APX Labs’ Milestones in Enterprise Smart Glasses
Portions of this article were published in SAP Startup Focus in its March 26 newsletter.
Since we began in this field in 2011, countless smart glasses prototypes, working samples and production units have passed through the APX R&D lab. Predating Google Glass, we had developed rapid prototyping capabilities to build smart glasses prototypes using available components. Having entered the smart glasses industry earlier than most, our early engineering efforts were broader than the enterprise software company we have become, with the nascent market necessitating a broader technical coverage spanning all aspects of hardware, software, user interface design, human-computer interaction methods and systems thinking. Dropping smart glasses device engineering and some of the low-level software from our core expertise subsequently opened a path for APX to do more with less.
Large enterprises across the globe have spent many billions of dollars over decades to build out electronic knowledge bases of information needed to get work done. This means that mission critical data for the deskless and hands-on workforce already exists in the enterprise, and now the imperative is to enable a seamless, bidirectional flow of information between the Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) ecosystem and users, while refining user interactions in a contextually aware and intuitive manner. Our Skylight product, an enterprise software platform for smart glasses, helps bridge the gap between enterprise information systems and smart glasses users in need of contextually relevant data, accessible heads up and hands free smart glasses.
Our skill today is in keeping up with rapidly changing technology. To illustrate how challenging this can be, let’s look back at the different hardware options available to the enterprise customer. I hope this visually guided tour of smart glasses marking milestone moments within APX’s history demonstrates how quickly technology has advanced in a short period of time, and brings excitement and anticipation for a diversifying ecosystem of emerging devices continuing the next industrial revolution driven by wearable technology.
US Army Smart Glasses, Multiple Generations (2011-2013)
Our company’s history goes back to when we were originally selected to build software for smart glasses used by the United States Army. The biometrics application, nicknamed Terminator Vision, used the onboard camera to capture faces within the soldier’s field of view, send the captured data to a server to determine the identity of the person(s) and display the information in a heads-up and hands-free manner to the user.
Advanced for its time in terms of delivering a fully embedded, single-device-does-all smart glasses solution, these smart glasses featured an end-to-end exchange of field-collected data from the user’s environment, which was analyzed by a back-end system and delivered to the user in real time.
Augmented Reality Smart Glasses Prototype (Late 2012)
In 2012 we broadened our software capabilities to address the non-military market targeting global companies with a deskless and hands-on workforce. We commissioned several prototypes to learn more about the nuances of the ideal hardware for enterprise smart glasses. The ones pictured above used two display modules, each containing a microdisplay, a rudimentary 50:50 beam splitter (light from the environment and the microdisplay are mixed evenly to create visible content to the user), and an illumination source. A 3D printed and painted frame for the headset was designed in-house along with the control module enclosure.
This particular prototype allowed us to experiment with different content presentation options (2D, ultrawide 2D and stereoscopic 3D modes), sensor payloads (visible and infrared camera, motion tracker, microphone, etc.) and computing platforms. It demonstrated there is no single perfect design covering all industrial scenarios and confirmed that enterprise smart glasses follow the same paradigm as all other tools used in the workplace—the right tools or glasses for the right job.
Epson Moverio BT-100EC Prototype (February 2013)
For APX’s first prototype for the Epson Moverio BT-100, we added a 9-axis inertial measurement unit (accelerometer, gyroscope and magnetometer) coupled to an Arduino platform, along with a 5MP camera and microphone module enclosed in a 3D-printed module. This in turn was wired into a daughter board for Epson’s control unit containing a battery, a video signal converter, and a USB hub. Finally, we used an Android phone for additional control and management.
This prototype represented a milestone at APX—we had the ability to produce devices inexpensively for our developers, partners and customers, albeit in a limited fashion (inexpensive at the time meant $3,000-5,000).
Made famous by coverage on and by demos at the YouTube Sandbox at Google I/O 2013, this cemented our presence in the industrial sector with one of the first Epson-derived prototypes. Essentially a functionally equivalent prototype to Epson’s BT-200 smart glasses released a year later, this was the first device APX prototyped in our partnership with Epson.
Google Glass (April 2013)
The release of Google Glass was a milestone for the smart glasses industry for many reasons, not least of which because one of the largest technology companies in the world had introduced a fully integrated smart glasses device at the relatively modest price of $1500. This sparked significant interest from startups, venture capital and large corporations. Overnight, smart glasses went from being exotic devices reserved for researchers and the military to publicly available goods.
