Google Glass rises like a phoenix, but now it is only targeting enterprises

Still housed inside Alphabet’s X moonshot division, Google Glass Enterprise Edition (Glass EE) has been relaunched – sort of. Back from a forced public-facing retirement, the augmented reality (AR) wearable is now being targeted squarely at the enterprise – as an aid for workers who might already have their hands full. Glass was ‘graduated’ from X, after Google gave up on its consumer vision, but the sort-of-new Enterprise team has been firmly housed inside the incubator.

While Google, now Alphabet, ended the public beta for Glass, it didn’t really stop working on it. The beta drew a lot of attention from businesses that recognized the potential for a hands-free voice-enabled screen and interface, and in the two years that have passed, a large list of customers has been signed. No figures are available for the number of units sold, but it is likely in the thousands.

Adopters have reported big jumps in productivity and quality, and while the beta versions were expensive, around $1,500, that’s a very small outlay to be recouped in increased output from each worker. For skilled workers, that might be a return-on-investment (ROI) within a week.

The hardware is also rather unobtrusive. One could be forgiven for mistaking the Glass EE for safety eye protection, were it not for the bulkier leg that houses the computational hardware. Thanks to the lightweight design, there is no concern of neck fatigue, which some of the bulkier AR and VR systems – such as DAQRI’s initial designs – might generate.

The newly designed Glass EE was shipped to select partners back in January 2015, under strict instructions that the new version could not be seen in public – and that any promotional material had to use the now-buried consumer variant, called Explorer Edition.

New features include making the compute module (the Glass Pod) detachable, meaning that they can be easily used with regular vision-correcting glasses, as well as regular safety glasses that Google also provides. Better WiFi connectivity and a longer battery life have been worked in, as well as an upgrade from a 5-megapixel camera to 8MP.

In the announcement, Glass’ project lead Jay Kothari, points to the difference between a cumbersome engine assembly manual used by GE Aviation mechanics and the new Glass. It’s a fairly blunt comparison, but it is true that a well-designed system could significantly reduce the amount of time a worker has to spend on peripheral tasks or functions, leading to improved efficiency. However, the main value here is the software and integration.

Kothari added “we first saw signs of Glass’ potential for businesses in the Glass Explorer days. As we said when we graduated, we’d been seeing incredible developments with Glass in the workplace. Now the Glass product team is back at X, and we’ll be collaborating with the Google Cloud team and our partners to help customers across a variety of business sectors make the most of Glass. Together, we’re looking forward to seeing more businesses give their workers a way to work faster and in a more focused way, hands-free.”

The list of confirmed customers includes AGCO, Agravis, CHI Health, Christina Care, Damm, DHL, Dignity Health, Eastern Maine Medical Center, Fendt, Fiege, GE, General Energy Management Systems, Klosterfrau Healthcare, Koni, Labens, Mark Vend Co., McKinsey&Company, Noovle, NSF, Opel, Penny Market, Radiocom Danmark, Samsung, Schnellecke Logistics, Sutter Health, Syncreon, Tecno Solutions, TriHealth, Trinity Health, University of Saskatchewan, Volkswagen, VWR, and WSC.
As for Glass Partners, that list reads Augmedix, Aira, EyeSucceed, Hodei Technology, Picavi, Proceedix, Streye, Ubimax, Upskill, Qizzan, swyMed, and Brain Power.

AGCO’s assembly line workers were prominent in the launch, since they are using the system to guide staff through the steps required to assemble its agricultural equipment. It reports a 25% reduction in production times on low volume high complexity assembly tasks, such as components in its Challenger and Massey Ferguson tractors, which are often unique to the custom order.

AGCO bought its first test unit in 2013, and used Proceedix to develop the software and stack needed to integrate it with the work process. It currently has around 100 Glass EE units, and plans to expand that to between 500 and 1,000 over the next 18-months.
Elsewhere, GE has noted a 46% reduction in pick times for its warehouse workers, and its GE Aviation wing has been using the system in conjunction with WiFi-enabled power tools.

DHL is planning on expanding its Ubimax-powered picking deployment to all of its global logistics centers, after noticing a 15% improvement in supply chain efficiency, and Augmedix is a company that has sprung up to offer transcription services for doctors to use during their medical examinations. Dignity Health, an Augmedix customer, reported a reduction in data-entry times from 33% to under 10% of a day, with patient interactions climbing from 35% to 70%.

As for rivals, Vuzix – in which Intel holds a 30% stake – is perhaps the most prominent in terms of direct competition. Intel’s RealSense is not a direct competitor to Glass, and there are reports that the current version of Glass runs on Intel silicon – which could to pose a problem for Google moving forward, given that Intel has pulled the plug on its low power IoT processor line. Daqri is also in an awkward place, thanks to that Intel decision.

Google’s smart glasses had not enjoyed much in the way of good press, so the decision to end the Explorer program came as no great surprise. Pulling the controversial eyewear back from the burning spotlight helped salvage its reputation, letting people forget their vitriol. But in the meantime, others have been jumping into the breach, not least Microsoft with its new HoloLens augmented reality headset.

Fundamentally misunderstood by those who thought Glass was a finished product, didn’t realize they were buying a development kit, and were then upset by the $1,500 price tag, those buyers who did brave the public’s gaze were swiftly branded ‘Glassholes’ by people who found the head-mounted camera sinister – and some were even attacked for their decision to wear the smart glasses, while an app that forced Glass from local WiFi networks enjoyed a surge of popularity upon launch.

The bad press seemed relentless, with teardowns proclaiming that, based on component costs, the glasses were a rip off, and reports of bar fights instigated by the mere presence of the lenses. While the device was certainly expensive, it offered a glimpse of the future – where augmented reality visual overlays seamlessly fed information to their wearers.