Google Glass, originally developed from a passion project of company cofounder Sergey Brin, was supposed to unlock the next frontier in digital connectivity. While the smartphone has made technology and information omnipresent in our lives, Glass promised to remove the cumbersome barrier of a handheld device and allow for hands-free computing using voice and optical commands. Apps would seamlessly integrate with reality and life would never be the same. But that grandiose vision fell infamously short, as Glass failed to take off as a mass consumer product and the company stopped offering the product in 2015. Development went on in semi-secret, however, and the product has now found a second life as a business solution, which Alphabet, Google’s parent company, is calling Glass Enterprise Edition. In a fascinating profile of the surprisingly resurgent product, Wired‘s Steven Levy catches us up on recent events:
For about two years, Glass EE has been quietly in use in dozens of workplaces, slipping under the radar of gadget bloggers, analysts, and self-appointed futurists. Yes, the population of those using the vaunted consumer version of Glass has dwindled, tired of being driven out of lounges by cocktail-fork-wielding patrons fearing unwelcome YouTube cameos. Meanwhile, Alphabet has been selling hundreds of units of EE, an improved version of the product that originally shipped in a so-called Explorer Edition in 2013. Companies testing EE—including giants like GE, Boeing, DHL, and Volkswagen—have measured huge gains in productivity and noticeable improvements in quality. What started as pilot projects are now morphing into plans for widespread adoption in these corporations.
The new version has also undergone design advancements and now has more processing power, networking capability, and battery life, but that’s the least interesting part of the product’s evolution.
Glass EE’s project lead, Jay Kothari, explained in a blog post earlier this week that more than 50 companies are already using the product, mostly in the manufacturing, shipping, and health care sectors. Originally, some of these companies were adopting and adapting the device to their needs on their own, and then Google took notice and started to devote resources to support their initiative. A few years later, by working with more than 30 partners, Google/Alphabet has been able to co-develop custom software tailored to individual companies’ specific needs.
GE Aviation mechanics wearing the glasses can see instructional videos, animations, and images as they are assembling or overhauling engines, and Glass EE has reduced these workers’ errors and improved their efficiency by as much as 12 percent. (They’ve also paired the device with a wifi-enabled torque wrench, which tells the user if they are using enough torque or not.) GE and DHL have been using Glass EE to make warehouse pickers’ jobs easier and more efficient as well, like being able to receive real-time instructions on where to find and put items. And at the agricultural machinery manufacturer AGCO, Kothari says the product has reduced production and inspection times by as much as 30 percent, since employees can now access checklists and view instructions and images as they work.
The product has also helped to dramatically reduce the amount of time medical professionals have to spend dealing with electronic health records:
Doctors at Dignity Health have been using Glass with an application our partner Augmedix calls “a remote scribe”. Now, instead of typing on a computer during consultations, they can connect with patients by looking them in the eye, listening as they talk, and asking questions — all with confidence that all the note taking work is being done in the background. Dignity’s Chief Medical Information Officer, Dr. Davin Lundquist says that in addition to improving their quality of care, Glass has also reduced the time they spend typing up patient notes and other administrative work from 33 percent of their day to less than 10 percent, while doubling the amount of time they interact with patients.
Glass EE’s cost will depend on what the required software, customer support, and training needs are, but as a ballpark, AGCO has been paying between $1,300 and $1,500 per unit. Whatever the cost, or how long it took to get to this point, Glass’s product pivot has great promise for Alphabet. Wired‘s Levy notes that Forrester Research predicts 14.4 million U.S. workers will be wearing smart glasses by 2025. With the specter of AI and robotics hanging above the workforce, particularly in manufacturing, wearable augmented-reality tech like Glass EE may be able to help humans keep some of their edge.