Google aims to be first out with glasses that connect to the Web, but a rival may win the race. Meanwhile, some observers see only a new, potentially fatal, distraction.
Wearable IT on its way, but not without perils
Google has launched an era in personal communications with the unveiling of Project Glass.
The internet search giant based in the United States has developed a pair of glasses with a wireless internet connection that could soon start to replace smartphones.
Loyal Googlers who have tried the glasses believe the devices have the potential to transform our lives for the better. However, some industry watchers believe that Google must first address crucial health and safety issues.
The glasses incorporate sufficient technology to replace other products such as smartphones and tablets for many users. At the same time, they are sufficiently well designed to qualify as the latest digital fashion accessory.
Google has already profiled some typical users such as a young mother recording images of her new baby smiling up at her and sending them instantaneously to relatives abroad. It is understood that Google glasses will also be used to access services such as Facebook. The new glasses will also be able to access computer gaming and other online entertainment.
In other words, they can do most of what an iPad or smartphone can while also offering new applications. The prototype of the Google glasses is already being sold to selected computer programmers with applications developers able to buy a pair for US$1,500 (Dh5,509) early next year.
However, there are still believed to be some battery issues for Google to solve before the glasses reach the general market, which is expected to happen in early 2014.
But, according to the Silicon Valley guru Rob Enderle, the principal analyst at the Enderle Group, Google's new glasses could be genuinely dangerous.
"Messing with the eyes is very risky and you have to make sure that you do it in a way that doesn't increase our isolation from the real world," says Mr Enderle. "Otherwise we'll see the kinds of dangers that have been introduced with smartphones [distracted driving/walking] become far worse and the related accidents far more common."
There are also fears that as little is known about the long-term health effects of radio waves used to send and receive digital data, having an always-on wireless internet connection so close to the brain is also starting to sound alarm bells.
But there seems little doubt that consumers are about to move out of the smartphone era and into the age of wearable information technology.
According to Sarah Rotman Epps, an analyst at the international research company Forrester: "Wearables are proving their utility in numerous industries … In the past year, consumer wearables such as the BodyMedia Armband and Nike+ FuelBand have proliferated in the health and fitness space."
So far, wearable IT has been deployed in specific environments such as hospitals or sports. But the technology will soon be adopted by a far broader user base.
"In 2012, we'll see wearables begin to break out of communication, health and fitness to other verticals such as navigation, social networking, gaming and commerce," predicts Ms Rotman Epps.
She believes that Google is well placed to use its vast database of maps and street images to offer new mobile services to wearers of the new glasses.
"Maps and navigation are an obvious early use of the glasses, but they also hold promise for augmented reality in other verticals. Videogames, for example, could be mapped on to real physical space; Google glasses wearers could see events in the game overlaid on the real environment," says Ms Rotman Epps.
But Google is far from the first to try to blaze a trail in the market for wearable IT, nor will it be the last. Over a decade ago, at the height of the dot-com boom, the Dutch electronics giant Philips created garments such as "the smart bikini", the fabric of which contained metallic thread that the manufacturer claimed would enable the wearer to play music files and even make calls.
At the time, companies such as Nokia were already testing smart goggles that required a battery pack the size of a large brick.
However, although the technology powering Google's new glasses is more advanced than that of a decade ago, there is still a question mark over whether Google will be the first to deliver wearable IT for mass consumption.
"Google has one overwhelming weakness; they don't really understand people," says Mr Enderle. "So while I eventually expect a technology like this to transform personal electronics, I think it will take a company that better understands what will be required to get us to love and adopt it - without injuring or killing ourselves in the process - to make this go."
Some analysts, including Ms Rotman Epps, believe that other companies with a more established reputation in consumer electronics may leapfrog Google.
"Apple has the most polished marketing, channel and brand," she says. "Apple, more than any other company, has the potential to make any product go mainstream. Witness skyrocketing sales of the iPad."
But whichever manufacturer comes to dominate, it now seems certain that we are finally entering the era of wearable IT.
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