During the Iraq War in 2003, Dave Lorenzini, then a director of a struggling mapping technology firm called Keyhole, approached Walter Isaacson, then-CEO of news network CNN, about using Keyhole’s technology to help news presenters describe events on the ground in Iraq.
Keyhole, which Sony’s venture capital fund backed to the tune of US$6m, was suddenly a fixture on prime-time news. It had amassed 5m new web visitors and struck syndication deals with several other TV networks, as well as deals with car brands, such as Audi and Volkswagen.
The sudden emergence of Keyhole caught the attention of Sergey Brin, co-founder of Google, and the internet search giant acquired the company in 2004.
Keyhole is known to most people today as Google Earth, a scaled version map of the planet into which Google is pumping US$500m a year to add layers of digital information that can be accessed on virtually any smart device.
For Lorenzini, Google Earth represented just the beginning of a new shift in computing. This shift will leave behind the idea of the internet as something consumers experience on desktops and smartphones to something that will inform consumers with the knowledge they need in real-time through a myriad of devices, from smartphones to smart watches to Google Glass eyewear.
Today Lorenzini is the CEO of the Glassware Foundry, one of the world’s first apps firms targeting Google’s new eyewear.
Lorenzini will be in Dublin soon along with marketing chiefs from L’Oreal, Maybelline, McLaren and Renault at Ireland’s first conference on augmented reality.
Google Glass is a wearable computer with an optical head-mounted display that communicates with the internet via voice commands and gestures. For example, a wink will make the device take a picture.
Google Glass is expected to go on sale this summer for around US$300 and is expected to have the same impact on the technology world as the Apple iPhone had in 2007.
Already Google has created four prescription frame choices and has entered into partnerships with firms such as Luxottica, owner of the Ray-Ban and Oakley sunglasses brands.
“There’s a massive shift occurring and 2014 is the year," Lorenzini said. "We’re on the edge of this – look at how Facebook just bought Oculus Rift for US$2bn and is taking a bet on the future of gaming and telepresence. This new computing world – the wearable revolution – is going to change the way that people will look at the world."
Apps for Google Glass
Glassware Foundry, a privately owned enterprise not affiliated with Google, is fostering a community of software developers who will come up with the killer apps that will make Google Glass compelling in 2014.
Tech giants from Intel to Sony are gearing up for what many expect will be a hardware revolution in the form of wearable-computing devices.
Samsung has already introduced its Galaxy Gear smart watch, and devices such as the Pebble smart watch, funded via the Kickstarter crowdfunding platform, are all the rage.
Google is understood to be planning a smart watch while Apple has been rumoured to be planning its own iWatch.
Yet eyeballs are where Lorenzini believes the real action will be. He has been wearing Google Glass and has begun to receive a sense of what it is good for and when it is most helpful.
“Travelling has been made an even more magical experience," he said. "I could be in Beijing and I could ask the device to tell me how to ask for something in Mandarin. Or I could simply look at a sign in Moscow and the Glass device will automatically translate what I’m looking at into English right before my eyes."
Lorenzini added he believes these devices will prove remarkable in the business and education worlds, and parents will buy millions of them to help their kids with schoolwork.
Just this week, in fact, Google launched a Glass at Work programme to encourage app developers to come up with productivity apps to make the Glass eyewear useful in the workplace.
Yet as the Mac versus Windows debate of the desktop world in the 1990s morphed into the iPhone versus Android debate of the smartphone world today, Google’s foray into wearable devices with Google Glass is just one of a number of steps that is proving to be divisive in the tech world.
Google’s Explorer programme
Wearers of the device in the US have been described as elitist ‘Glassholes’ because only a lucky few have had an opportunity to try out the device as part of Google’s Explorer programme. Others have voiced concerns about privacy and safety. Do others know if a wearer is taking a picture or shooting a video, and is it safe to drive while wearing Google Glass?
In a bar in San Francisco, California, recently one Glass wearer was assaulted because fellow patrons believed she was filming them. Google itself has been moved to issue guidelines on etiquette for wearers of the device so as not to perturb the public.
“There’s always going to be a crowd that doesn’t get something that’s new, or fears it, doesn’t understand the benefits or just don’t want to," said Lorenzini.
“Yet take these devices into a school or a university and the kids go crazy for them. They are going to grow up in a world where information they need is simply going to flood into their vision."
This is where Lorenzini’s fascination with real-world mapping in terms of Google Earth, Google Street View and technologies such as augmented reality come into play. He believes people wearing the devices will just have to look at street buildings, for example, to see if there are jobs going or offices or hotel rooms available to rent.
Up until now, augmented reality – a technology that layers additional information such as animations, video or text on top of something consumers may be looking at through a smartphone camera – has been a slowly developing technology. With the onset of Glass, Lorenzini aims to be in the vanguard of a new apps movement.
He said apps pertaining to fitness, music, communications and mapping are literally at the same stage of evolution as apps were for the iPhone in 2007. That’s about to change.
“All the problems of early technologies seem to fade away once people understand the benefits of these technologies. And that’s what’s going to happen with Glass. The benefits will outweigh the problems," Lorenzini said.
For instance, if someone is having a heart attack or a stroke, this technology could be used to relay first-aid data to the user and a user can talk in real-time with a doctor who will see what the user is doing.
“This technology could push information into your view that could literally save a life and that will start to sway public opinion," Lorenzini said.
“The rest will happen through fashion, culture and art. Video gaming is going to completely change with games coming into the real world."
Wearable tech in business
Lorenzini also pointed to the business world, where real-estate agents can create apps that will use the eyewear technology to allow potential buyers to virtually walk through a property.
He added that Google’s deal with Luxottica is just one of a number of deals Google will establish with major fashion conglomerates.
“There won’t be this stigma of wearing a gadget on your head, you’ll eventually just be wearing your Oakleys or Ray-Bans, and that’s where Google will really win," said Lorenzini.
“These devices will eventually become something people won’t feel conspicuous about wearing. These devices will become the stuff people will want to wear."
The point, said Lorenzini, is this is the most exciting year in decades for this kind of visual technology and it’s all about the hardware, the computer vision software, voice and gesture control and the internet working together.
“This is the year where it all begins to come together."