In Shadow of Smartwatch Buzz, Google Glass Got New Tricks

Google Glass


Google X’s Astro Teller, who heads the secretive division that’s produced Google Glass and the self-driving car, admitted at Vanity Fair’s first New Establishment Summit, “I have learned, at a certain next level, that wearables are tough.” Teller explained that it’s “a big ask” to get people to wear a connected device on their body, especially until the company behind it can demonstrate its unique functionality — which has to be tailored to where it will be worn on the body and the modes of input that make sense for that position.

In the year and a half since the debut of Google Glass, smartwatches have stolen much of the wearables thunder, with Cupertino unveiling the Apple Watch in September and the very first Android Wear smartwatches — by Samsung and LG — launching in June. While Google doesn’t appear to have used that time to get any closer to a reasonably-priced consumer version of the technology, a variety of developers, companies, and researchers have been hard at work testing out Glass for specific use cases and building apps that push the wearable from the domain of an interesting gadget to a significantly useful tool.

For example, Georgia Tech’s Contextual Computing Group has developed a Google Glass app called Captioning on Glass, with the aim of enabling “everyday communication” for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. The app provides real-time captioning during in-person conversations through the use of a companion smartphone app (since Glass’s built-in microphone is intended for the wearer, and won’t clearly capture someone else’s speech as clearly as a microphone placed closer to his or her mouth).

A person who is deaf or hard-of-hearing can wear Glass, and hand their Android smartphone to the person with whom they’re speaking. That person can speak into the phone’s microphone, starting captioning by commanding, “OK, Glass, recognize this,” and the app converts the speech to text to display on Glass. The user with the smartphone can also edit the transcription for accuracy.

A news release reports that the Contextual Computing Group, led by wearable computing pioneer Thad Starner, who divides his time between Georgia Tech and Google, is working on bringing real-time translation to Glass next, with a Translation on Glass app being readied for the public. That solution will also use a smartphone in conjunction with Glass, which will show the wearer real-time subtitles and display the translation of what he or she is saying on the smartphone. Two-way translations are available in English, Spanish, French, Russian, Korean, and Japanese.

A group of computer science and computer engineering students at Carnegie Mellon is working on a system that could be similar to Georgia Tech’s Translation on Glass. The solution, called simply Captions, promises to translate speech in real time to be displayed on Google Glass, “naturally extending communication by augmenting human vision.” A graphic on the site gives the example of two-way translation between French and English, and a video on the team’s YouTube channel depicts translation between Spanish and English.

While it’s still fashionable to regard Google Glass as a clumsy wearable, one without the subtlety of the recently-announced Apple Watch, it’s a technology that has big potential for uses in health care, enterprise, security, education, and more, in addition to enhancing the activities that the average consumer would usually complete with a smartphone.

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A look at Google’s recommended “Glassware” gives you an idea of how many developers and researchers have been working to make useful Google Glass apps available to the public. Many of these are Google Glass versions of the apps that are common on most people’s smartphones — Gmail, Google Calendar, Pandora, Twitter, CNN, YouTube, The New York Times — while others take mobile computing beyond the internet browsing, email management, and simple social networking that form the mainstay of the average consumer’s smartphone activity.

Some of the more unique experiences tailored for Google Glass take advantage of the wearable’s ability to create augmented reality experiences, while others reimagine a smartphone experience for a more immersive medium. The selection includes:

  • Refresh, which delivers “an instant dossier” about the people Google Glass wearers meet, to help them “connect the dots” between profiles, photos, statuses, and events across social networks and get the most out of conversations.
  • GolfSight by SkyDroid, whcih acts as a “golf GPS rangefinder,” and displays live distances to hazards and targets, full scorecards, satellite imagery for each green, and access to a website to add or update course information.
  • IFTTT, which enables users to create “powerful connections with one simple statement — if this then that,” which Google Glass wearers can use to create automated “recipes” on more than 70 products and services.
  • Duolingo, which enables language learners to practice their Spanish, French, German, Portuguese, or Italian vocabulary with hands-free flashcards.
  • SkyMap, which enables users to search and locate stars, constellations, and planets.

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A variety of apps are also featured on a website called Google Glass Apps, an “unofficial app store” for Google Glass, curated by Iwan Uswak, who has created a list of more than 100 apps created for Google Glass. Some interesting ideas among those include:

  • AR Glass for Wikipedia, which uses GPS to retrieve information about your surroundings from Wikipedia and display it on Google Glass, built by Manuel de la Calle Alonso in Spain using Google’s Glass Development Kit.
  • FieldTrip on Glass, which helps users learn about the history, architecture, and “hidden gems” in their city, with content from more than 100 local publishers, created by NianticLabs@Google, an internal startup within Google.
  • Genie, a personal assistant that can manage users’ notes, contacts, logs, shopping lists, and more from Glass, created by 33Labs in San Diego.
  • KitchMe for Glass, which lets users search for recipes, display ingredients, and hear meal prep directions spoken to them, created by

A variety of other Google Glass apps are in various stages of development, and look to solve a range of problems. Tech Cheat Sheet recently reported that a study by the Stanford Medical School and VitalMedicals found that Stanford residents who performed simulated operations using VitalMedicals’ VitalStream Google Glass app for live vitals monitoring performed demonstrably better than residents who didn’t use the app during procedures.

Mobi Health News reports that Texas-based health startup Pristine recently raised $5.5 million to fund further work on its flagship product, called EyeSight, which streams near-real time audio and video from Glass to authorized devices from the emergency room, operating room, intensive care unit, ambulance, or even the patient’s home.

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Other Google Glass apps — from the CamFind app that lets users identify and learn about any object just by taking a picture to the BioGlass app that can measure how stressed a Google Glass wearer is — are looking to push wearables from an unnerving intrusion to a powerful and innately useful extension of mobile computing. Afterall, just think of how tech reviewers experimenting with Google Glass are afraid to wear it in public, where the device often makes people uncomfortable, even suspicious and angry. Contrast that with the reaction to the Apple Watch and other recent smartwatches, which offer benefits that people can easily understand without any of the creeping misgivings that are a common reaction to a computer worn on the face.

Once Glass becomes useful and accessible to more people, who will use it to access the internet, check their email, take photos, and complete many of the tasks they already use a smartphone for, it will become more common and more familiar. And its perception will only improve if it gains a reputation for helping the hard-of-hearing converse more easily and helping doctors monitor their patients more accurately.

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