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The History of APX Labs, As Told by Smart Glasses: 2011-present

By April 24, 2015 No Comments

In our 4+ years of existence, countless smart glasses prototypes, working samples, and production units have passed through the APX R&D lab.  Predating the announcement and subsequent (limited) availability of Google Glass, we had developed rapid prototyping capabilities to build smart glasses prototypes of our own using available components.  Having entered the smart glasses industry earlier than most, our early engineering efforts were broader than the enterprise software company we have become, with the nascent market necessitating a broader technical coverage spanning all aspects of hardware, software, user interface design, human-computer interaction methods, and the system of systems thinking.  Having to drop smart glasses device engineering and some of the low-level software as some of the core expertise we needed to build up opened up the path for APX to do more with less.

Large enterprises across the globe have spent billions upon billions of dollars over decades to build out an electronic knowledge base of information needed to get work done.  This means that mission critical data for the desk-less and hands on workforce already exists in the enterprise, and now the imperative is enabling a seamless, bidirectional flow of information between the ERP ecosystem and users while refining the user interaction in a contextually aware and intuitive manner. Skylight achieves just that, and adds full back-end integration flexibility along with a growing set of features that maximize the utility of various smart glasses.

I hope that this visually guided tour of smart glasses marking milestone moments within APX’s history demonstrates how quickly technology has advanced in a short period of time, and brings excitement and anticipation for a diversifying ecosystem of emerging devices continuing the next industrial revolution driven by wearable technology.

The technology and devices covered here will serve as the backdrop for my presentation at the LDV Vision Summit, where I will focus on the future of smart glasses technology and the user groups that are best suited to take advantage of it (hint: it’s the enterprise now, with an eventual consumer adoption as innovation continues to drive the form factor closer towards a set of regular glasses frames).

Early bird tickets are still available for the LDV Vision Summit, good until April 30.

Not pictured: US Army Smart Glasses, multiple generations (2011-2013

APX’s roots go back to when we originally were selected to build software for Army’s smart glasses.  The biometrics application, nicknamed Terminator Vision, used the onboard camera to capture faces within the soldier’s field of view, send the captured data to a server to determine the identity of the person(s), and visualize the information in a heads up and hands free manner to the user.  This is science fiction from 1980s and 1990s realized in full force!

While the glasses themselves were years ahead of everyone else in terms of delivering a fully embedded, single-device-does-all smart glasses solution, the big accomplishment APX achieved was a full end-to-end exchange of field collected data (i.e. the user’s environment) being analyzed by a back end system, and delivered back to the user in real time and hands free.  This remains one of the very fundamental values APX delivers to our global customers today – getting contextually relevant data to the right person and right place, all in real time, heads up, and hands free.

Our early access to technology before the advent of commercially available smart glasses allowed us to conceive industry leading user experiences and establish human computer interaction paradigms that drive our product development to this day, putting us well ahead of the competition.

APX Augmented Reality Smart Glasses Prototype (late 2012)

prototype

As we began our shift to broaden our software capabilities to address the non-military market targeting the largest global companies with desk-less and hands-on workforce, we commissioned several prototypes to learn more about the nuances of the ideal enterprise smart glasses hardware.  One pictured here used two display modules each containing a microdisplay, a rudimentary 50:50 beam splitter (light from the environment and the microdisplay are mixed evenly to create visible content to the user), and an illumination source.  A 3D printed and painted frame for the headset was designed in-house along with the control module enclosure.

With this particular prototype, we were able to experiment with different content presentation options (2D, ultrawide 2D, and stereoscopic 3D), sensor payloads (visible and infrared camera, motion tracker, microphone, etc.), and different computing platforms.  The knowledge we gleaned from these prototyping activity has become invaluable in working closely with smart glasses manufacturers and customers as a trusted, independent source of critical product design parameters for the enterprise market.

Epson Moverio BT-100EC Prototype (February 2013)

bt100

APX’s first prototype with the Epson Moverio BT-100 involved adding a 9-axis IMU (accelerometer, gyroscope, and magnetometer) coupled to an Arduino, along with adding a 5MP camera and microphone module enclosed in a 3D printed module.  This in turn was wired into a daughter board for Epson’s control unit containing a battery, a video signal converter, and a USB hub.  Finally, we brought in an Android phone serving as the brains of all this setup.

This prototype represented a milestone at APX – we had the ability to produce devices inexpensively for our developers, partners, and customers, albeit in a limited fashion.  This was back when inexpensive was $3,000-5,000!

Made famous by coverage on Engadget and demos at the YouTube Sandbox at Google I/O 2013, this cemented our presence in the industrial sector with one of the first Epson-derived prototypes.  Essentially a functionally equivalent prototype to Epson’s BT-200 smart glasses released a year later, this was the first device APX prototyped in our partnership with Epson.

Google Glass (April 2013)

googleglass

It goes on without saying the announcement and subsequent release of the device was not only a milestone for APX, but for the entire smart glasses industry.  The fact that one of the largest technology companies in the world (and a mobile industry leader) introduced a fully integrated smart glasses device at $1,500 sparked significant interest from startups, venture capital, and large corporations.  Overnight, smart glasses went from knowledge reserved for the Technorati and the military to the public.

The Glass product announcement in 2012 led to the acceleration of the development of Skylight, our enterprise software offering, and spurred many others to take a deeper look at the forming industry.  Google’s entry had ripple effects in the hardware industry as well, considerably increasing the pace at which companies have introduced new devices since.

