Watching Google Glass adverts one gets the sense that everyday consumers will soon use these magnificent spectacles to do everything from sending tweets with a twitch of an eyelid to displaying surrounding Thai restaurants and recording live video of long walks along the Grand Canyon.
Perhaps even at the same time. Smart glasses shipments are expected to top 10 million annually by 2018 according to Juniper Research. But while it could be argued that Google’s pitch for Glass relates more closely to how it can be used in familiar consumer-focused applications, this technology will likely find more innovative uses in niche enterprise applications well before it becomes normalised or cheap enough for the everyman. It will also need to overcome some key barriers first.
The number of enterprise-focused use cases have significantly increased since the company released them to select “Explorers” this year. Some of them are quite compelling.
Philips Healthcare and Accenture Technology Labs are currently partnering with leading medical practitioners in the US to develop an application for Glass that will enable doctors to keep tabs on patients’ vitals and receive alerts when anomalies or medical issues are detected, wherever they – or the patient – are. Combined with location-based tracking and integrated with electronic medical health record data warehouses and live-feed vital sign monitors, the application holds promise for hospitals and medical clinics looking to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of medical care.
Professor Ben Foster of DePaul University in Chicago says these spectacles could be used by professors to deliver an integrated digital and personal learning experience. “E-Learning is great, but we all know that nothing can replace an intellectual discussion with peers in a classroom,” he said. “With Glass, I could quickly search and distribute supplementary information while keeping my focus on maintaining an engaging discussion.”The technology also holds promise in education. In August, Dr Christopher Kaeding of Ohio State University performed knee ligament reconstruction, broadcasting the surgery live to medical students in a conference room on campus. The live broadcast enabled students to gain better visibility of the procedure than if they were huddled around the operating area, and Kaeding said he could switch between conversations with students and performing the surgery with relative ease.
Some educational institutions are even experimenting with using Glass’s text-to-speech translation features to improve learning for the visually impaired.
In manufacturing Glass is being used to monitor large controlled machines. The Indiana Technology and Manufacturing Companies (ITAMCO) consortium recently experimented with using Glass to monitor power status, alarms and machine-generated alters, as well as override mechanical feed rates and implement emergency stops. The group says it could lead to significant enhancements in machine operator safety.
There are seemingly infinite use cases for smart glasses, which generally consist of a tiny computer connected to a heads-up display with an integrated camera, microphone, and built-in IP connectivity. Diverse verticals like manufacturing, retail, healthcare and education are looking to Google glass and similar augmented reality technologies on offer from other vendors for their potential cost and efficiency savings.
“Smartglasses with augmented reality and head-mounted cameras can increase the efficiency of technicians, engineers and other workers in field service, maintenance, healthcare and manufacturing roles,” said Angela McIntyre, research director at Gartner.
“In the next three to five years, the industry that is likely to experience the greatest benefit from smartglasses is field service, potentially increasing profits by $1 billion annually,” she said.
McIntyre explained that the sectors most likely to benefit from Glass and similar products are field of service industries like oil and gas, construction, and industries that largely depend on a mobile workforce completing complex manufacturing and repair tasks. These devices can be used to beam instructions on how to repair complex machinery, and broadcast video to off-site experts in real time for support. They can also be used for on-the-job training, and improve on-site safety.
Dominic Thasarathar, who focuses on the strategic role of new technology in construction and natural resource sectors for Autodesk, which develops software for engineering, construction, architecture and design applications says the technology is promising for several reasons.
“The exciting thing about augmented reality is that it really does have the potential to improve productivity,” Thasarathar said. “Consider that most construction projects have traditionally used 2D plans that are great for architects to design with and for engineers to finesse the design. But it’s quite an abstract notion to build something from a 2D plan as opposed to a 3D model, which we have increasingly through the use of building information modelling (BIM),” he said. Virtual overlays of BIM beamed dynamically from the cloud to Glass could enable a much more efficient construction process.
Thasarathar explained that beyond enabling on-the-job training and improving the construction process, augmented reality could also be used in post-construction applications: “Once a building is built there is a lot of money spent on operations and maintenance, retrofitting, refurbishing. So companies are very interested in how augmented reality might be able to help blend a 3D model used to create that building with O&M – so being able to walk around, have a tablet and use your smart glasses as x-ray specs to see electrical, heating ducts and all the critical information associated with that.
Thasarathar said while it’s too early to reveal any of the company’s specific initiatives in this space, he will continue to keep a watchful eye on how nascent IP-connect augmented reality technologies like Glass fit into the Internet of Things more broadly.
