Wearable web access?

From voice-activated screens to smart glass, a wave of new technology is set to launch this year

PUBLISHED : Friday, 12 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 12 April, 2013, 10:00am

We've had smartphones and smart cars. Now it's time to embrace smart glass. After a few years of being touted as next-generation prototype tech, the last few months of this year look likely to witness the unleashing of the first products from Google's "Project Glass" research into wearable computing.

It could be an eye-opener. Video glasses for movies and gaming have been around for a while, but we'll see a slew of both virtual and augmented reality headsets launched this year.

The first experiments with smart glass will be Google's Glass Explorer Edition, which could cost as little as HK$6,000 when they are launched this autumn. Details coming out of the secretive Google X Lab are scant, but we know that "glass" will put augmented reality centre stage, letting its wearers navigate a city by overlaying Google Maps onto real life. The headset, which will use Bluetooth to link up to Android and iOS devices, can show information, directions and even video to the wearer's right eye via a tiny transparent screen that appears to be nearby. This allows the human eye to read from the screen while keeping one eye on reality - and crucially without refocusing.

Saying "OK, glass, record video", "OK, glass, check e-mail" or "OK, glass, search the web for …" effectively creates a voice-activated Siri-style personal assistant. User-generated videos and photos can be sent to others merely by voice instruction, as can e-mails, text messages and calls - and hundreds of other uses that haven't been thought of yet.

"Project Glass is a wearable solution that uses pieces of smart glass with a heads-up display (HUD) to seamlessly blend the virtual world of smartphones and computers with the real world of people and places," says Dr Kevin Curran, senior member at the New York-based Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. "They leverage communication technology like social networking, calling and texting, creating a type of meta-reality."

For those who take the plunge, "smart glass" will massively change the way the web is consumed.

"From typing with 10 fingers on a keyboard to using just one or two fingers on a touch screen, wearable technology will now shift web consumption to the auditory level," says Gowthaman Ragothaman, chief client officer for Asia Pacific and CEO, South Asia and Southeast Asia, at Mindshare, a global media agency that counts Google among its clients.

"So far, Siri and other voice-enabled experiments done by various companies have only been positive."

Smart glass screens will get lighter, thinner, foldable and flexible, Ragothaman reckons. "Web consumption will become a lot more natural, and quite a few repeatable actions will become automatic."

Google won't be alone. Vuzix has come up with its own smart glass prototype called M100 - due to launch this summer - which superimposes computer-generated images and information onto the wearer's view of reality. It comes with an high-definition camera and global positioning system (GPS) for "head tracking" and can show the wearer exactly where to walk to reach a destination.

It can also mirror a smartphone. Physically, it consists of a tiny screen held just above your left eye; it resembles an enormous hands-free Bluetooth headset, but is it the same as Google's Explorer?

The main difference is that the M100 isn't transparent, says Mike Hallett, director of sales for North America at Vuzix, who sees it as more of a replacement than a smartphone accessory.

"The M100 has a built-in processor, so it has the brains to do almost anything a mobile phone can do," he says. "It runs Android OS, so can also connect directly to the internet, coupled with a 1080p camera, a WQVGA colour display, Wi-fi, Smart Bluetooth, GPS, Compass, Vuzix head tracker, micro-USB, micro-SD slot and the usual Android OS facilities. It's a completely functional device on its own."

The uses for such headsets are myriad; while one person may want to have constant updates on stock quotes, another might need directions or instant translation of signs and maps. "It is all about information access on the go, when you want it," Hallett says.

Stylistically, at least, smart glass will be an acquired taste. "I must admit that a lot needs to be done with the head-mounted display to make the device less intrusive," Ragothaman says. "It will need to be made into a fashion statement or a fashion accessory to become socially acceptable."

Hallett thinks "eyewear" will become the norm very quickly as the technology becomes less obtrusive to blocking vision, and also because wearable technology isn't a new thing.

"Many trades and leisure pursuits already 'accept' head-mounted gear as head torches, intelligent ski goggles and earpieces," Hallett says. "Wearable technologies are not new, but what is, are the functions of wearable devices and the form factors."

Wearable computing as a whole is set to explode. Analysts at ABI Research forecast that 485 million of us will be wearing something techie within five years - and that includes everything from web-connected pacemakers to wearable cameras. There's even a T-shirt that charges up from the wearer's body heat to refuel a smartphone.

However, smart glass could have a more socially acceptable and affordable wearable rival in the familiar form of a wristwatch. Both Apple and Samsung are rumoured to be ready with a smart watch, either or both of which might make use of flexible screen technology.

Telling the time will be just one of many features, with Bluetooth integration with a smartphone - including call answering, voice-activated texting and web searching - also likely. Smart watches could also be used to make purchases and act like an Octopus card, as well as being a wearable remote control for home entertainment, lights and heating.

Such gadgets are just the beginning of a trend towards a wearable web that could blur into "cyborg" style implants and body modifications. Neurotechnology company Emotiv's EPOC neuroheadset that can read brain signals has been used for everything from visual arts and music production to operating an electric wheelchair, while similar technology is being developed to control computers and television sets.

Is this evolution's next step? In its recent report into wearable computing, creative intelligence service company Stylus described smart glass as just the beginning of a trend towards deeper "transhumanism".

"Concerns about magnifying intelligence, improving physiology and extending life are at the core of both professional and amateur practices," says Clare Acheson, contributing editor at Stylus magazine. Eye implants that record and transmit video and now being developed, as are magnetic implants that let users "feel" electric currents around them.

Such sensory-enhancing "cyborg" technology, however, carries health risks.

"It is a 'psychological' challenge to have so many choices that we never had before," Ragothaman says. "We are becoming spoilt with options and the sheer fact that so much information is available. It's become more than an addiction to 'always-on' gadgets; it's now a big stress and a distraction."