Herndon-based Apx Labs turns smart glasses into tools for the workplace


Apx Labs chief executive Brian Ballard, center, with CFO Chris Hoyt, left, and COO Jeff Jenkins. (Jeffrey MacMillan/For The Washington Post)
September 29, 2013

The doctor on call receives an alert in her peripheral vision: A patient needs immediate medical attention. She hurries to the patient’s hospital room as his recent test results and medical history scroll before her eyes. By the time she reaches the patient’s bedside, the doctor is better prepared to act quickly.

That’s the future under development at Herndon-based Apx Labs. The company has created software that turns computerized eye wear, such as Google Glass, into a workplace tool for “deskless workers” in health care, logistics and field operations.

“Anyone who can benefit from real-time access to information, but is up and away from their desk, [and] for the most part needs to be hands-free, heads-up focused on what they’re working on” is the company’s target customer, said Brian Ballard, the firm’s chief executive and co-founder.

The 57-person company has its roots in defense, developing software for eye wear worn by soldiers. Now it’s delving into a burgeoning consumer electronics segment known as “wearable technology.” Those are accessories, such as glasses, watches or bracelets, that come loaded with the processing capacity and functionality of some smartphones and computers.

Depending on how broadly you define wearable technology, the devices have been around for quite some time. The heart monitor worn by athletes, the digital watch on your wrist or the Bluetooth headset in your ear could all fall into that category.

What’s different today is that the wearable devices coming to market can carry out a wider range of functions. They can also connect to the Internet, capture and store photos and other information, and detect movement through built-in sensors.

“Those devices are the ones that are the most compelling in terms of their potential to enable all sorts of new applications, but they’re also the most difficult to pull off,” said IDC market research analyst Jonathan Gaw.

Even Google Glass, the highest-profile consumer product on the market today, is nascent at best. There is also no clear projection for how well or how quickly computerized eye wear will sell to the average person, Gaw said.

“Anyone that gives you a number is pulling it out of a hat right now. We have no idea,” Gaw said. “This could be the next smartphone, it could be the next 3-D TV.

“Most people would agree we are moving to a time where we are going to wear a lot more things with chips in them,” Gaw added. “The potential is just too great and the costs are coming down so fast.”

Watershed moment

Ballard at Apx Labs describes the debut of Google Glass as a watershed moment for the company and any other company in the smart glasses market, in part because it provided prospective customers and financial investors with a reference point.

“The truth of the matter is Google, I would say, raised the general public’s confidence in the fact that this technology could be real soon,” Ballard said. “There’s been a lot of really fantastic technologies in this space for the last decade, but they’ve never been at the scale of someone like Google getting behind it.”

For other computerized eye wear manufacturers, Google’s arrival meant the addition of a heavyweight competitor to the market. For software makers such as Apx Labs, however, Google Glass provides a new, potentially popular platform on which to build programs.

“The software that came out was very much focused on Google’s consumer ecosystem. Where we had focused most of our energy was on an enterprise ecosystem, which is a lot of glasses working together in a unified work flow,” Ballard said.

Apx Labs spun out of Columbia-based BTS, or Battlefield Telecommunications Systems, three years ago, and spent its first years as a research and development shop for the military.

It developed software for the military that allows computerized eye wear to identify people as they approach, transmit a soldier’s view to others and locate objects of interest in the field. Then it won a contract to explore ways the technology could benefit military medics.

Ballard said the company’s origins working with the military and intelligence communities gave Apx Labs the ability to experiment with cutting-edge technology under conditions that require special attention to privacy and security.

“Those are the types of organizations that have the money to bet on a future like that and encourage industry to start researching new technologies,” Ballard said. But “they’ll never be mainstream until industry picks them up and makes them commercializable.”

That’s the company’s challenge today, getting large enterprises to recognize the business use for smart eye wear and the return on investment that makes the technology worth the cost. To that end, Apx Labs has begun working with partners that already sell technology and services into the markets it aims to infiltrate.

“Businesses are very good at this. The ones that are willing to invest in new technology, when they see the business use case for it and can quantify how it will affect the business, make a move,” Ballard said. “And for those customers, this is a very easy pitch.”

There’s certainly a precedent. Smartphones, tablets and other recent technologies are now ubiquitous in the modern workplace as IT departments try to keep pace with the gadgets and software that people have come to use in their daily lives.

Apx Labs is banking on smart glasses following a similar trajectory.

“All of these technologies, whether it’s a tablet or phone or laptop, they’ve all been adapted to industrial or commercial or medical environments for years and years,” said Gaw, the IDC analyst. “Every time something like this comes out, there is a market for products that work best under those specific conditions.”

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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