Google Glass is the most famous computing device that augments human vision, but it wasn’t the first and it, so far, isn’t focused on enterprise. There are, in fact, numerous competitors lining up to challenge Google, from Tokyo’s Telepathy to Vancouver’s Reacon Jet. On the software side, Washington DC’s APX Labs has been pushing glasses-assisted augmented reality for two and a half years, comfortably before Google announced Project Glass in April last year.
APX Labs, which is working with a range of hardware manufacturers, is focused on producing immersive AR experiences for enterprise use cases, such as packing and shipping logistics, access to medical records for nurses in hospitals, and safety measures in factories. The company, which sustained itself for its first two years on US defense contracts, is most well known for Terminator Vision, created in 2010, which enables soldiers wearing smart glasses to scan crowds, identify faces, assess biometrics, and take and send pictures. It also created a product called MedSight, which allows combat medics to access patent records remotely and hands-free.
The company was founded by CEO Brian Ballard, who comes from a military intelligence background dominated by more than a decade in the National Security Agency, including five tours in Iraq. While keeping a low profile, APX Labs has grown its team to 60 people, and it recently raised $2.5 million to fund its growth as it switches its focus to enterprise. It is also working on a developer platform called Skylight, which is currently in beta and set to open up as early as August.
Ballard doesn’t think of Glass as a direct competitor because it is so far focused on consumers. Also, Glass is an ambient computing experience that sits above the eye and is activated by human prompts. APX’s software, on the other hand, is visualized through an overlay display that the user looks through. It is literally part of the user’s vision. PandoDaily has a policy against showing company demo videos, but in this case we’re making an exception because this technology is so visually oriented. Below is an example of how APX envisions its software can work in various settings, from military to industrial to entertainment.
While APX knew Google was working on its own smart glasses technology, Ballard was surprised by how early Glass got to market. “My first thought was, ‘We’ve got to go faster,'” recalls Ballard. “And that has not changed since.” Now Google has popularized the concept and intensified the public’s scrutiny of such technologies, the stakes are high. “We need Glass to succeed,” says Ballard. APX is also developing apps for Glass.
Ballard says he knows of 25-30 hardware companies who are working on their own versions of smart glasses, some of which APX is working with. Some of them are like science projects, but he predicts there will be three or four “compelling” products released within the next year. APX itself will be announcing some new products later in the year and early next year, with January’s Consumer Electronics Show set to be its big launchpad.
Success for APX as it shifts from defense contracts to the enterprise is far from assured (although the company will keep working with the defense forces). Defense contractors don’t have a great track record of competing in the open market. Accustomed to the fat margins of such contracts and the government’s regimented, and often slow, approach to deploying innovative technologies, companies like APX will face a stiff challenge in a high-growth environment in which competition is fast intensifying. There are other startups in the space, such as Telepathy and Innovega, but Google might yet to turn out to be nemesis number one. Google Apps developer Dito, for instance, is intent on bringing enterprise apps to Glass, and others will surely follow.
There’s also a fair chance that the public will ultimately reject smart glasses as too much of an invasion on privacy, or too socially awkward. That risk, however, is mitigated in an enterprise setting, where people don’t have to worry so much about clandestine photography or not looking cool.
Regardless of the outcomes for APX Labs, and whether or not its products find their way onto our faces, its technology advances the discussion on what wearable computing can do in the present day, and it provides a glimpse of what could be to come. It also shows that some of the best work being done on wearables is coming from far outside Silicon Valley.