The Air Force tests Google Glass. (Richard Eldridge/Air Force)
Editor’s Note: This story was written, and originally published, prior to the planned GEOINT 2013 conference in October 2013. Robert Scoble and Shel Israel are again keynote speakers on the GEOINT 2013* agenda, slated for April 16.
The civilian world is moving fast toward technology that will let consumers visualize and share their experiences in rich geographic context, all backed by cloud computing and futuristic apps that will anticipate their needs.
Smartphones are the visible face of the technological wave, but journalists Robert Scoble and Shel Israel foresee a transition in their new book, “Age of Context.” Wearable computers, like the 49-gram Google Glass eyewear, will be the next “flagship” technology, one that will begin a decades-long process of putting the human anatomy in charge of one’s digital context.
Information won’t be at your fingerprints. It’ll be in front of your eyes, with your head and eye movements controlling the information you collect and share. In 20 or 25 years, nano-technology implants could make the link between your anatomy and the digital world seamless, Israel says.
It’s a bold prediction.
Scoble knows about the “Saturday Night Live” parody ridiculing early adopters of Google Glass, of which he is one. He paid $1,500 for a set. Scoble concedes Glass is the “most controversial product in my lifetime,” but he’s convinced it will one day be viewed as a disruptive technology that came to change how we live.
“It certainly is the Apple II. It’s expensive. It has no software,” Scoble says. “But I’m seeing the developers get excited by it, and that tells me that it has legs,” he says.
If he and Israel are right, new wearable computers could emerge as important tools for ground troops who are just beginning to use commercial smartphones plugged into their radios or in some cases wirelessly over deployable cellular base stations.
The last few years have marked quite a shift for the Army. The service was so notoriously slow to embrace smartphones that troops in Iraq and Afghanistan went out and bought their own. The Army is ahead of the curve when it comes to wearable computers, however.
Like Scoble, officials at the Army’s Mission Command Complex at Fort Bliss, Texas, are assessing Google Glass. They’re doing it in a variety of pilot projects.
“It’s really too early in the process to say if this is a technology that we need to provide on a large scale,” said the Army’s Mike McCarthy, leader of the mobile technology project at Fort Bliss, Texas. “We don’t have the luxury or budget to throw money at every new technology that comes out,” he cautions. But Google Glass, he says, is worth assessing, and so the Army is on it.
Scoble and Israel will deliver a joint keynote address at the U.S. Geospatial Intelligence Foundation’s GEOINT conference. Their marching orders are to “stir [things] up and make people think,” as Israel puts it.
One hurdle for the military is doctrine. The Army hasn’t decided just how much context is too much context for rank-and-file soldiers involved with tense, dangerous work. Some doubters still believe “too much information is bad for soldiers,” McCarthy says.
The authors don’t plan to lecture the military services about doctrine or specifically how they should use Google Glass or any of other contextual technologies. But they have a sense that these technologies are relevant to a military that craves geospatial situational awareness. The value is implied when they describe how the technologies could change life in the civilian world.
First, there are the geospatial implications: “Google Glass is the first consumer electronics gadget that knows where you’re aimed” — meaning the direction the user is walking or driving — “and also where you’re looking,” Scoble says. An infrared sensor detects where the pupil is directed.
Scoble says Google is working on an operating system that will determine intentions from the wearer’s location and actions.
“Imagine you’re walking down a cookie aisle in a grocery store,” he says. “Google Glass will know whether you’re just walking through the aisle, or if you stop and look at the Oreos, then all of the sudden Google Glass is going to know: You just stopped and changed intention.”
Now your wearable computer knows you might like Oreos.
“That’s gonna be an interesting new sensor platform to use for consumers, and I’m sure the NSA will enjoy studying where people are looking, and use that to filter things out,” Scoble adds.
Consumers, or possibly soldiers, also would be able to collect geospatially tagged images faster with wearable computers, judging by Scoble’s experience.
“I can take a picture in Google Glass in less than one second, where with a cell phone it takes three to eight seconds for me to get it out of my pocket and me to find the camera app,” says Scoble, the duo’s unofficial tester of shiny new things. He also writes a popular technology blog for his employer, the Rackspace cloud hosting company.
Like smartphones, wearable devices can be personalized: “My Google Glass, if you put it on, you see my stocks, my weather. My airlines tickets. My email. My tweets,” Scoble says.
The Army doesn’t need quite as much shaking up as it did four years ago to give new technologies like Google Glass a fair hearing. It took public prodding from now-retired Army Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Chiarelli to get the service to consider deploying commercial smartphones to the field.
After pilot projects and testing, the service is now deploying Samsung phones under a program called Nett Warrior. The phones are plugged into the Rifleman radios to give soldiers access to hundreds of apps.
“Essentially, it gives them the luxury of tailoring the device to their specific needs,” McCarthy says.
Some soldiers in combat brigades will receive the Nett Warrior equipment this year and next.
Soldiers in Afghanistan’s Regional Command South have also used ruggedized smartphones under a DARPA project, called Transformative Apps or TransApps.
The push for smartphones didn’t start with the brass.
“It came from rank and file troops. Soldiers were going out and buying them on the local markets in Iraq and Afghanistan to fill capability gaps,” McCarthy recalls.
Wearable devices are too new to have that kind of grassroots support.
If wearable computers do take off, geospatial apps are likely to be critical. They’re among the most important apps used by troops with smartphones. When McCarthy was on active duty, he used maps that were 25 years old. “Now we’re able to give guys mapping data that might be a matter of hours old. That’s huge,” he says.
A big lesson from the history of Nett Warrior is that designers must always remember human factors. Nett Warrior started out as a 35-pound ensemble of computers and displays under a now canceled program called Land Warrior. On top of the weight, some soldiers didn’t like Land Warrior’s helmet mounted, flip down display.
For Google Glass, one question is whether they will be rugged enough. Scoble says there are two known break points to Google Glass, but that “they’re pretty durable overall.”
In the case of smartphones, leaders knew early on that troops liked them in their civilian lives, but the initial assumption was that specially built military versions would be required so troops could wade through drainage ditches or leave them on a hot dashboard in the desert. As it turns out, the consumer devices and protective cases are rugged enough for most situations, McCarthy says.
Another question hovering over wearable computers centers on information security. That’s an issue in the consumer world too, but perhaps not a life or death issue. For the military, information risks have to be assessed very carefully.
“Can [Google Glass] be secured in the same manner we’ve done with the Android and Apple operating systems?” McCarthy asks.
The Army doesn’t have the answers about Google Glass, so it wants to find out. McCarthy says it’s possible the devices could be added to the roster of equipment to be tested in the first 2014 Network Integration Evaluation, one of a series of real-world demonstrations the Army set up to test equipment before it is rapidly fielded.
The Army has already selected the major equipment for the first 2014 evaluation, but “it’s still possible to look at it as an excursion around the periphery of the NIE,” McCarthy adds.
See all of our GEOINT 2013* coverage at the GEOINT 2013* Show Reporter .