As Google Glass come to market, will they first enter the home or office?


Nobel Ackerson, chief executive of Byte an Atom Research, uses an app his company has developed called LynxFit, which turns the eyewear into a personal trainer and fitness tracker. Below, Google Glass Explorer Chuck Webster and Appian’ s Malcolm Ross. (Photos by Jeffrey Macmillan/For Capital Business)

To hear executives effuse about the promise of computerized eyewear is to listen to pitches where present and future blend into one. The potential is palpable and the applications real, they say, even if the technology may be years away from mass use.

Nevertheless, the advent of Google Glass and similar gadgets has given a growing number of Washington area companies reason to experiment with the spectacles in an effort to determine whether their business can be buoyed should they become popular.

That proposition is still unproven. The hands-free devices offer a number of compelling features — some practical, others cool — that could prove useful when needing to surf the Web for information or snap pictures of the family on vacation.

Still, there are so few smart glasses on the market that software developers have little insight into how people will use them, if at all. There are also a number of obstacles, from technical shortfalls to social stigmas, that must be resolved before the public will embrace a cyborg-like existence.

But as the eyewear enters the market, something Google and other manufacturers are determined to make happen, a debate has emerged among industry analysts and business leaders over whether smart glasses will first gain a foothold in your office or at your home.

Get a behind-the-lens look at Google Glass in action—from functions and drawbacks to implications moving forward. The Post's Hayley Tsukayama explains. (Jhaan Elker/The Washington Post)

A number of local companies are making a bet, one way or the other.

Specs for the street

The end of your workout is near and your pace starts to slow. As sweat pours down your face and your heart pounds in your chest, the thought of quitting inevitably creeps into your mind. That’s when a motivational voice urges you to power through those final reps.

No, that’s not your conscience talking. It’s the personal trainer hovering above your right eye. LynxFit is the first product under development at Alexandria-based Byte an Atom Research. The exercise app tracks your movement during workouts, offers fitness instruction and gives a little push when needed.

“These are things that we’re doing that a mobile device cannot do,” chief executive Noble Ackerson said. “The major difference between us and them is users have to break their flow by looking over at a second screen, which is their phone or tablet.”

The company designed the initial version of its app for Google Glass, despite the fact that most models on the market today have been purchased by software developers, tech reporters and an unknown number of enthusiasts willing to shell out $1,500 for a still-imperfect product.

Now Byte an Atom Research is looking to make LynxFit available on other wearable devices, such as fitness bands and smart watches, that have seen broader adoption among the average consumer to date.

“A head-mounted wearable like Google Glass gives you the best experience, which is why we invested all our time into first launching with Google Glass. At the same time, we realize our market shouldn’t be entirely dependent on one device,” Ackerson said.

District-based SocialRadar first built its app on the iPhone in part for that reason. The company plans to release a slimmed down version of its eponymous app, which lets uses detect friends and acquaintances within a certain geographic radius, for Google Glass on Monday.

What’s more, a significant amount of research has been done on how people interact with smartphones in the years since they first went on sale and millions of people have bought them. That’s not the case with more nascent technology.

“When you have an iPhone or existing tablet even, you know a lot about what the user interface is going to be. With [Google] Glass, none of that exists right now,” said John Fontaine, SocialRadar’s vice president of research and development. “It’s a lot of trying things and seeing what people like and don’t like.”

Consumer technology companies are also working against social stigmas that wearing Google Glass looks dorky, invades others’ privacy and defies social etiquette. Google partnered in March with Luxottica, the Italian eyewear company behind Ray-Ban and Oakley, to make the eyewear more stylish.

“If Google gets their way, this is something people will wear on their faces like regular glasses. As long as they allow users to customize how they allow [Google] Glass to look, people may not feel shy about going out for a walk with it on their face,” Ackerson said.

Opticals for the office

The obstacles to ubiquitous smart glasses are more than just chic frames, skeptics contend. A device that’s meant to be worn all day needs a long-lasting battery, something Google has struggled to outfit on Google Glass thus far.

Additionally, the current cost of the devices puts them out of reach for the average consumer, who is already putting out money for the latest smartphone, tablet and computer.

“There is a sense that this really only takes off if it means I get to ditch something else,” said Jonathan Gaw, a research manager for market research company IDC. “How many of these computers am I going to carry around with me?”

Those same challenges don’t exist — or exist to a lesser degree — in a work environment. Company-issued eyewear, much like uniforms, need not be fashionable. Batteries can also be clunky and easily recharged during off hours.

That has prompted a number of companies and financial investors to see Google Glass and other eyewear making their market entree through the workplace. Once they become widely used there, the gadgets may make the transition to personal use — much like computers and cellphones before them.

“We’re always exploring technologies, such as wearable technologies, that can improve the efficiency and operations of people in their daily work,” said Malcolm Ross, vice president of product marketing at Appian, a Reston company that sells software to improve business operations. “We want to know how we can apply these technologies to what we’re already doing inside a customer’s work space to improve that work experience.”

The maker of what’s known as business process management software began experimenting with Google Glass eight months ago. It is now working on software that allows workers in industries as varied as health care, hospitality, defense and manufacturing to use smart glasses when their hands are occupied.

In one example, Starbucks managers who use tablets and smartphones when conducting store inspections could ultimately replace or supplement the handheld devices with Google Glass, Ross said. They can photograph the innards of a broken coffee maker using the headset, then submit the image to repair staff via an Appian database.

“One of the big advantages is you have your hands free and you can imagine lots of applications in the workplace where it would be really nice to have Internet access and manage a computer while your hands are doing other things,” Gaw said.

Herndon-based Apx Labs just landed $10 million from the investment group New Enterprise Associates for that very reason. The company got its start developing computerized eyewear technology for the military, and now has software called Skylight that applies the eyewear to work scenarios.

Chief executive Brian Ballard said last month that a few dozen customers have already begun pilot programs using the company’s software, including Monumental Sports and Entertainment, the owners of the Washington Wizards and Capitals.

“It’s happening now, and we’ll expect to see some real usage over the next couple years, meaning broad adoption within the enterprise,” NEA partner Dayna Grayson said.

“The thing that has to happen is we have to make sure employees like it. The only way to test that is to get it into the field and deploy it at scale,” she added.

Steven Overly covers the business of technology, biotechnology and venture capital in the Washington region for The Washington Post and its weekly Capital Business publication. In that capacity, he has written about start-up struggles, investment trends and major drug discoveries.
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