“It could save a lot of money by cutting delays, and cut accidents,” he added.“If you look at non-visual augmented reality in process plants for example, vehicle movers in process plants – there are some facilities now where the vehicles they use, equipped with a range of sensors, can detect gas and will shut off automatically. You also have examples of warning systems individuals wear so that if a crane or digger is moving near to them, it will alert them. What if we could bring these systems to visual augmented reality – dynamically updating the hazard landscape of a construction site in real time, and beam that information to workers?”
Using visual augmented reality in enterprises still has its challenges, beyond the potential cost and complexity of integrating these systems with existing enterprise IT estates. While it has the potential to change how people interact and capture information around them, more easily than ever before, some are rightly concerned that bringing Glass into the enterprise will encourage colleagues to purposefully or inadvertently spy on one another (Google has attempted to allay these fears). Enterprises are already pretty busy keeping cloud-based storage and sharing services out of their organisations for fear that these may lead to more data loss and IP theft; imagine what could happen if just 20 per cent of a company’s workforce recorded everything they saw, eight hours a day, some may wonder.
There’s also the issue of safety. People are generally not good at multitasking and in certain industries (like logistics) one can imagine these glasses disrupting rather than aiding, potentially creating a hazardous work environment in order to yield marginal efficiency gains. Law enforcement agencies are already issuing tickets for driving with smart glasses which may prompt a broader, much needed discussion on the seemingly assured domination of IP-connected wearables and their impact on general safety.
This hasn’t stopped vendors from betting that smart glasses will be the next big thing in enterprises (after cloud computing, of course). Nitin Bhas, an analyst at Juniper research said that about 70 per cent of application developers catering to enterprise IT are currently looking to develop applications for these devices.
Bhas forecasts smart glasses shipments to top 10 million by 2018, compared with the 87,000 shipped this year. He said that in the case of Google Glass, much of the traction is likely going to come from consumer markets in the long term, where they are likely to debut well below the $1,500 mark they’re currently sold at, and integrate with other Google products and services popular with consumers today (not necessarily the case for more enterprise-focused smart glasses offerings from vendors like Inifite Peripherals, and Vuzix): “Our smart glasses shipment numbers are relatively small in the short term and our forecast for smart glasses adoption by consumers is completely dependent on the market availability of economically attractive hardware and apps.”
But he cautioned that field trials and regulatory approval to address privacy and safety concerns will take a long time to complete, which may see their penetration in enterprises deferred for at least a few years.
“Players like Google still need to address a number of key hurdles preventing their adoption, like privacy, and fashion,” he said, adding that we won’t see much acceleration in the consumer market until 2017 despite a wider pool of potential users initially.
“While in many places there are no laws regarding filming in public places, many people may object if they perceive they are being filmed. Issues of privacy remain even where the device does not store images or video as a matter of course; if it has that capability, people will be concerned about what their likeness will be used for,” he said.
He continued: “The initial reactions to Google Street View will be the kind of reaction that one could expect from filming the general public in public spaces. But despite facing nearly 30 legal actions and bans in 23 countries, Google have still been able to expand the Google Street View project and many bans have been overturned. However, the ferocity of the initial reaction to the project demonstrates the reaction that could face AR smart glasses if they were more widely implemented.”
Smart glasses seem to present enterprises with many of the same challenges smartphones do. They were originally the preserve of large organisations in the private and public sector, where Blackberry and Palm made a name for themselves, before they became fashionable and cheap enough for widespread adoption. These devices were normalised in the enterprise before making the jump to consumer markets, where demand has accelerated dramatically over the past six or seven years. The effects of this have been particularly pronounced in the telecoms sector, where big tech players and operators are investing huge amounts in making network and datacentre infrastructure flexible enough to cope with ever-increasing demand for data-heavy mobile services.
Smart glasses seem to be following this trajectory, taking mobile connectivity and infinite information one step closer toward ubiquity. But Bhas said that to achieve critical mass in either consumer or enterprise markets they will have to be much more than complementary devices or secondary screens: “These devices would need to capture the imagination of the general public making the technology seamless within their daily routine.”
It’s difficult to prognosticate (as is always the case with new technologies) on how the smart glasses market will mature, particularly the consumer side – where smartphones are quickly becoming the primary platform for social activity and seamless interconnectivity. But if anything, enterprises, which are developing extremely compelling use cases for smart glasses technology and finally coming to grips with managing mobile security and BYOD culture, will play a key role in shaping that process.