Through the Looking Glass

Google Glass and other eyewear tech can revolutionize the workplace.

Imagine a firefighter being able to see a floor plan diagram of a burning building – while he’s inside battling the flames. Or a doctor live-streaming a video of the surgery she’s performing, for the benefit of medical residents a thousand miles away. How about a flight attendant who can greet international travelers by name and in their native tongue, without ever breaking eye contact? These are just a few of the scenarios where Google Glass and other smart eyeglasses are being tested out right now.

“There’s a whole category of workers who typically can be more productive if they have both hands free,” says Dan Ledger, a principal at Endeavour Partners, a Cambridge, MA-based consulting firm that has done extensive research into mobile and wearable devices. Wearable technology allows these so-called “deskless workers” to get the benefits of a smartphone or tablet, without having to step away from the job. Wearers of smart glasses use voice or simple touch commands to take photos and video or to navigate displays projected onto their field of vision.

Google in particular has pitched its Glass technology as an essential accessory for everyday living and recreation. But Ledger and other experts believe the market for smart glasses will be highly specialized – more focused on business and enterprise solutions than casual consumer use. “Smart eyewear is inflexible,” says Heather Corker, vice president of the New York office of Future Foundation, a market research firm. “It’s always on your face whether you need it or not, so you’d only wear it for a critical task, something in which the device performs an order of magnitude better than something else, and you’d take it off when that task is complete.”

Right now, the technology is still too bulky and visible for general appeal. Plus, most smart glasses are in the beta phase, only available for developers to purchase. Even if that weren’t the case, however, the cost, both monetary and social, is still too high for “augmented reality” to catch on. “Wearing smart glasses in a social setting doesn’t entirely make sense,” says Todd Reily, principal design engineer with APX Labs, a company headquartered in Washington, DC that has created a software platform for smart glasses. “There’s no information that I need persistently in my field of view [when I’m having coffee with a friend]. Having my phone in my pocket is acceptable, but it would be sort of rude to have … an intermediary in the way between two people interacting.”

Reily believes that stigma will dissipate as the technology grows more sophisticated, streamlined and accessible. In the meantime, however, APX Labs has been working with a number of industries, tailoring the technology to their specific needs. “Those social issues aren’t as important if smart glasses provide real business value,” he says. “We’re providing users with a tool for making better decisions.”

Among other things, APX Labs’ Skylight software helps improve field work at windmills, oil refineries or hydro plants, “anywhere there is a distributed workforce where people want to continue strong communication,” Reily says. Workers are able to access data, troubleshoot issues and receive detailed feedback, hands-free. Other industries that smart glass developers have targeted include logistics, with warehouse workers scanning packages using smart glasses, rather than a hand scanner.

There are also companies developing hardware to help the visually impaired and blind. OrCam, for instance, is a mini-camera and sensor that clips onto a pair of regular glasses and features a small speaker that presses against the temple to transmit sound. The device can read text aloud for the wearer, as well as recognize people, memorize places and give directions.

Earlier this year, Virgin Atlantic tested out Google Glass for a six-week program, to help with the check-in process and give staff the ability to update passengers on the latest flight information, weather and local events at their destination. They also could quickly translate foreign languages. The Copenhagen Airport ran a similar test. Both the airline and the airport reported great success with the technology, saying smart glasses allowed for better engagement with passengers.

Another area where smart glasses are gaining traction is marketing, according to Det Ansinn, president of Doylestown, PA-based mobile developer BrickSimple. “The iPad is no longer something that’s a wow factor,” he says. Creating an immersive and unique experience to be viewed on smart glasses gives a company some “extra glitz and glam,” he says. BrickSimple, for example, created an app simulating a walk on the surface of the moon for a trade show.

Critics of smart glasses have raised privacy concerns over the devices’ spy-like cameras. “Is the camera always on or can a worker enable it?” Ledger asks. “Do you want a manager always to have a point-of-view camera on you, even on your lunch break?” The technology, he says, requires some tradeoffs, adding that companies adopting smart glasses will need to strike a balance between productivity and privacy. “The people who use [smart glasses] view them as a tool that can help with their jobs, and less of a tool for management to peer into their lives.”

It’s still early days for smart eyewear, and developers like Reily of APX Labs feel like they’re on the forefront of a game-changing movement. “We’re trying to create the future,” he says. When Reily took his job at APX Labs two years ago, he remembers a huge difference in the state of the hardware then — at the time, the fairly unwieldy devices had to be strapped onto a user’s head, more like goggles than glasses. “It’s come a long, long way in two to three years,” he says. “One of the things we’re excited about is where these things are going to be in two years.”