Google on Wednesday offered a look at a previously secret project to develop Internet-connected glasses, staking out a lead position in a futuristic and fast-growing area known as wearable computing.
The glasses, which are still in a prototype stage, would place a small see-through display screen above a person’s eye that can show maps and other data. The wearer could use voice commands to, say, pull up directions or send a message to a friend.
Apple, a major Google rival, is also reportedly working on wearable computers. In April 2008, the company filed a patent for a head-mounted display system that showed glasses with screens, but Google has amassed some of the leading experts in the field within Google X, a company lab responsible for such projects that was also something of a company secret before Wednesday.
Richard DeVaul, a former Apple engineer who specializes in wearable computers, left that company last year to join Google X. DeVaul’s Web site said he is now a “rapid evaluator,” working in a team at Google run by Astro Teller, who specializes in artificial intelligence and wearable devices.
Another Google employee, Babak Parviz, who is also an associate professor at the University of Washington, specializes in bionanotechnology, the fusion of biology and technology focused on manipulating atoms and molecules. He most recently built a contact lens with embedded electronics that form a miniature display — raising the possibility that Project Glass, as Google is calling the eyeglass effort, could become Project Contact Lens at some point.
“This puts Google out in front of Apple — they are a long way ahead at this point,” said Michael Liebhold, a senior researcher specializing in wearable computing at the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto, California. “In addition to having a superstar team of scientists who specialize in wearable, they also have the needed data elements, including Google Maps.”
Liebhold said the prototype was “much less dorky-looking than all of the heads-up displays we’ve seen to date.”
“Of course, it could be really annoying, but if it’s handled well, it could be a nice complement to reality,” he said.
Some more basic wearable computers are quickly becoming everyday products. Nike began selling a bracelet called the FuelBand earlier this year that tracks a person’s activity. A company called Jawbone sells a similar monitoring device called Up. Motorola sells a head-mounted display device aimed at business use called the Golden-I, with the screen on an arm that hangs in front of the wearer’s face.
The design prototype Google unveiled on Wednesday looks more like a well-designed pair of wraparound glasses — but with no actual glass in the frames. A person working on the project said Google was having its employees test out dozens of other designs, with the goal of giving outsiders access to an early version later this year.
Although some may salivate at the idea of these sci-fi toys, it is unclear whether people will want to wander the streets with a screen in their field of view.
Yet people who have seen and used working prototypes said there seemed to be a misconception that the glasses would interfere with daily life, by bombarding the wearer with information and distracting them from the real world.
“They let technology get out of your way. If I want to take a picture, I don’t have to reach into my pocket and take out my phone; I just press a button at the top of the glasses, and that’s it,” one such person said.