The Glass product announcement in 2012 led to the acceleration of the development of and spurred others to take a deeper look at the nascent industry. Google’s entry had ripple effects in the hardware industry as well, considerably increasing the pace at which companies have introduced new devices since.
APX’s vision has always been that smart glasses will fundamentally transform the way the global workforce will build, fix and move goods, delivering enhancements in productivity, efficiency and safety. Glass’ innovations and the market presence it created represented an important step in that direction.
Glass of course has seen its ups and downs, recently bringing the consumer- and app developer-facing Explorer program to an end, but the Glass at Work program, of which APX was the founding partner in April 2014, continues to thrive.
Vuzix M100 (December 2013)
Vuzix is a very well-known name in the smart glasses industry, having developed see-through displays since 2005 (not surprisingly, also for the military). Its M100 product was the first industry-targeted generally available device, complete with an ANSI-rated safety glasses attachment, and has since paved the way alongside Google Glass in setting the standard of heads-up and monocular smart glasses.
APX and Vuzix have an official partnership with the M100 integrating the fourth release of Skylight and increasing the selection of devices available for enterprises to deploy across a diverse set of use cases.
Epson Moverio BT-200 (March 2014)
Epson’s second-generation Moverio product incorporates the sensors we had added to the BT-100EC prototype and are the first generally available stereoscopic see-through smart glasses. The device also integrates Skylight for industrial AR use cases such as two-way video conferencing and workflow information in the worker’s field of view.
These use cases were demonstrated live at SAP CEO Bill McDermott’s SAPPHIRE 2014 keynote address, marking a decisive change for smart glasses in enterprise, with the technology being publicly demonstrated by a major ERP player at its largest conference. With a suggested retail price of $699, the low cost of the device provided additional incentives for enterprises to pilot and experiment with the technology for their workplace scenarios.
Sony SmartEyeglass (February 2015)
Since early 2014, Sony has showcased several iterations of the SmartEyeglass concept at multiple industry conferences. At the 2015 Consumer Electronic Show, Sony, APX and SAP Startup Focus partnered together to demo an enterprise smart glasses solution. Sony provided the hardware for the smart glasses, SAP provided ERP data from Work Manager and HANA and APX’s Skylight furnished the user experience that extended the data to wearable devices. This combination enabled user-context awareness, mobile device management and information security rule enforcement, and brought advanced media to and from users equipped with smart glasses.
Recon Jet (March 2015)
Although the Jet smart glasses product from Recon Instruments is produced primarily for the sports industry, we believe its design balancing wearability, user comfort, function, robustness and price will have a positive influence on future smart glasses designs for enterprise. The Jet has attributes that are desirable for enterprise applications: a sleek and easily wearable design that can withstand harsh outdoor environments, consumer level pricing and availability, and an interchangeable lens design.
In only four years, smart glasses technology has evolved from being a research prototype, limited in capability, availability and high cost to being broadly accessible, wearable and enterprise ready. We have seen growing interest from the largest global companies in building the connected workplace for their deskless and hands-on workforce, and we believe the market for smart glasses is just getting started.
Going back to the beginning of our product timeline, we initially invested heavily in smart glasses because we recognized their potential suitability to enterprise use cases. The latest version of our Skylight product is scalable, connects to enterprise data sources and supports commercially available models of smart glasses. We are also preparing for emerging trends that will interconnect smart glasses with other mobile devices. With smartwatches taking center stage in 2015, we are extending Skylight support to a growing wearable ecosystem.
We can’t be more excited, both by how far we’ve come and where we’ll go as the wearable market takes off in the enterprise. We’re also very excited to work alongside an industry full of partners, customers, and research institutions as a founding member of the Augmented Reality for Enterprise Alliance (AREA). The enterprise smart glasses market requires active participation of the full value chain of enterprise mobility. Device manufacturers, software developers, system integrators, consulting agencies, academic and research institutions will all need to collaborate to deliver on the needs of customers. There is an elevated sense of personalization that smart glasses and other wearable devices bring to users, and defining the optimized user experience will be a critical task for everyone in the industry. While improving the user experience and capabilities of our own product line, we recognize that the evolution of the entire enterprise smart glasses value chain requires contributions from an entire industry.
The insights gathered from collaborating with other AREA members will help improve the quality of the experience for our customers, developers and partners. APX is striving to work with fellow visionaries to accelerate the adoption of enterprise smart glasses technology, generating ripple effects much greater than the mere sum of the AREA members’ capabilities.