Glass: Google Brings Brand Clout and Deep Pockets to Wearable Tech
The imminent arrival of Google Glass may be the tipping point for “wearable tech.” Mobile devices with micro-displays (think Glass or the fabled and elusive iWatch) face challenges on a number of fronts, both social and technical. Google is almost uniquely positioned as a brand and as a heavy-hitter with abundant financial, technical, and intangible social capital to catalyze the emergence of new applications of this technology.
Glass itself may take off the way iPods and iPhones have -- it may herald a new inflection point and the introduction of a new “disruptive technology.” Or it may simply remain a focus of intense loyalty for a small, extremely tech-savvy base of users. Which of these scenarios pans out is probably immaterial. At the very least, Glass will pave the way for other, similar technologies, and specialized developers and manufacturers of the required components will profit from the process -- perhaps a great deal.
What is Google Glass?
By now most of us have seen pictures of Google’s co-founder Sergey Brin wearing Google Glass. The device consists of a lightweight pair of glasses with a side-mounted processor and “pico-projector.” The processor can connect to wi-fi, or to your mobile device via Bluetooth, and projects a tiny virtual screen that appears in the upper right corner of your field of vision.
Think of the reliance you already place on your mobile device for basic information, and imagine it available to you hands-free. This is the kernel of the Glass experience.
Glass has a touch-pad on the temple which the wearer can use to scroll through available screens, and also responds to voice commands (you may soon hear lots of sentences spoken in public that start “OK, Glass…”).
Potential future sensors may include eye-movement and kinesthetics. Several manufacturers have explored a projected “virtual keyboard” with the device’s camera detecting your hand motions. You’ve gotten used to people seeming to speak to themselves in public as they wander around having a conversation via Bluetooth; get ready for them to be making random gestures as they interact with a keyboard that only they can see.
On the technical side, Glass leverages recent advances in component technologies (processor, battery, optics, etc.), and marries them to the extremely robust Android software development ecosystem. It is this “killer combination” of technology and development infrastructure, piggybacked on Google’s immense brand panache that makes Glass a potential breakout device.
Glass is now in the hands of a privileged (and outrageously enthusiastic) elite of developers, and is expected to be generally available late this year. Analysts estimate that units could sell in the $300 to $400 range, up to $600 if an option for a 3G connection is included.
“Augmented Reality” vs “Virtual Reality”
The basic spectrum in micro-display technology is between “augmented reality,” or AR, and “virtual reality,” or VR.
Virtual reality devices immerse the user completely in a virtual environment -- one generated entirely by the computer.
Most current applications of virtual reality are military. With dropping micro-display prices, and increases in computing power, other training and gaming applications will become more feasible -- and more widespread, and more profitable.
Augmented reality devices, on the other hand, are “transparent” -- the user still sees his or her surroundings, but they are overlaid with digital information. In the case of military aircraft and high-end automotive applications, for example, images and data are projected so as to appear floating a few feet in front of the windshield. In the case of Google Glass, those images and data are visible in a virtual screen that floats in a corner of your vision. Any application in which the user needs to continue to see and interact with the real world will require augmented, rather than virtual, reality.
HMDs and HUDs
The technological platforms which deliver augmented and virtual reality applications fall into two basic types: head-mounted displays (HMD) and heads-up displays (HUD).
As noted above, a heads-up display projects a virtual screen somewhere in the user’s field of vision. In automotive applications, that screen might appear floating over the dashboard or hood of the car, displaying the data usually seen in the car’s information panel -- speed, fuel, GPS directions, and the like. A fighter pilot might see it superimposed on his windshield, giving navigation and tracking information.
A head-mounted display, on the other hand, is a device that rests on a user’s head -- a helmet, as in the military training photo above, or a lightweight pair of glasses, as in the case of Google Glass. The head-mounted unit can either be tethered to a computer, or it can carry its own hardware on-board, as does Google Glass.
Google Glass: The Technological and Cultural Inflection Point?
Augmented and virtual reality, heads-up and head-mounted displays -- all of these have been in development for decades. The first applications were in academic settings in the 1960s, but the steady operation of Moore’s Law, the development of microcomputers and, ultimately, the arrival of powerful mobile computing devices during the last decade, has led to the technical feasibility of a device like Google Glass.
Nevertheless, Glass is not the first. There have been other head-mounted displays before. There have even been other head-mounted displays with form-factors nearly as light as Glass. What makes Glass different is that it is essentially a development platform rather than a single device. Other head-mounted displays and “wearable tech” items have often been single-purpose devices. But just as the iPhone introduced us to a universe of applications that many of us now have a hard time imagining our lives without -- but that we never missed before they appeared -- so Glass, operating in the Android ecosystem, promises to leverage the creativity of millions of developers to build useful (and soon-to-be “essential”) apps. Indeed, it’s already happening, as the first adopters gleefully root their devices to stretch the boundaries and see what can be created.
Glass may not turn out to be the dominant product. More likely its significance will be simply that Google is uniquely positioned to create the breakout device, as Apple created the breakout smartphone and cleared the way for a stable of competitors. Manufacturers who will continue to innovate -- especially the developers of new micro-screen and projection technologies, such as liquid crystal on silicon and organic light-emitting diodes -- will thus have huge opportunities for growth.
Some analysts maintain that the adoption of Glass and similar devices presents a psychological obstacle to the public.
Since Glass is equipped with a camera, and potentially with Google’s face-recognition software (though Google says it’s blocking it for now), some think that the public will baulk at the thought of being filmed anywhere, anytime, with or without their knowledge.
Personally, we don’t buy the skepticism. The millennial generation, reared on universal broadband access and wireless devices displays, has an insatiable appetite for social media exposure. The relentless push of IT behemoths like Google and Facebook towards a media culture oriented to public sharing meets scant real resistance from consumers whenever it makes new incremental steps in that direction.
We think that as the technologies that underlie Glass mature even further, and as Glass establishes a new space for physically non-intrusive, powerful, and useful wearable tech, consumers will embrace it with gusto.
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