Why Google is making Glass up as it goes

By the time Google Glass reaches Australian consumers, it will bear the benefits of years of prototyping and development in enterprise.

Google Glass isn’t coming to a store near you in Australia anytime soon but when it does, it won’t carry a whopping $1500 price tag. The real question will be just who will be lining up to buy it.

Wearables have got a lot of people excited and while some of the exuberance may seem far-fetched, news of Google Glass being made available to the general public in the US turned quite a few heads this month.

It’s being hailed as another big step for Google Glass as it inches closer to becoming the next big thing since the iPhone. But what about that $1500 price tag -- especially when the actual manufacturing and hardware cost has been pegged somewhere around the $150 mark? Will the average punter be willing to pay that sort of price to get their hands on Google Glass? Not a chance.

But the good news is that they won’t have to.

Google Glass’ journey to antipodean shores will probably be a two-fold affair: one device designed for enterprises, and another made more palatable for the general public. It’s an important distinction because Google Glass’ appeal is unlike anything a smartphone, tablet, or a smartwatch can provide, with the promise of becoming the utilitarian learning tool of the future.  

Medical institutions have been dabbling with Google Glass for a while but the ambition on display by the School of Medicine at the University of California, Irvine, indicates just what might be in store. The medical school is set to fully integrate the device into its curriculum, with every student given a chance test-drive its usefulness. From operating theatres to anatomy classes, Google Glass-toting medical students will be using the device to see the patient in a different light.

In Australia, Telstra is also anchoring its trials with a clear focus on the medical side of things. The telco has been testing Google Glass apps on a select group of Telstra employees with vision and hearing impairment, to understand how the device may assist people with disabilities. The app for the vision-impaired enables users to receive audio descriptions of objects in front of them, while the app for the hearing-impaired transcribes speech to enable the user to follow conversations, meetings and conferences.

Other businesses are developing more commercial applications for Google Glass. Developers at online jobs marketplace Airtasker have been prototyping the device since July last year with an eye (pardon the pun) to focusing on “the bigger picture”. So far they’ve developed three Glass apps to support Airtasker’s existing interface: one that allows users to post and accept tasks seamlessly using speech and GPS; a second that uses facial recognition to improve safety and increase trust among users; and a third that incorporates location data to create targeted jobs feeds.

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Airtasker founder Tim Fung says if consumers widely adopt Google Glass, these apps would help Airtasker considerably widen its distribution channels. The third feature, he hopes, would also improve the service by dramatically reducing the time it takes for tasks to be completed.

“Ninety-three per cent of jobs on Airtasker are ascribed within the working day that they’re posted, so already we have a fairly compressed timeline, but what we’re trying to do is compress that further so that the average job is completed in 15 minutes," Fung says.

This type of early prototyping with emerging technology not only allows organisations to gain a greater understanding of Glass' capabilities, but will in part dictate how Google eventually markets the product in Australia.

What will the Glass Age look like?

Apart from the form factor, Google Glass could be the first step in ushering in an age of infinite screens -- one in which watches, glasses, phones, and TVs are all linked together, each serving a separate function.

Smartwatches and Google Glass are both capable of providing simple notifications but only the Glass aspires to provide a rich, immersive experience. Google’s decision to give everyday users a chance -- albeit a pricey one -- to test the product is another incremental step in the internet search giant’s quest to provide that level of immersion.

“Google Glass is going to be the most personal computing experience you will ever have,” says app developer b2cloud’s managing director Josh Guest. Guest’s company has spent the last six months working with Telstra on the Google Glass apps and he says that corporate Australia is starting to pay attention.

Staying ahead of the curve on emerging technology, according to Guest, is going to be a key differentiator when it comes to connecting with customers.

“There’s a lot of stuff coming through on the treadmill of emerging technology and the key for big companies is to not pick one particular technology but to build a mechanism to test which one works best,” he says.

Forrester Research’s JP Gowender is a firm believer that wearable technologies like Google Glass will be a better fit in the enterprise space than for everyday consumers -- at least in the near term. From field force management to inventory control, as an instructional tool or a customer service interface for the retail sector, the Google Glass has the potential to provide solutions that a smartphone or tablet can’t provide -- so it’s more than likely that the first wholesale release will be in the enterprise space.

But will it replace smartphones as our device of choice? Success in the enterprise space could potentially mean that it's perceived as a work-only tool, curbing mainstream adoption. But b2cloud’s Guest doesn’t buy this, saying that as the technology is pushed to its limits and businesses start to implement devices like Google Glass, consumers will follow suit.

“While a lot of the demonstrations have been industry-focused, they do inspire the everyday user to think about how they can use it for everyday life."

For that to happen, Google, developers like b2cloud and businesses like Airtasker need to push the boundaries of every component of the Google Glass -- the camera, the software, the audio -- and the myriad ways the device can be used.

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