Apr 12, 2012Business
Augmented reality: Google's Project Glass and beyond

Project Glass design study photo, courtesy of Google+Last Wednesday, April 4, a new Google+ page went online for Google's previously secretive Project Glass. Tech news outlets all over the country ran stories reporting, re-blogging and speculating on the project's new-found public presence. This week, the Daily Show even took an interest in the story. In reality, the small amount of information on the Project Glass' page didn't add significantly to the limited stream of facts that have been trickling in over the past five months: Google has been working on portable computing with a new head mounted display. A brief, but vague statement about the project's goals and a speculative conceptual video depicting some typical user experiences are all the site has to offer.

Secrecy is, however, common for project teams coming out of Google X Lab, a super-secretive research lab devoted to working on the fringes of technological innovation. What Google did not say -- but implied -- by going public without any sort of concrete release date for a consumer version is even more telling. First, they have reached a point in their research where they have a question they are not able to answer. The introductory Google+ post raises this question: "What would you like to see from Project Glass?" More importantly, Google is making a statement not only about how important this technology is likely to become, but also about their confidence in their lead in development over major competitors like Apple and Intel.

Google X Lab is somewhat of an idea incubator for some of Google's more speculative business ventures. By and large, the lab is notable for its tight-lipped secrecy, and media access to the concepts and products that are being developed there is very limited. The New York Times first reported on the lab in November of last year, hinting that a Google X product would be revealed before the end of the 2011. One week before Christmas, NYT tech writer Nick Bilton reported that Google was on the brink of going public with their first wearable computing products, speculating that Google's aim was to create a technology that would enhance smartphone use. Their main goal was to sell more smartphones, and to get more people on the internet longer. On that same day, the blog 9to5Google made what appears to be the first public mention of Google's actual goal: to produce an independently functioning head mounted display unit to more cleanly incorporate augmented reality into the lives of consumers. Several companies have shown significant interest in head mounted displays in the past two years, as major researchers in the field were snapped up by companies like Google, Apple, Motorola and Intel. A few key moves in Google's favor hinted at what we now know is likely true: Google is pretty far ahead.

Perhaps the most important of these moves came in 2011 when Richard DeVaul migrated from Apple, undoubtedly Google's biggest competitor in the personal tech world. DeVaul's past projects are a clear indicator of the kind of technology he wants to focus on. While working on his PhD from MIT, he worked with the famed MIT Media Lab, one of the country's top University-based technology research labs. DeVaul's research project couldn't be more relevant to Google's current work: wearable augmented reality memory-aid glasses designed to help users more effectively interact with the outside world by layering information overtop of what the user is looking at. DeVaul went on to found Aware Technologies, where his focus was on more biosensing applications of personal technology including applications such as better ambulatory care for soldiers. Apple hired DeVaul and solidified his position as one of the top experts in wearable technology in 2010. After Apple published a patent for a rough head mounted display system in November of 2009, Apple's path towards a head mounted display system seemed clear as well. The next year, that path changed when DeVaul made a dramatic move to Google, which we now know was to begin work at Google X Lab to assist in the development of Project Glass.

One of Google's software engineers sports a Project Glass design in a photo courtesy of Google+DeVaul joined Babak Parviz -- Universtiy of Washington Professor, expert in nanofabrication and self-assembly and inventor of functional contact lenses, hired in 2010 -- on the Google team. Parviz's research CV is similarly impressive, making him no doubt one of the leading experts not only in small-scale fabrication, but also in computing systems that interact with the eye. Much of his research work has focused on developing contact lenses with microscopic systems embedded in them. Patexia's Kristen Wall reviewed Parviz's patent for functional contact lenses, currently owned by the University of Washington. In a recent talk at the SolveforX conference, Parviz detailed some of his group's more impressive results in creating functional contact lenses, in particular their potential for use in biosensing and human-to-device interaction, but also their potential for display or display-enhancing uses. Parviz is one of the heads of Project Glass, and his on-eye research might be an indicator of the direction that Google is going to take these products in years to come.

Rumor has it that Google has acquired other important engineers in the wearable technology field, but DeVaul and Parviz alone put Google far ahead of its competitors. Clearly, Google is much more invested in developing what is still a speculative technology, but this investment makes sense given motivations driven by revenue sources. Google is unique among competitors like Apple and Intel in that it generates revenue through ads, and benefits simply by getting more people on the internet -- according to Alexa, Google reaches nearly 50% of all internet users. For Google, the drive is less about getting a profitable technology to market and more about getting more users on the internet for more of their day.

Despite all the media buzz, these developments have had little short-term economic impact on Apple and Google stock prices. Google stocks closed on a weekly low at the end of last week following the Project Glass announcement. In a New York Times article about Google X Labs projects, Google spokeswoman Jill Hazelbaker said that, "[w]hile the possibilities are incredibly exciting, please do keep in mind that the sums involved are very small by comparison to the investments we make in our core businesses."

Evidently, small speculative projects like this one have yet to make it onto a wider market's radar. In the same article, Google founder Sergei Brin is quoted as being personally involved in projects like Project Glass at the Google X Labs: "Where I spend my time is farther afield projects, which we hope will graduate to important key businesses in the future." Last week's release indicates that Project Glass is graduating to become one of these important key businesses, and Google has worked hard at becoming the dominant power in this field.

The question that Google faces now is, where to go next? Despite initial speculation that a consumer version of their product would be available to the public before the end of the year for anywhere between $250 and $600, Wired magazine doubts that this sort of timeline is realistic. The user experiences depicted in the Google concept video requires a much larger field of view than the glasses are currently able to provide by themselves. In my opinion, Parviz's involvement and research could indicate that Google is sitting on a completely new way of implementing head mounted display technology that they have not yet released. Information on the project is still very limited, and both Parviz and DeVaul could not offer comment on the project, which tells me that Google still has an ace up their sleeve. In his talk, Professor Parviz discusses the possibility of using functional contact lenses to modify visual input rather than generate it -- could it be possible to get the kind of user experience Google envisions using a combined head mounted display and functional contact lens system?

With such a distant and undefined product release date, it seems doubtful that Google is simply trying to generate a buzz for their new product. Much more likely, as they state on the Project Glass Google+ page, their goal is to get feedback from the market to help determine which of the many possible roads Google should take.

The popular media seem to think that the natural progression of this technology is to a solely contact-lens-based display and augmented reality system, but in his talk Parviz warns that this may still be a few years off: "Whether this sort of technology is possible to implement on a contact lens in a short time or not? My answer is... not in a short time, but the prospects are there." We may still be years away from the sort of technology that would allow Mission-Impossible-esque contact-mounted displays, but I would be surprised if Google doesn't have any big plans for functional contact lenses in the near future. At the moment, all that's clear is that Google's heavy investment in Project Glass is leading the way on the road to effective wearable computing solutions, and represents an important first step in the right direction.

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