

Google released a breathtaking video showing the benefits of Glass, with participants saying “Ok, glass” to initiate commands such as asking for language translations or displaying pictures to help carve an ice sculpture. I watched the video with my ten year old son (a master of devices, he is the perfect consumer to appreciate new gadgets) who found it exciting – but anything with a price tag of $1500 had better be more exciting than all four “Mission Impossible” films put together!

Some people might feel self-conscious with these frames on, fearing they look unfashionable, only hard-core technophiles would indulge in them, and so forth. I don’t necessarily agree with that (though I tend to be more preoccupied with function over form). Decades ago people were so embarrassed by having to wear regular eyeglasses that their worried their popularity and/or looks would be “spoiled.” Now eyeglasses are a fashion statement. The same thing goes for hair loss – once some balding men were so upset that they bought toupees or grew ridiculous comb-overs to hide their shame. Now a bare head looks stylish, edgy, and low-maintenance. So, fashion trends can evolve and if your first concern about a new technology is how it’s going to make you look, I would suggest you’re missing the forest for the trees.

After all, as far as a wearable computer interface goes, Figure C.

Figure C

Is a far cry from Figure D.

Figure D

That being said, to the Google Glass wearer the most common analogy of their experience will be the visual interface used by the antagonist in the “Terminator” films. Cue the “Sarah Connor?” and “I’ll be back” jokes.

I’ve opined words to the effect in other articles that just because something is cool doesn’t mean we should necessary develop (or buy) it. With Google Glass the first question should be what can you do with it do that’s new and unique – and which a smartphone doesn’t offer. It has to be compelling right out of the starting gate because the price tag raises the bar that much higher.

For consumers I think the motivation will be having quicker access to important real-time information (checking flight status while hurrying through a concourse, for instance) and the ability to record life’s events or interact with others (such as asking for translations during a conversation with someone speaking a different language) in ways that might be too slow, cumbersome, and inconvenient with a smartphone. I can understand this, because I am currently carrying both a Blackberry Bold and an Android phone. Despite other limitations, the Blackberry remains more convenient to me for quick one-handed operation to access and respond to a critical email – or take a photo. I am still not entirely comfortable with touch screens, especially using them to type.

The business angle

But what about businesses? The way I see it, the business benefit of Google Glass is worth exploring both from the perspective of the companies that will interact with the wearers, and the business goals of the wearers themselves.

We can probably all agree that the first benefit will be to that of Google, by gathering data about consumer preferences and habits. One school of thought states that Google Glass will be used to take a stream of pictures that will then be uploaded to Google and augment their advertising strategies (not to mention maps and location-based services). Currently Google has stated they won’t insert ads into the Google Glass display but of course there are many different advertising avenues in which data is gathered and used. The notion of a wearable computer that a person can use on a constant basis while both in motion and at rest poses some interesting and ominous concepts for advertising, as well as privacy concerns.

Those privacy concerns may turn out to be a rather significant factor involving Google Glass and how businesses react to it. The fact you can record audio and video so easily may result in “No Google Glass allowed” policies in conference rooms, movie theaters, or any other venue where surreptitious recordings are prohibited. Yes, your smartphone can also record video, but the fact you have to hold it up or strategically position it to capture what’s going on will give you away much more easily. Like a smartphone, Google Glass shows a recording light when this function is engaged, but it may not be apparent to those interacting with the wearer or they may not be aware what the light signifies.

Another clear benefit for business will be users that are more consistently connected and aware of their surroundings, and who therefore will make better prospective customers. When I think of a concept like Google Glass and how it might be used to locate nearby resources the first thing that comes to mind is being able to find that sushi spot, coffee house or watering hole. Sure, a smartphone does this for you as well, but no matter how the best of us may try, we can’t look at both a smartphone display and our surroundings simultaneously and effectively make sense of each.

However, let’s move past the obvious realms of advertising and attracting customers. What else can a concept like Google Glass do for business? The flight status examples shows that it has appeal for business travelers, which should be a given in this era of meshing consumer and enterprise technologies. Google Glass could assist hospitals, insurance companies, and emergency responders by reducing the number of accidents caused by using cell phones. According to this figure amounts to 1.4 million accidents per year – 200,000 of which are from driving while texting! Yes, we have hands-free and voice activated phones already, but Google Glass takes the idea further by providing visual information to eliminate the need to look away from the road. Of course, this is dependent upon Google’s ability to successfully provide visual data to the wearer without impacting their ability to drive.

Then there is a concept which I find fascinating as it might turn the argument that “technology is actually making us less social” on its head. Google Glass can offer facial recognition capabilities to let you get more information about those you come into contact with. has a good image illustrating this possibility in an article about facial recognition (Figure E).

Figure E

In the example above, Paul is already a friend – or at least a known associate – of the Google Glass wearer, but this capability could be a great benefit at a business conference. You could identify fellow attendees with common backgrounds, mutual acquaintances or involvement in market segments which you or your company serve. It’s not just about attracting customers, but building effective relationships by using background data to your advantage. Of course, the flip side to this is the creepiness factor, not to mention the possibilities for misuse by those with less scrupulous intentions. I could even envision a company marketing an anti-facial-recognition product to help people defeat this concept.

Future possibilities

From a theoretical standpoint, Google Glass could eventually serve business environments where merchandise is stored, allowing the wearer to scan items to take inventory counts. Doctors could use it when consulting with patients, to record data and access chart information. Pilots could wear it to assist with aviation. Security organizations could use it to identify potential threats, such as at a concert – another example of how the facial recognition capability could come in handy.

Educational institutions could take advantage of Google Glass capabilities to help students learn more effectively and less obtrusively than traditional textbooks or devices. Forbes magazine also suggested that Google Glass could provide some ability enhancements to the wearer such as using them as binoculars or hearing aids, making it a promising option for people with disabilities. It might even help the blind or people with memory impairments.

Google is still soliciting ideas for ways this new technology can be used, so it will be interesting to see how it evolves until its debut at the end of 2013.

Not for everyone?

Like all new technologies it may take a while for Google Glass to make inroads into the everyday person’s life – or it may indefinitely remain a niche product for the uber-geeks. People who are concerned about technology – and advertising – creeping into every aspect of our existences will probably consider Google Glass an Orwellian nightmare or a stalker’s dream. Those who consider the cost too high – especially when they can get by well enough with a smartphone – will also likely abstain, though of course the price could, and inevitably will, drop once the product has been on the market for some time.

The Verge has a great article with a hands-on review of Google Glass. You can also follow Project Glass on Google+ to keep up with what’s happening on this topic as it moves towards official launch.

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