Last summer, Ian Shakil, then a recent graduate of Stanford business school, got to try on Google’s head-mounted computing device, Google Glass, earlier than almost anyone outside the company.
Hanging out with some Google employee friends at San Francisco’s Dolores Park, he put on a pair and decided he’d just glimpsed the future of computing. Shakil, who at the time was working as a consultant to MC10, a flexible electronics company, says, “I had that epiphany moment: I’d quit my job, and devote myself to creating a startup.”
Completely new gadget categories aren’t created very often. But when they are, they can disrupt existing businesses and create massive opportunities for new startups that build the killer apps for the new big thing. The shockwaves created by the iPhone and its App Store, for instance, are still being felt across the computer industry.
It’s uncertain whether Glass will have a similar impact, but Google is creating high expectations that it will become a mass-market device. While being secretive about certain key details, it intends to start selling Glass this year and has already been looking for outsiders’ ideas that could help make the device a hit.
Last month, Google held two-day hackathons for selected developers in New York and San Francisco. (It had “Glass Foundry” attendees sign agreements to stay silent about their experiences.) It has also given early access to certain, but not all, developers of popular smartphone apps that could be a natural fit for Glass’s tiny, head-worn, Android-powered display.
For instance, Evernote’s CEO Phil Libin has had one in the office for awhile and says his company was among the earliest to get a pair. His company makes software that lets users save notes to themselves on their devices. But his team is still figuring out how to adapt its app for the device, he says. Makers of many other popular apps have yet to get access to the device.
The first third-party Glass apps for everyday users won’t be disruptive market forces, says venture capitalist David Blumberg. His firm, Blumberg Capital, is an investor in two startups working with augmented reality technology, a related but more radical interface that overlays information accurately over real-world objects; augmented reality has struggled to find compelling uses on smartphones.
“[Glass] may offer a new way of getting the information, but a lot of that data is already collected [on phones],” he says. Early apps could be evolutionary, not revolutionary, because it’s hard to build a new business when few people have it in their hands, he adds.
Even Shakil, who soon after that experience spent days with friends brainstorming hundreds of business ideas, acknowledges that it could take time for the technology to catch on. “There’s no shortage of really amazing businesses that could be built, but we think it’s going to be a long time before people outside of San Francisco will be wearing Glass to the mall,” he says.
That’s why the idea he settled on for his new company, Augmedix, is making a Google Glass app for doctors, not for their patients. Though he won’t get more specific about what his app will do, he says his company is already testing it with medical facilities using the Vuzix M100, another smart glasses gadget coming out this year.
Others also seem to believe that Glass will find initial value in specialized uses, including job-related functions that are done away from a computer. Khan Academy software engineer Stephanie Chang, who was at the Foundry events, has ideas such as creating a Glass app for teachers, who could be notified as they give a lecture which students are struggling.
And another Foundry hackathon attendee, Det Ansinn, is the CEO of a Web and mobile application development firm hailing from Doylestown, Pennsylvania, that has clients including companies that develop software for property managers, hospitals staff, and SWAT teams. He imagines Glass being marketed to, say, a property manager, who might be willing to slip on a pair for his job, especially if it allows him to be more efficient—say, documenting a repair while actually making it.
With $55,000 raised so far on the crowdfunding site Upstart, a cofounder from Stanford’s medical school, and a berth in Stanford’s Venture Labs, Shakil hopes the Augmedix app will be one of earliest third-party Glass apps available after launch. Erik Nordlander, engineering partner at Google Ventures, is an individual investor in Augmedix.
However, there are big unknowns, even for someone with Shakil’s Google connections, such as how restrictive and controlling Google will be with the apps it approves, and the details of its API, which will set the policies of how third-party software can integrate with the device. Next week, at the South by Southwest tech conference, Google may reveal more details.
If Glass adoption builds, more radical paradigm shifts are possible, says Misha Chellam, Blumberg Capital’s resident entrepreneur. Augmented reality apps have had a hard time taking off because smartphones are an awkward platform for that kind of interaction, he says. It’s a classic story of a technology sometimes being too early for its time, but the hardware may now be catching up.
And although some companies have been given early access to Glass, new business opportunities could be anyone’s game. Ryan Warner, a student at Champlain College and an Android developer, signed up as a Glass developer on a whim when Google showed off a video at its I/O developer event last year; he got a slot at the Glass Foundry event in New York last month.
Google said there were more than 80 new ideas created at the hackathons. Warner, whose Android apps include a tip calculator, a virtual Rolodex, and an animated cat that kneads bread, can’t talk about his idea yet, but he can share this: he and his friends were on one of the eight winning teams in New York.