Design apps for Google Glass: should app designers be thinking about smartglasses?

Creator of Vela app (above) 5K and other wearables experts give us insight into the world of smartglasses.

Mobile and wearable tech app designers tell us about creating apps for Google Glass and other smartglasses - and how you can too.

There has been a bit of a buzz surrounding wearable tech so far this year, but most of the spotlight has been taken by wrist-worn smartwatch devices. However, the other type of wearable tech that's emerging from companies including Google and Sony is smart glasses – head mounted displays that are generally controlled using voice commands. 

Smartglasses aren’t exactly mainstream yet. Arguably the most famous of the bunch is Google Glass, but those are still only available in the US through the Explorer Program that's designed for testing the prototype. The prototype costs $1,500 (around £900), so they're not exactly widely accessible.

Sony's venture into the smart glasses market is the Sony SmartEyeglass, which is also still in prototype form. Other notable smartglasses include the ReconJet, Vuzix M100 and GlassUp, among others.

With all of these devices currently being tested and improved, it's not going to be long before we begin seeing them released for businesses and consumers to use, so the question is: should designers and developers be thinking about smartglasses apps?

We spoke with three experts on the subject from app design agencies already investigating smartglasses apps to find out what they think the future holds for smartglasses, and what opportunities the new technology could open up for app designers.

Will smartglasses be popular?

Matt Pollitt, director at digital design agency 5K, which is currently working on a sailing app for smartglasses, suggests that the technology will eventually be as popular and game-changing as smartwatches, if not even more so.

"Smartglasses will not just be a scaled down add-on to existing devices, but an augmentation of a user's primary sense," he tells us. "It will open up an entirely new market of wearable devices and their corresponding apps, which we are really excited about!" he said.

Right now, one of the major things holding smartglasses back is the way they look, but Matt has high hopes for the future. "As with all mobile technology, it will miniaturise, become more discreet and sophisticated and therefore, more popular," he says. "However, at the moment one of the main barriers we feel as being currently prohibitive to wide-scale adoption is the fact that the technology is still so prominent on your face."

"Unfortunately, no matter how cool tech-wise some of these products are, when it comes to wearing one for 10-16 waking hours of the day I would feel like a complete wally," he adds, and we have to agree. "Once this barrier is removed, with the introduction of smart contact lenses or some other non obtrusive way of having a HUD (head-up display), we really think they will become something people will use all the time."

Richard Goodrum, COO of Race Yourself, a fitness app designed for Google Glass, also believes smartglasses will be popular in the long term. "Smartwatches have for now taken centre stage. However, given that the technology is there and that so many companies are working on smartglass technologies, I believe it's only a matter of time."

"We are likely to see smart glasses break into industries first, so I believe we'll see the technology being used in areas such as engineering, surgery and also in labs before it hits the high street," adds James Deakin, technology director at service design company Fjord. "It is going to take time for smart glasses, in their current form, to break down social conventions and reach critical mass."

"Currently smart glasses are little more than a notification system for your smartphone, and until we start to see real everyday benefits for this type of technology, whether that be in a corporate setting or for consumers, it is going to be hard for people to understand the benefits," James explains.

If these predictions are true and future smartglasses could be adopted by the masses, should designers and developers begin investigating the opportunities within app design for such head-up displays?

Both Race Yourself's Richard and 5K's Matt say that designers and developers should "absolutely" be investigating the technology.

"It's an exciting time for smart glasses and their apps," adds Matt. "Designing for smart glasses will throw a whole new set of challenges at app designers and developers as the parameters are so vastly different to any handheld device on the market.”

What apps will work best for smartglasses?

Recon's video for its Jet smartglasses provides some app inspiration.

"Exploring new technologies that can change the way people react with content is always a fantastic thing," Matt continues. "Only by taking on these new challenges can you start to push the boundaries of what's possible. Developers and designers should always think about the digital services they are trying to deliver, not just focus on the technology itself. Glasses and HUDs are just another platform with a specific environmental and contextual considerations for delivering new and exciting digital experiences."

Richard adds: "The focus should be on practical applications that offer the end user real value. For example, when I use Google Glass, I particularly love the directions and cooking apps. It's incredibly useful to be hands free during both activities and not having to look down at my phone."

While James agrees that it's worth looking into smartglasses app design, he notes that the future is uncertain for such devices so it's perhaps a little to early to know what apps will prove to be successful.

"Designers and developers are already thinking and developing for smart glasses, however, currently I am not sure how lucrative this will be," he tells us. "Smart glasses aren't accessible to all, so it's hard to predict how they will be used and what consumers will demand from smart glasses."

James does agree that the development of smartglasses presents opportunities for designers, though, allowing us to exploit a HUD combined with voice control. "It is really compelling to look to the opportunities available through smart glasses, as different services will be possible due to this new form of interaction," he says.

