Facial Electronics: Why This Final Frontier Remains Elusive

Image credit: iStockphoto/martin-matthews

Augmented reality enthusiasts recall Google Glass, an optical head-mounted display resembling a space-age pair of spectacles. The pricey headset was released to the public in 2013 — complete with a state-of-the-art integral 720p video camera.

But things didn't go as planned for Google during their “don't be evil” days. Google Glass faced significant opposition due to privacy concerns and their on-your-face profile.

And in newly hip tech areas of San Francisco, the spiffy new headsets were despised. In the Mission — a district more famed for Mexican and Central American eateries than tech gurus — the rare individuals brave enough to wear Google's new product on the bridge of their noses were known colloquially as “glassholes.”

Glass blowback

“I think Google Glass was a big catalyst in the anti-techie feelings in the Mission District,” says San Francisco-based tech-consultant Jim Morton. “They were inherently elitist: 'I can video you, but you can’t video me because you can’t afford this USD1,200 piece of kit'.”

Part of the problem was the introduction of the product to a select group of consumers. “Google first unveiled the gadget in April 2012, after rumors about the project spread all over the media,” writes Failory, a content site for startup founders. The site describes the unveiling of the first Glass prototype in June 2012” with Google co-founder Sergey Brin onstage. “On the other side of a Google Hangout video call were two guys who dived out of a plane onto the roof of the event’s building...while streaming the whole thing through a Google Glass camera.”

Perceptions of elitism and privacy concerns dogged Google Glass and produced sharp criticism. Joe Schoech's 2014 hatchet-piece on gawker.com is titled “Why Google Glass Is So Bad and Hated and Will Never Work”.

This inflammatory article states the obvious, and it's a shame that no one at Google HQ seems to have considered this: “We have to share the world with others, and it turns out all of them prefer not to be recorded without their consent. That consent often, with friends especially, is more opt-out than opt-in.”

Things didn't go as planned for Google during their “don't be evil” days

“So what happens when you're wearing a device that might be recording at all times?” wrote Schoech. “Unsurprisingly, people do not like it.”

“With Glass’s uncertain value came many questions,” said an article on Investopedia. “Some bars and restaurants barred wearers from entry; several simply banned the device altogether.”

Enterprise revamp

With 20/20 hindsight, trying to puff up the new headsets as cutting-edge or fashionable was a wrong-headed approach. Google drew in its horns and quietly shifted the Glass to an enterprise footing by introducing Glass Enterprise Edition 2 in May of 2019. How successful is this new angle?

“This is an enterprise product, so it’s not designed for everyday consumer use,” wrote the Verge. “It’s primarily for jobs in construction and on factory floors as well as in the medical field and other disciplines that can make use of a simpler heads-up display and that don’t (yet) require something like a full-blown mixed reality device like Microsoft HoloLens.”

When deployed in select environments, the Glass shows promise as a tool for collaboration. “Patients should receive their doctors’ undivided attention during office visits,” reads a 2020 case study by San Francisco's Sutter Health titled “Remote Scribes for Clinicians.” “Sutter Health is using smart glass technology to liberate doctors from hours of documenting and charting their patients’ health histories and medical conditions.”

Facebook, Microsoft, Apple, and Amazon await

According to the case study, Sutter Health partnered with Augmedix to connect patients and clinicians with remote scribes around the world, a move that “demonstrated approximately 2 hours per day in chart-documentation time saved and 96% patient acceptance of the technology.”

On the logistics side of things, DB Schenker, a division of German rail operator Deutsche Bahn AG that focuses on logistics, “uses Glass to improve order-picking in their warehouses,” according to a Google case study. “Product and order information appears directly on the Glass display, allowing workers to go hands-free.” The upgrade increased efficiency by 10% compared to previous hand-held scanners, says Google.

Enter Cupertino?

"Apple's entry into the eyewear market will be the game changer for all participants as the technology gets normalized and popularized,” said a Tech Radar article, quoting tech investment analysts in a report by investment bank Morgan Stanley. “Apple has a long history of disrupting new markets and ultimately growing the addressable market size well beyond initial expectations."

Many are beating the drums for Cupertino to introduce a Glass-killer. “Apple is now expected to introduce the first-generation of its AR/VR glasses in Q4 2022,” writes Jonny Evans from Computerworld. Analysts discussed the roll-out date at length, with some anticipating an announcement in 2021. But as the Morgan Stanley report says: “The enormity of the technical challenge — compressing daylong battery, 5G, compute, cameras, LiDAR, projectors, and waveguide lenses into a lightweight, attractive pair of glasses — is hard to overstate.”

Saving face

Size, weight, and price are critical consumer concerns in any product. And several other vendors are readying face-worn devices — Facebook, Microsoft, and Amazon among them.

All have technical considerations, but all should be equally concerned about privacy and the perception thereof. Google seems to have learned its lesson and retooled for an enterprise-centric approach. What will happen in the consumer arena remains to be seen.

Stefan Hammond is a contributing editor to CDOTrends. Best practices, the IoT, payment gateways, robotics, and the ongoing battle against cyberpirates pique his interest. You can reach him at [email protected].

Image credit: iStockphoto/martin-matthews