Wearable Technology | Feature

Exploring New Frontiers with Google Glass

Peering at the world through Google Glass, Robert Hernandez glimpsed the future of journalism.

Soon after becoming one of the first people in the world to get Glass (the most recognizable device in the fast-emerging field of wearable technology), the professor of journalism at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism began organizing meetups and "nerding out" with like-minded digital explorers. They were intrigued by the device’s potential to change the creation, delivery and consumption of news.

Hernandez’s interactive noodling led to the creation of "Journalism 499: Glass Journalism." In the fall, he will lead a diverse group of students (Android developers, budding journalists, students in the cinematic arts and other disciplines) in what essentially will be a 15-week hackathon. "We’re not just going to talk about something; we’re going to build something," he said.

The goal is to develop apps for Google’s head-mounted computer and invigorate an industry that has resisted the adoption and adaptation of new technology. "I’m trying to save journalism, and sometimes it feels like I’m saving journalism from itself," Hernandez said. "I am hoping that this class reexamines the shape of an article and how you tell a story [using wearable technology]? Those answers will influence the industry, I hope."

Hernandez is among a handful of university professors from California to New York State who are teaching students to design apps for wearable computing devices that aren’t yet commercially available. They are leaders of a small movement that has the potential to go viral. (Gartner, the technology research firm, predicted in February that wearable devices would be a leading mobile technology in 2015.) With higher education under the gun to produce graduates who can get jobs, teaching students to develop apps for wearable devices looks like a potential winner.

If such courses catch on, they could also have a pedagogical ripple effect. Hernandez and like-minded professors who are developing and "teaching" Google-app courses frequently bring a start-up mentality to those endeavors. The classes tend to be collaborative, multi-disciplinary, crowd-sourced, social-media driven enterprises. "I’m a digital nerd inside an academic institution," said Hernandez, a self-described "hackademic" who pioneered Web journalism at The Seattle Times before bolting the newsroom for the classroom.

He might find academe even more resistant to change than traditional news organizations have been. The cutting edge of innovation in the typical higher education classroom can be too dull to cleave academic convention or slice through institutional inertia. In some academic circles, the notion of classroom as tech incubator will seem radical.

"If you’re going to innovate, you’re going to have to be okay with people not understanding," Hernandez said.

Starting From Scratch

The precedent for teaching students to build applications for wearable technology doesn’t exist. "There’s no textbook, " said Rupal Patel, an associate professor in Northeastern University’s Department of Speech Language Pathology and Audiology. "Building [wearable] technology for health issues is a whole new area."

There isn’t even a reliable Google Glass manual. "The devices are still in the early stages of development," said Stephen S. Intille, associate professor in the university’s College of Computer and Information Science and the Bouvé College of Health Sciences. "Students adapt as they go."

Patel and Intille co-teach a two-semester course that challenges students to create apps that will "help people make behavioral changes" that will improve health, Intille said. The course debuted during the 2013-2014 academic year against a backdrop of uncertainty. Glass’s "basic capabilities would change throughout the semester as Google updated the core operating system and functionality," Intille said.

The inaugural class enrolled a diverse group of 21 students, undergraduates working alongside doctoral candidates in fields from computer science and psychology to the health professions. Working in teams of four or five, students thought about problems in health care and "how the unique capabilities of a head-mounted computer might be used" to solve them, Intille explained.

Google donated the devices as part of a research project exploring the use of Google Glass for health applications. Students developed prototypes for a handful of apps, including a program designed to promote social development among people with autism. The app uses Google Glass’s video-recording capability to capture and guide personal interactions. "The technology can react to you," Intille said.

Other teams developed apps that transform Google Glass into a speech therapy device. There is an application designed to help people with autism live more independently and one that helps healthcare providers to remember and complete every step of a medical procedure. Research has found that consistent application of best practices for routine procedures dramatically reduces infections and other complications. One team developed an app to help older people who live independently to communicate with their families.

"All the ideas would take a lot more development to be ready for prime time," Intille said. "You have to start from scratch [because] the human-computer interaction of the device breaks all the rules."

Patel said Google Glass and other wearable technologies could be a game changer, affecting every aspect of healthcare, from ethics to economics. "I think we will create another discipline," she said.

Creating Sea Change

Say you’re taking a walk when you see a woman wearing a fringe jacket that would be the perfect gift for your sister’s upcoming birthday. Within seconds, Google Glass captures an image of the garment, conducts a Web search and makes a Google Wallet purchase from Banana Republic. By comparison, Amazon’s popular "one click" purchase option seems quaint.

Using Glass to make on-the-spot, hands-free purchases is one of the apps conjured up by students in a social media class that uses Google Glass to facilitate learning. "I thought it would be a neat way to learn social media," said William J. Ward, a social media professor at Syracuse University’s S. I. Newhouse School of Public Communications.

Newhouse has at least eight pair of the glasses, and people in the department have another half dozen or so. Students from a diverse range of academic disciplines used social media to crowdsource their ideas via YouTube, SlideShare, Twitter, Vine, Facebook and other social media channels. They also made pitches to live audiences. Teams used online data analytics "to see what ideas were getting the most social conversation," Ward said.

The class conceived uses for Glass that were all over the map. There was an app to select and play music based on a user’s mood, apps to help foodies find and get into the best restaurants, and an application that would show Glass users historical images of contemporary locations. "Think about looking at your environment and seeing what it looked like historically," said Ward, who described the app as ancestry.com for the physical environment.

It’s not possible to know with certainty if Google Glass will be the next big thing, Hernandez noted, or if it will be an intriguing concept that never takes off, like flying cars. He is nonetheless certain that change is coming. "The mobile phone is dead. Wearables are emerging. They will take over eventually," he said.

If the near-term adoption of wearable technology in some form approaches that of, say, tablet computers following their introduction, "in a year 30 percent of people could have some form of wearable tech," predicts Ward. He intends not to be blindsided by Glass.

"It’s important for educators to be working in that space and preparing students for a fast approaching future."

Editor's note: This story has been updated to note that Google donated the glass devices to Northeastern University.
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