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With Google Glass and augmented reality, the future is (almost) now

By Brian S Hall / September 24, 2013


Google Glass is an innovative, stylish and potentially liberating technology, one set to impact a number of industries. When Glass or similar wearable technologies are combined with augmented reality (AR), work, play, learning, commerce and even combat will undergo a profound transformation.

AR delivers text, graphics, video and sound in real-time to visual displays, including eyewear, contact lenses and car windshields. Imagine meeting a stranger at a business conference and having that person’s name, title, company and a slew of other personal facts instantly displayed in the corner of your contact lenses. The short film, Sight, offers an entertaining look at the promise of augmented reality.

Use cases for Google Glass, wearable computers already emerging

Despite the surprisingly rapid pace of display technology, wearables and AR innovations, we’re still several years away from a world where staring at someone or something will cause contextual information to appear before our eyes. As research analyst Becky White told me, “Glass does not use augmented reality. This is a common misconception.” Glass is essentially a wearable computer with a head-mounted display, camera and wi-fi connectivity. Users access the web on Glass via voice commands; for example, “Ok, Glass, get directions to X.” The data is then presented on a small area of the glass-like display.

Even without the incorporation of augmented reality, there are already several use cases for Google Glass and competing products. In the medical field, EMTs can use Glass’s voice controls and live video feed to help ER staff better prep for the incoming patients, all while keeping their hands free for emergency procedures like applying pressure to a wound or performing CPR. Glass is equally helpful in more controlled medical environments. Dr. Christopher Kaeding, an orthopedic surgeon at Ohio State University, recently wore Google Glass while repairing a patient’s torn ACL, giving his second-year medical students an “insider’s perspective” on surgical procedures.

Not surprisingly, venture capital groups Andreessen Horowitz and Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers have teamed with Google Ventures to form the Glass Collective, a fund for the development of Google Glass apps. Glass’ current lack of augmented reality capabilities is clearly not slowing down development of its ecosystem.

Innovation far beyond Google Glass

While the Glass platform builds out, other companies are pursuing the development and commercialization of innovative eyewear and displays that do use augmented reality. One such company is Atheer, a start-up working on a Glass-like product that’s expected out next year. With AR, Atheer’s users receive a much more visual, aural and personalized real-time data experience than the one currently offered by Glass.

As you might imagine, where and how augmented reality is presented on a display remains an issue. That’s why nanoelectronics lab IMEC is working on prototype LCD-based technology that can overlay information across the entire display of a contact lens surface. IMEC touts its efforts as the “first step toward fully pixelated contact lens displays.”

NVIDIA, long known for its graphics computing technologies, recently showed off glasses with OLED microdisplays inside. The displays allow data to be presented in real-time before the wearer’s eyes. The glasses can also be adjusted for nearsightedness, farsightedness and astigmatism.

The public has also become involved in AR innovation. Meta, which began as a Kickstarter project, is developing a Glass-like device that displays text and images on the top of the user’s field of view, with the necessary data delivery and computer processing to be handled by the wearer’s smartphone. Currently, the Meta “glasses” are more like goggles, and the device is tethered to a laptop, not a smartphone. But as their video reveals, the uses for such wearable technologies, even in their current form, are startling.

The path to mainstream adoption

Just last week I spoke with AR enthusiast Jen Quinlan about the current limitations of wearable technologies and augmented reality. While she agrees there are many uses for these devices in their present form, and the potential is certainly inspiring, the following must be addressed before they go mainstream:

  • Natural body movements are still not fully incorporated into Google Glass and similar devices
  • Objects (data) are not rendered across the wearer’s full scope of vision
  • Displays should get thinner, lighter and better
  • Wireless connectivity remains spotty and wearers cannot access the Internet in all locations
  • Battery life needs to be drastically extended
  • User interface is a work in progress
  • The price of these devices is prohibitive to the average consumer

Despite these issues, many people remain attracted to the innovation and potential impact behind optical wearables.

Watch and learn

This technology could remake education and training in all its forms. Every teacher, every expert, every adventurer can show you what they do and how they do it in real-time.

Smart glasses and augmented reality could revolutionize the way we tour museums and hiking trails. Information presented on the display could serve a valuable purpose, like telling the wearer about a particular work of art or helping them distinguish between poisonous and nonpoisonous snakes.

Whether you’re buying a home or a blouse, shopping will also be revolutionized by this technology. Glance at a house and know its market value, selling price, owner and when it was built, all while walking your dog. Get reviews on stores before you enter and access product ratings just by looking at an object.

For drivers, you’ll be able to receive traffic and weather updates at your convenience, perhaps on your Meta or Glass device or directly displayed on your car’s windshield.

And let’s not forget the broadcasting capabilities. Imagine witnessing a fastball coming toward you from the perspective of your favorite baseball player. Know exactly what real military combat looks like through the eyes of a soldier. See what the President sees while taking their oath of office. The possibilities are seemingly endless, but these use cases are a good start.

Practical applications that inspire

Investors, inventors, developers and users all have reason to be excited by the potential of these rapidly emerging technologies. According to Quinlan, the medical, military, civil service, education, entertainment and gaming industries offer the greatest near-term potential for augmented reality coupled with wearable technologies.

The integration of the real and the virtual, the physical and the digital, the merging of personal needs and social knowledge, all in real-time, all with a turn of your head, is surprisingly close at hand. Wearables and augmented reality will absolutely impact lives around the world, altering even the most mundane activities and empowering us all in ways we can only scarcely imagine at the moment.