Glass (formerly known as Google Glass) has a well-documented and storied past largely colored by its initial focus on the consumer market, fueling many to say it was before its time. Not surprisingly to just about everyone that has worn the device since, Glass has in fact been making prolific impacts in the enterprise. Last week, the Glass team from X, Alphabet’s innovation arm, emerged from two years of silence to share the significant traction the technology has made in the digitally mature enterprise as the Glass team continues to work with partners like Upskill to shape the assisted reality market.
As we reflected on that news, we sat down with Brian Ballard, our CEO and co-founder, and Jay Kim, our Chief Strategy Officer, to talk about the early days working with the Glass team, how the market has matured, where it is today and where it is heading.
When did Upskill first begin working with Glass?
Jay: Our first experience with Glass came not too far after Google I/O 2012. We believed strongly in what smart glasses could unlock for the industrial workforce, and saw the announcement as the sign for us to accelerate the development of Skylight. My first hands-on with it came in late 2012 (#ifihadglass), but it wasn’t until the launch of the Glass at Work program–predecessor to the Glass Partner program–that we were able to equip every Upskill developer (then as APX Labs) with Glass.
Brian: It was the “wearable Wild West”–5 years ago now–if you can believe it, when we were introduced to the team leading business development for Glass. We were both trying to relate to each other around a technical common ground, but very different views of where we could go with the technology. I remember meeting in a conference room at X, tucked far away from any whiff of the other moonshots, having our very first conversation around whether a delivery person wearing Glass all day at work was the right market fit versus the consumer that would use it in their daily lives. It was fascinating, frustrating, enlightening, and encouraging all in the same few hours.
Jay: Funny enough, at Google I/O 2013, we had a smart glasses demo at the YouTube playground area with Epson, who was also one of the earliest entrants into the market with their Moverio product. It wasn’t showing an industrial use case but allowed us to collect feedback on our user interface. It also got us to the first I/O after the Glass announcement!
What did you think about the Glass technology when you first saw it?
Brian: I thought the device was extremely elegant from the outside, but was very different from any other device we had used at the time. It really is a marvel in compact industrial design which carries through to the Glass Enterprise Edition. It was fun being an early “industry veteran” and still discovering something new and powerful. At the same time, the software gap on the device screamed opportunity for those with industrial experience.
Jay: I knew it was game-changing for us and would begin the trajectory of smart glasses becoming mainstream. Compared to many of smart glasses that we were working with prior to this, Glass XE was very different in that it had a monocular display positioned out of the wearer’s line of sight and featured voice and touchpad driven interfaces. These were very different from the user experience paradigms we were working with at the time, which were around semi-immersive augmented reality applications. What we wound up creating was the concept of assisted reality–a non-immersive smart glasses UX that connects to data sources and IoT-enabled sensors to provide contextually relevant information to the user.
Glassware at launch were centered around consumer use cases, and our minds obviously jumped to how we can leverage the tools and features to build industry grade applications. It wasn’t more than a couple of weeks before we had our first Skylight assisted reality prototype.
How have your views of Glass changed over time?
Brian: (Smiling) Where to begin?! When we started working with Glass, enterprise-grade devices were not really on the market, and there was an entire supply chain that had not woken up to the scale that the industry could really represent. The Explorer Edition set the whole industry in motion; think everything from optic manufacturers to computer vision for motion tracking, to silicon for micro projectors. We recognized Google’s effect of entering the market, but Glass also exposed a number of design assumptions that just didn’t play out as expected both in software and hardware. Really… who knew!? It was a bold bet. Simply put, the Explorer Edition was well named – it was a product that let us explore it, and vice versa.
Now, post the Enterprise Edition announcement, the world knows that feedback clearly wasn’t lost. Glass Enterprise Edition solves a lot of problems around balancing what the device can do with how people actually wanted to use it. When you mate those two things together, you end up with a great product.
