MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. -- I'm convinced ultra-mobile wearable computers will be the next big thing, but it could take a decade before the iPhone of this product class arrives. With Project Glass, Google is intentionally trying to leap ahead, creating a very public prototyping process that is fascinating but by no means guarantees success.
Gordon Bell, an industry veteran investigating the field at Microsoft Research, helped me crystalize my belief in wearables when I chatted with him informally at a recent event celebrating the 40th anniversary of Ethernet. He told me facial recognition and medical sensing are two killer apps for these products.
Bell wore a mobile camera everywhere he went as part of his research program. "What I concluded is that [wearable computers] are a memory assistant," and facial recognition plays a key role in that job, he told a group of us over lunch.
Ironically, the Glass project manager at Google recently said the company currently has no plans to use facial recognition. I suspect that statement was motivated at least in part by privacy concerns and in part by the still nascent state of the technology.
I believe tomorrow's wearables will need to tap into highly accurate facial recognition services and find ways to overcome privacy concerns about them. These are both big challenges.
There's hard technical work ahead making facial recognition of unconstrained populations really accurate -- especially when the data is gathered in the normal course of life using consumer-grade cameras. Making the challenge even tougher, facial recognition systems must handle data sent over mainstream wireless networks, and these systems must respond in time to be useful to the average users as they casually encounter other people.
I can't even begin to untangle the marketing and policy issues around facial recognition. I know they are significant. Like Bell, I believe the app is killer for the product category.