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Google Glass's unlikely testers: Your local cops

Maggie Overfelt, Special to CNBC.com
Tuesday, 7 Jan 2014 | 6:13 AM ET

Sgt. Eric Ferris of the Byron, Ga., police department recently added to his usual law-enforcement duties the role of cutting-edge gadget reviewer. In his review, Ferris said the new technology didn't obscure his vision while driving or shooting, but it did result in "some funny looks and faces" from the public. Those funny looks should increase across the U.S. as local police forces are outfitted with wearable devices, including Google Glass, the techy eyewear that stupefied Byron's residents.

The Axon Flex is a tiny camera that can be placed anywhere on an officer's body.
Source: Taser International
The Axon Flex is a tiny camera that can be placed anywhere on an officer's body.

The select group of "Explorers" chosen by Google in 2013 to test its much-hyped Glass included some not-so-surprising choices: people with big Twitter followings; tech-sector bloggers; app CEOs, like Foursquare's Dennis Crowley; celebrities, including actor Neil Patrick Harris and Levar Burton (who wore another kind of Glass in Star Trek Next Generation); and even politicians, including Newt Gingrich.

While the nation's toughest cops might seem an unlikely group to be among the Google Glass testers—in fact, a woman in San Diego was even pulled over by a San Diego cop in October and ticketed for wearing Google Glass while driving—software developers are aiming to make the wearable tech a must-have for cops.

Flaunting their offerings at the 2013 International Association of Chiefs of Police Conference in Philadelphia, a handful of companies are configuring Google Glass to allow officers to do things like stream video of car stops and incidents back to headquarters as they're happening, receive audible alerts that they're entering an area with a possible crack house or terrorist location, and see information—photos, arrest histories, addresses—in Glass's heads-up display.

"To be able to record what's happening in real time is something we think is very important," said Bill Switzer, video product manager at CopTrax, the Plano, Texas–based developer of in-car and body-worn video and GPS tracking solutions that collaborated with engineers at Georgia Tech to fit two Google Glass headsets with its software. CopTrax, a division of speed-measurement equipment company Applied Concepts, recently outfitted two police officers in Byron with the contraption to see how the tech fared during a daylong shift of routine traffic stops, an arrest and the firing of service weapons at a range.

"The new technology didn't obscure vision ... but it did result in 'some funny looks and faces.'" -Sgt. Eric Ferris, Byron, Ga., police department,, on being one of the first police officers to wear Google Glass

Walking the wearable beat
"Overall, with the ideals that were thrown around, [Google Glass] could be a very valuable asset, especially in the areas of officer safety," Sgt. Ferris said in a video interview with CopTrax.

The key phrase is "could be." Applications for wearable devices in the workforce are a microcosm of the wearable revolution: in a nascent stage when it comes to smart, wearable electronics. Even Glass hasn't yet fully arrived. Google has been expanding its roster of "Explorers" on a limited basis but doesn't plan on a wider rollout of Glass until sometime next year, leaving developers like CopTrax in limbo until they can acquire more headsets.

Gartner analyst Angela McIntyre predicts that a broad array of heart-rate and activity monitors integrated into clothing, helmets, headsets or wristbands will one day allow tactical officers to be observed as they perform dangerous or stressful missions. Wrist-worn computers, like Eurotech's Zypad WR 11—a watertight PC that can withstand hazardous conditions--are already worn by soldiers, first responders and fieldworkers and could someday supplement or replace in-car laptops. And on-body video cameras, the one piece of wearable tech that's been used by cops for about five years, will continue to proliferate.

Undeniably the hottest sector in cop wearable tech, body-worn cameras will pull in $3 million to $5 million in global revenue this year, according to Gartner. That number will jump to between $30 million and $50 million in the U.S. alone in less than five years "if early deployments of wearable cameras meet the needs of the officers and their departments," McIntyre said.

Historically, these miniature video cameras look nothing like the souped-up versions used by science fiction cops in Hollywood movies. Clipped to an officer's lapel, belt or shirt pocket, the tiny cams aim to protect officers from unfounded complaints and reduce police misconduct—the cameras' contents are loaded automatically to a server back at headquarters. It's a response, in part, to the rise of smartphone use among the public and the amateur documentary filmmaker in everyone.

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The Taser's expanding scope
The best-known model is arguably the Axon Flex, a tiny camera made by Taser International, the Scottsdale, Ariz., maker of electrical control weapons. The Axon Flex can be placed almost anywhere on an officer's body—on a baseball cap, epaulet, motorcycle helmet or on a pair of sunglasses—but being situated as close as possible to an officer's eyes allows the video playback to better mirror what the officer sees.

"It's about using video to capture the entirety of what occurred—you have people walking around with smartphones, recording cops doing everything wrong, but that's not the way it works," said Taser spokesperson Steve Tuttle. The historical seed for the Axon Flex was planted in an accessory of the Taser X26, a weapon introduced in 2003 that came with a built-in black-and-white audio recorder. With more than 800 law-enforcement agencies currently using the video system, Axon represents Taser's fastest-growing product segment.

A recent study by Taser and the Rialto Police Department in southern California showed that during a year of deploying the Axon Flex, citizen complaints dropped by nearly 88 percent and police use of force dropped by 59 percent—it's inevitable that someday every police officer will be wearing a camera, experts contend.

"We've found that [with the Axon Flex], instances of complaints on officers were drastically reduced, instances where use of force was necessary was reduced, and many times in regards to those complaints, when you have video evidence, you can quell them pretty quickly," said Sgt. Tony Landato, media relations supervisor for the Mesa Police Department in Mesa, Ariz., which is planning to outfit most of its 350 patrol officers with Axon Flexes over the next three years.

Vast improvements in video technology are still needed, especially when it comes to capturing the nuances of officers' jobs—tiny details picked up by experienced officers that could provide extremely useful in court.

"Say in a vehicle stop you noticed that the passenger and driver look over at a pedestrian and make eye contact that may affect behavior; maybe the pedestrian turns around or walks away—those are things that make the hair stand up on the back of a cop's neck," said Sid Heal, the chairperson for strategy development at the National Tactical Officers Association and retired commander of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. "Those subtleties, which can make a difference between life and death on the street, are virtually impossible to pick up on camera."

Back to (smart) basics
There is at least one additional area of wearable tech betting it can change the nature of law enforcement, but it's infinitely less sexy than Axon Flex and Google Glass: lighted safety vests.

GammaBrite, founded 18 months ago by three law-enforcement veterans and headed by former NFL linebacker Tom Graham in Denver, is currently producing its first 100 safety vests. Unlike traditional reflective vests that light up only when light hits them, GammaBrite's vests effectively place the light source—crushable, electroluminescent lamps—onto the wearer.

"The light panels are flexible; you can bend them around your finger," said Graham, whose firm licenses the technology.

Getting police departments on board has been somewhat of a hard sell. "If it's not black, Velcro and tactical, they don't want to use it," said GammaBrite founder Joseph Lovett, noting that the Denver Police Department beta-tested his product with favorable results. GammaBrite sees many markets beyond law enforcement—airport maintenance workers, whose work is largely performed at night, is a huge one—but making police safer is a priority.

"When you're looking at the Officer Down Memorial [a register of officers killed in the line of duty in the U.S.] and you see how many are killed roadside, it's because they're not seen; they're not lit," Lovett said.

No Glass, no matter how cutting edge, can solve that field-of-vision problem. Law enforcement, with its high levels of risk and stress, is quickly becoming a professional proving ground for both the most novel and most practical concepts fashioned from the wearable tech era.

By Maggie Overfelt, Special to CNBC.com

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