What Does Google Get From Glass?

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Google (NASDAQ: GOOG) is turning plenty of heads with Glass, and not just so early adopters can creepily film passersby. The futuristic device is certainly a publicity win, promoting the company as innovation leader.

The $1,500 wearable computer is a product of the Google X Lab, the facility responsible for driverless cars -- another technology that seems too futuristic to exist outside of the world of fiction. 

But while driverless cars are already on the roads, Google Glass is gaining less mainstream acceptance. The dorky glasses are popping up in tech havens, but have yet to attract the kind real-world interest that is driving state legislatures to bring up bills legalizing Google's driverless cars (see WI, MI, CO, and others).

Instead, Glass is generating legal pushback before it even goes on sale. If Glass doesn't take off -- a shocking proposition, I know -- what does Google stand to gain from its futuristic experiment?

Augmented reality

Augmented reality (AR) is a hugely hyped field in the tech world. It is integral to head-mounted devices like Glass, but also appears in more mainstream consumer products like the Nintendo 3DS and iPhone and Android apps. The concept is simple: take a live video feed of a real-world environment and layer on computer-generated information. It makes for fun games on the 3DS, but it can also help amateur astronomers find their favorite constellations in Google Sky Map.

So what makes AR useful outside of play and planets? Well, it's already being used across many industries in real-world scenarios. Volkswagen uses it to train service personnel by giving them an "x-ray view" of their cars' internals. The Department of Defense is developing AR contact lenses for soldiers on the battlefield. And that yellow bar Monday Night Football uses to show you the first-down line? Augmented reality.

Of course, Google isn't the only company in the AR game. Chip-maker Qualcomm (NASDAQ: QCOM) built a AR software development kit (SDK) called Vuphoria that now boasts 45,000 independent developers and 3,000 AR apps. The Fool's Chris Neiger had very nice things to say about Qualcomm a few weeks ago, and the company's focus on developing AR technology for use by outside developers shows a strong understanding of the marketplace. Keep an eye on Vuphoria -- and Qualcomm, whose fortunes stand to rise as its smartphone chips come into demand across the developing world.

Really, though, Google and Qualcomm

Voice command

At the moment, Google is involved in a bit of a voice recognition arms race with Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL), with both companies vying to produce more accurate and faster voice recognition. Apple sees Siri as one of several methods for controlling your phone or tablet, which makes sense in today's market. But with Glass, Google has gone a step further in making the technology the primary means of control.

This reveals a few things about Google's strategic plans. First, they have enough confidence in their technology to rely on it entirely for a highly publicized product. Second, they think that voice is the future for controlling our devices (and I tend to agree). And third, that they are prioritizing making voice command as seamless and natural as possible.

Glass's "signal phrase" to take commands is "ok glass," which strikes me as one of the more elegant pieces of this technology. Those words prompt Glass to listen for your next direction. This isn't a sci-fi space captain directing her computer to make calculations; Google has thought deeply about how people will actually use voice, whether on Glass or another device.

Apple seems out-of-step in this scenario; changes to Siri in the past few iOS updates have been incremental, like the addition of movie ticket purchasing. Contrast that with Google's recent I/O announcement in which they'll push the "ok glass" signal phrase to all of their search products, in the form of "ok google." It's too soon to tell whether consumers will embrace this change, but it makes this Apple investor eager to see how Cupertino plans to step up their voice command game -- or risk falling behind -- at WWDC next month.


Ads are the succor of Google's search technology, and Glass is bound to go down the same path. Although the Glass Terms of Service specifically forbid advertising (or even charging for apps), a Google spokesperson was less direct, cautioning that Glass was "still in a limited preview" and "it's too early to speculate how this will evolve."

Translation: Ads are coming.

The real draw for Google Glass advertising is the potential for context-sensitive ads. Gmail already uses the technology to scan user emails and provide targeted ads, and Glass has the potential to do even more. Google's Goggles technology can already recognize brands, logos, labels, and text. Mix that with an always-available camera at eye level and you've got the potential for incredibly targeted (and creepy) advertising. 

So what?

Google's head may be in the clouds, but its feet are planted firmly on the ground. This kind of forward-thinking technology remains one of Google's greatest strengths, especially because it strives to pull practical innovations out of even the most daring inventions. Glass shows that Google is looking into the future while keeping an eye on the bottom line.

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Steven Yenzer owns shares of Apple. The Motley Fool recommends Apple and Google. The Motley Fool owns shares of Apple, Google, and Qualcomm. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy. Is this post wrong? Click here. Think you can do better? Join us and write your own!

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