Jay: You know, maybe it’s more so that the market changed its views, as enterprises began seeing the potential for Glass for their workforce. Glass is definitely an exciting platform; there’s just been a lot of unfair perceptions about it. The longer we worked with Glass, the more we realized how much smart thinking has gone into it, from a wearability and a usability perspective. We were excited to be one of the early adopters of the Enterprise Edition because the Glass team addressed the greatest shortcomings of the XE device to allow the deployments to get past tens of pilot users. I can’t say enough the role that the early adopter ecosystem played in having created so many of these innovations around Glass. They come from every corner of the industry and we have built many friendships along the way.
Why do you recommend Glass?
Brian: Skylight is hardware agnostic and we take a lot of pride in being an honest broker for both our customers and our hardware partners. It’s the customer’s choice which device to use – certainly which device someone chooses may vary depending on the different optimizations and capabilities they require. With Glass, there are a some real standout capabilities. It is extremely comfortable, lightweight, and responsive to both touch and voice. Certainly the X team has tuned the device from having experience in the Explorer Edition being used by untold thousands of people. It gives it a polish across a very wide breadth of applications. You also have a great company standing behind the product which is great for the whole supply chain and the customers that depend on it.
Jay: Adding to that, the X team took an approach of designing a see-through display that was careful not to obstruct one’s line of sight. The Glass touchpad built into the device remains best in class. Our software can take advantage of layering a user’s input preferences across a variety of types like voice and touch that works nicely with Glass. Tagging onto the brand comment, Google has a significant enterprise business that can also provide upgraded services like AI-driven computer vision and speech recognition that works extremely well with Glass, something that a lot of customers are exploring.
What are some of the best use cases for Skylight on Glass?
Jay: There is a sweet spot for Glass in largely indoors, light- and medium-duty environments where the focus is interacting with information. For example, a warehouse operator and assembly technicians must comfortably wear the device for 8-12 hours while working on the shop floor. Glass really shines here
Brian: I think of those applications as “smart safety glasses”. You see them on every shop floor in the world. Two of our customers, who are also investors, General Electric (GE) and The Boeing Company, both have incredible stories using Skylight on Glass Enterprise Edition. They are household names so I think most folks can imagine what their cutting edge factories look like. Many of the jobs in those spaces don’t need heavy visual immersion to change the outcomes of work, but having on-demand information delivered visually is very powerful and easy to adopt.
Now that Glass is back in the public eye, what does this mean for companies interested in adopting AR solutions?
Brian: Jay and I are pretty aligned on this one–the main message is that they can adopt AR confidently.
I’ll put this out there, when Glass took things internal and stopped promoting its offering, a lot of companies were worried. The public re-emergence answers the question of “where did it go” and “does Google see the benefits of this.”
For us and our partners, it never went away, we just had to deal with hiding in plain sight while guiding customers through AR adoption.The ROI we’ve showcased with Glass Enterprise Edition across use cases signals that the market is quickly maturing, and we expect to see adoption continue to accelerate at a global scale. In the enterprise, AR is a compelling driver for a competitive advantage. This is because companies that invest in any AR experience are investing in their workforce–they are empowering their team to be more connected, more productive and deliver a high-quality product.
In your opinion, how do you see smart glasses evolving as they move more mainstream?
Jay: I think smart glasses will continue to follow the same trajectory as smartphones. The original drivers for the smartphone were PalmPilots and Blackberries – both enterprise devices, a decade before the iPhone. Once they made a case in the business realm with large deployments, the traction was there to help smartphones evolve and break into the consumer realm. Now, everyone has a smartphone, so it’s likely we will see everyone with smart glasses one day if history continues to repeat itself.
Brian: Absolutely. I also strongly believe that it gets there faster when you have an industrial base adopting it ahead of consumer use. Case in point as Jay highlights–cell phones. It helps when the supply chain grows and stabilizes to the point it can handle the scale that consumers may want to buy at, and having mature software and tools to support the nearly infinitely more diverse use cases. When you have companies like Alphabet (Google) innovating on hardware and core services, and Upskill investing in the industrial customer base for the production of AR hardware and software, the technology continues to improve. I see a future with wafer-thin smart glasses, ubiquitous access to information, and incredible interfaces to the internet of things. To get there, we have a really fun journey through enterprise adoption.