There are many different types of apps that can work well with smartglasses. So far, we've seen everything from maps, games and photography apps to fitness, home automation and cooking apps.

"We see sport and fitness as a massive area," said Richard. "Both amateur and professional athletes are huge fans of fitness apps, however the reality is that they can be dull and do a little to motivate. We're looking to change that in a big way with visual real-time feedback."

"The possibilities are vast," agrees Matt. "There are new avenues to explore with regards to a wholly hands-free experience. Voice activation for example and a truly barrier-free augmented reality with seamless integration of real and virtual worlds leads to hundreds of new possibilities."

"There is obviously huge scope for companies to utilise the enhanced wealth of data potentially collated by users both of their own benefit and for their customers'. For example, health surveillance to aid health insurance companies, tailor-made and user-specific advertising and marketing messages that respond to a user's unique 'view'. It all starts to sound a little George Orwell, but more than likely this is the direction it will head in," Matt predicts.

There are limitations that come with smartglasses, though, all of which can make developing apps for the wearable technology particularly challenging.

"The most obvious one is battery," says Richard. "For example, Google Glass can last up to one day with careful usage, however the reality is that it can drain much faster than this."

Designing for voice control

Matt thinks that the biggest challenge will be how people actually interact with smart glasses. "Google have chosen voice commands but there are plenty of situations where this isn't appropriate or potentially even quite rude. Cultural acceptance is key to wide scale adoption of technology. No one wants to have to sit next to the crazy guy on the train ranting to himself and tapping the side of his head repeatedly." We've only just become accustomed to people talking on their phones using their microphone-equipped headphones, so it's likely to take a long time for us to feel comfortable around those talking to their glasses.

James also notes both battery life and voice interaction as challenges that must be overcome in order to create a successful smartglasses app. "Due to the importance of voice control, it is really key that developers get this right, so they understand different dialects to avoid frustration, as there is no other way to control the technology."

Safety, security and data protection are also highlighted as key challenges that will need to be addressed with all apps designed for smartglasses.

Batteries and CPU processing power in smartglasses will improve over time, notes Richard, so this should soon solve some of the issues with power, while the voice control issues can be lessened by simplifying or reducing how much interaction is required from a user, says Matt. Artificial intelligence, contextual analysis and compatibility with smartwatches or smartphones could be viable options here.

"I am hoping that other control methods can be developed, such as non-obtrusive controls on your wrist or in the palm of your hand," adds Matt.

How to design apps for smartglasses

When it comes to actually developing an app for smartglasses, things can get rather complicated, not least because of the limitations and challenges noted above.

Based on his experience developing the VELA sailing companion app, Matt tells us: "It's important to find a strong concept and use case – smartglasses demand a lot of the user's attention whilst being worn, so the app has to reflect this. Look at what the context they are going to be worn in is. Sports apps, for example, might require constant feedback, whereas others might be more passive, only requiring occasional voice commands."

"Rapid iteration of prototype directly on device will also help to bridge the huge gap between designing UI on a desktop screen and viewing on a tiny HUD," he adds. "Interaction conventions for smartglasses currently vary significantly from device to device, so tailoring a concept to a specific device is a must. Another consideration would be looking at leveraging connectivity between other devices the user might have, such as smart watches or phones or tablets."

"Largely the development techniques for smartglasses are the same as other applications," adds James. "However, the interaction design is different and it requires a new set of paradigms to be used. There are a different set of libraries and bone conductive sound communication to take into consideration, which isn't something that was previously used."

"Over time it is likely that we will see consistent development patterns for developing applications for smart glasses as we have seen with other forms of technology," he concludes.

"We are building a digital fitness platform across mobile and wearables," says Richard as an example, referring to the Race Yourself app (shown above). "Our games and challenges motivate racers to achieve their personal best by allowing them to live-race a three dimensional avatar of themselves (previous run/cycle), their friends, celebrities, or even flesh eating zombies pursuing at their target pace. Race Yourself will provide you with real-time on-screen encouragement during your exercise."

Meanwhile, Matt's app, VELA (below), is designed for sailing enthusiasts. "It's a sailing tool that sits across your tablet and the Recon Jet to provide a connected ecosystem for the sailing community, both on and off the water. The tablet experience allows you to plan, share and sync your sailing activities, giving you access to live information through the Recon Jet glasses as you sail."

"The reason we chose to use Recon Jet as the smart glass platform is that it is designed for a specific use case – sporting activities," Matt continues. "The glasses are designed to be used when performing a specific task, so it doesn't interfere with general social interaction and becomes a really focused experience, augmenting existing aides."

"Coupled with the fact that the Sony Xperia tablet is waterproof, it seemed like a great marriage. However, it's important to note that the glasses are not the whole story," he notes. "They extend the eco-system we are trying to evolve with the VELA community as a whole, allowing them to attach pictures they have taken to the adventures they go on and giving updated weather and nautical information in a way that lets them keep their hands free and focused on the sailing."

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