At Google, bid to put its Glasses to work

Claire Cain Miller

SAN FRANCISCO — At the 500 Club bar in the heart of the Mission district here, patrons are banned from wearing Google Glass. Two miles up the hill at the hospital at the University of California, San Francisco, a lung surgeon wears Glass to assist him as he operates.

The contrast illustrates both the challenge and opportunity for Google as it plans to sell its Internet-connected headwear to the public later this year. Consumers have been wary of Glass. Yet it is finding more enthusiastic acceptance in the workplace: in medicine, law enforcement, manufacturing and athletics.

"I'm sure Google would love this to be a consumer technology, from a scale perspective, but I'm just not sure it is," said Chris Curran, chief technologist for the United States advisory practice of PwC, a business consulting firm.

"It's a technology that's searching for problems to solve, and it's really a matter of where do the problems emerge?" he added.

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So far, the most obvious place seems to be jobs that do not involve sitting at a desk, but where a screen with an Internet connection would come in handy. Eighty percent of workers have these jobs, according to Wearable Intelligence, which makes wearable technology software for them.

Google Glass
Ole Spata | AFP| Getty Images

Aiming at this market, Google is announcing on Tuesday a Glass for Work program to provide additional tools for business users, like tech support, and to explore how to sell Glass to more of them.

It will not necessarily be an easy sell. The privacy concerns about Glass could be an even bigger issue in certain work settings, said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. Consider meetings in which sensitive information is exchanged, for example, with a doctor or financial adviser.

Yet in many cases, he said, there are fewer privacy concerns about Glass in the workplace.

"I can think of a whole bunch of professions where Google Glass makes a lot of sense and poses almost no privacy risk at all and could be really valuable — everything from engineering to car repair to architecture to lumberjacking," Mr. Rotenberg said. "But what's interesting about all of those professions is that you're not actually interacting with a customer."

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Sullivan Solar Power, which installs solar panels in Southern California, is already using Glass; it created its own software to show technicians information like the electrical characteristics of a certain roof.

"Our construction guys and field techs, they're going up and down ladders, up on rooftops, around potentially dangerous equipment," said Michael Chagala, Sullivan's director of information technology. "To be able to have their hands free is obviously critical, and they can't bring a laptop up a ladder or see one in the sun."

Head-mounted devices have been around a long time in fields like the military, manufacturing and aviation. Glass is still just a prototype without features that workers say they need, like long battery life and protective lenses. And despite the initial interest, Glass remains a novelty at most businesses, in part because it is not yet publicly available, and for those invited to buy it, it costs $1,500. Sullivan Solar had to buy its first pair on eBay.

Yet tech investors and entrepreneurs see potential.

Start-ups that make Glass software for businesses are sprouting up, including Wearable Intelligence, Augmedix, CrowdOptic, APX Labs and Pristine. These companies have raised venture capital from investors including Emergence Capital Partners, DCM, Silicon Valley Bank and First Round Capital. Three other well-known Silicon Valley venture firms — Andreessen Horowitz, Google Ventures and Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers — also invest through Glass Collective, a partnership.

Despite privacy concerns, health care has been particularly intriguing for Glass entrepreneurs.

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Six clinics, mostly in California, are using software from Augmedix. As the doctor and patient have a conversation, the software automatically enters the patient's information into an electronic chart. Because Glass includes video, the software understands even nonverbal communication; for example, if a patient points to the part of the body that hurts.

The lung surgeon at U.C.S.F., Dr. Pierre Theodore, uses Glass when he performs minimally invasive surgery that requires the doctor to rely on imagery to guide the surgical instruments. By using Glass, Dr. Theodore can see the images from scans and the live images at the same time.

"There's relatively little shift of attention between seeing the patient in front of you and seeing critical information in your field of vision," he said. "I believe it can be and will be revolutionary."

Doctors at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston have been using Glass in the emergency room to see information like vital signs about a patient. One E.R. doctor, Dr. Steven Horng, said Glass told him that a patient with brain bleeding was allergic to several of the blood pressure medicines used to slow brain bleeding.

Wearable Intelligence, which makes the software used by Beth Israel, adds safeguards to protect medical information. Doctors are unable to take pictures or operate Glass outside the hospital, and unlike the consumer version of Glass, no information from the medical version is stored on Google servers.

Schlumberger, the multinational oil services company, also uses Glass software from Wearable Intelligence, to show checklists to technicians in the field in the United States and overseas.

"Their hands can be elbow-deep in grease and they can still navigate their checklist, hands-free," said Yan-David Erlich, founder and chief executive of Wearable Intelligence.

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Patrick Jackson, a firefighter in Rocky Mount, N.C., built a Glass app to show information from a 911 call, like a map and notes from the dispatcher, and to find the nearest hydrant. He plans to add information like floor plans and exits in buildings.

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"I'm the driver of a ladder truck, so it's helpful to see that map really quickly and get a real quick glance of where we're going," Mr. Jackson said.

Police officers from New York City to Byron, Ga., are also experimenting with Glass. Police departments could use it to collect evidence, stream video from a crime scene or settle accusations of police abuse, said Bill Switzer, a manager at Stalker Radar, which makes video technology called CopTrax for the police including software for Glass.

Glass has shown up in professional athletics, too.

Basketball players for the Sacramento Kings and Indiana Pacers have worn Glass with software from CrowdOptic to broadcast video streams to fans from their points of view, as well as during practice. It gives coaches a different view and a better understanding of court spacing and ball rotation, said Chris Granger, the Kings' chief operating officer.

Google's new program for business users will eventually address some workplace issues, said Kelly Liang, director of business development for Google Glass, as well as improve Glass for consumers.

Though many technologies, like smartphones, started in the workplace and later earned widespread adoption, companies like Google go after the consumer market because of its potential to create runaway hits. For Google, though, persuading consumers to put on Glass is going to be the hard part.

Even some of the people who swear by Glass at work say they do not wear it outside the office. "It's pretty geeky, you know?" Dr. Theodore said.

By Claire Cain Miller of The New York Times