APX’s vision from day 1 has been that smart glasses will fundamentally transform the way the workforce from the largest companies in the world build, fix, and move goods, delivering enhancements in productivity, efficiency, and safety.  Amusing note: Glass itself had markedly improved our sales efficiency – its sheer presence and marketing cut back our initial sales presentations from several hours (spanning sometimes multiple calls and visits) to two hours or so because the broad media coverage had already educated our customers about the category.

Glass of course has seen its ups and downs, recently bringing the consumer and app developer facing Explorer program to an end, but the Glass at Work program facing the enterprise, of which APX was the founding partner in April 2014, has hit full speed and continues to thrive.

Epson Moverio BT-100E Prototype (May 2013)

bt100E

Specially made for demos at Google I/O 2013 showing our head movement tracking based user interface, this reduced the BT-100EC prototype to just the IMU, which greatly cut down the device complexity while only adding ~10 grams to the headset (you can hardly notice it’s there).

Forbes, along many other top publications, covered the demo concept using this device with our user interface

Vuzix M100 (December 2013)

vuzix

Vuzix is a very well-known name in the smart glasses industry, having developed see-through displays dating back to 2005 (not surprisingly, also for the military then).  Its M100 product was the first industry-targeted generally available device, complete with ANSI rated safety glasses attachment, and has since paved the way alongside Google Glass in defining the standard of heads-up and monocular smart glasses.

APX and Vuzix announced an official partnership during CES 2015, with the fourth release of Skylight welcoming the M100 to our ecosystem of devices.

Epson Moverio BT-200 (March 2014)

bt200

Epson’s second generation Moverio product incorporate the sensors we had added to the BT-100EC prototype.  APX was the launch partner for the first generally available stereoscopic see-through smart glasses, joining the stage at CES 2014.  As one of the first two officially supported Skylight smart glasses devices, the BT-200 continues to lead the form factor class of over-the-eye binocular smart glasses with a growing developer ecosystem around it.  We are proud to say that we were one of the very first.

Skylight on the BT-200 was prominently featured at SAP CEO Bill McDermott’s SAPPHIRE 2014 keynote, with a live, on-stage demonstration of how Skylight empowers the maintenance technicians of high-value medical equipment to be more efficient through a reduction of repeat visits, real time access to a subject matter expert via two-way video conferencing, and access to repair workflows without looking away from the task.

The Moverio was the first product that enabled us to grow the Skylight developer ecosystem, with its general availability and $699 MSRP lowered the cost of entry.  Around this time, we welcomed Accenture and Deloitte as Skylight developers.

Sony SmartEyeglass (February 2015)

smarteyeglasses

Since early 2014, Sony has been showing multiple iterations of the SmartEyeglass concept at multiple industry conferences.  At CES 2015, Sony, APX, and SAP Startup Focus partnered to demo an enterprise smart glasses solution.  Sony provided the smart glasses hardware, SAP of course provided the mission critical ERP data from Work Manager and HANA, and APX’s Skylight acted as the extensible software delivering industry leading UX, extending the data to wearable devices with advanced user context awareness, enabling enterprise grade MDM and information security rule enforcement, and bringing advanced media to and from the users equipped with smart glasses.  Between the three companies, the technology solution stack is fully covered.

With the CES 2015 demo providing a sneak peek at what the three companies can do together, APX and Sony announced a formal partnership leading up to the Mobile World Congress in order to have an out-of-the-box, enterprise-ready solution made available with the SmartEyeglass .  At MWC 2015, we expanded the demonstration to include the SmartEyeglass Attach! Concept, showing a scenario involving data center technicians guided to a troublesome asset and providing repair instructions.

Recon Jet (March 2015)

jet

Hot off the press and hitting general availability in May, the Jet is a prime example of APX’s commitment to have Skylight running on enterprise ready smart glasses on the product launch day.  Designed to face the harsh outdoor environment that athletes deal with, the Jet is a sleek, highly wearable smart glasses device containing the heads up display proven in Recon Instruments Snow2 HUD for snowsports applications.  Although the initial targeted market was for consumer sports activities, we believe the Jet is uniquely positioned to enhance the diversity of smart glasses offering in the enterprise through its well-executed design balancing wearability, user comfort, function, robustness, and price.

What’s next?

Even in our brief 4+ years of existence, smart glasses technology has evolved from being limited in capability, availability, and cost to being broadly accessible, wearable, and enterprise ready.  Over the last two years, we have accomplished a lot blazing the trail of driving productivity through wearables for the largest enterprise customers in the world.  It’s no exaggeration to say that we helped drive the market making through Skylight.  Our customers are now collecting critical metrics on how wearables working in conjunction with Skylight and ERP systems are improving workplace efficiency, safety, and productivity.  We have seen a growing inbound interest from the biggest global companies in the world in building the connected workplace for their desk-less and hands-on workforce, and the market is ready to take off.

We have invested heavily first in smart glasses because they are the most powerful wearable devices suited to accomplish this mission.  With the latest version of Skylight, we have built a truly scalable, enterprise ready product that can seamlessly connect to enterprise data sources supporting all of the smart glasses that are generally available for our customers to procure.  However, we are not stopping here.  With smart watches taking center stage in 2015, we are actively working to unlock their potential by extending Skylight support to even further drive productivity through a growing wearable ecosystem.  We can’t be more excited by what we have accomplished thus far, and what we will achieve as the wearable market takes off in the enterprise!