Last night, Dr. Thad Starner gave an awesome presentation on wearable computing at the Atlanta CEO Council event. Thad is a professor in Georgia Tech’s School of Interactive Computing and is more recently known for his role as Technical Lead on Google’s Glass project.
Thad is a pioneer in wearable computing. He actually coined the term ‘augmented reality’ in 1990 to describe the work he was doing at MIT at the time. I’m particularly fascinated with his work as Thad is a friend and my former neighbor. He’s one of the brightest people I know.
Imagine seeing a prototype of Google Glass 12 years ago. That’s what I had the opportunity to do when I first met Thad in my driveway. If you created a ‘mad -scientist’ character for a movie – they would look just like Thad. He had unruly hair in a pony tail and was wearing black thick-rimmed glasses with a gadget attached. When we got around to exchanging contact information, his eyes started shifting and his hand bounced around in his pocket. Before I could ask him “what’s wrong,” he explained he was entering my contact info into his computer in the messenger bag slung over his shoulder – viewing the screen in his glasses and controlling it with a custom input device that he had in his pocket. I was blown away.
Fast forward to 3 or 4 years ago and Thad came over (wearing his ‘glasses’) to ask us to keep an eye on his house – he was going to be in California for a while working on a secret project for Google. Once the rumors of Google Glass began circulating, I knew right away what his ‘secret’ project was!
Hearing his story last night and reflecting on my own experience watching the evolution got me thinking about a few take-aways on commercializing innovative technology:
Thad had been wearing ‘Google Glass’ for over 15 years but the market wasn’t ready for it. When he began his research, the addressable market was zero and it’s future potential was unknown. Advances in wireless made the device less cumbersome but more importantly – we had become used to convergence, mobile computing, and having instant access to information. Startups often face the issue of timing. All of us have heard someone say “I had that idea a while ago” when seeing a new innovation – but the entrepreneur that brings it to market at the right time wins. Apple’s first stab at a tablet, the Newton, failed because it was too early. It was too large to succeed as a personal digital assistant and the internet and applications that fueled the success of the iPad were 20 years away.
Thad has been working on wearable computing technology for 20 years. He saw beyond the smart phone and PDA and sought to make technology even more accessible and usable in real life scenarios. We often preach “solve a problem” – but Thad was able to envision an opportunity before the rest of us. When I first met him in my driveway, mobile computing to me meant the BlackBerry I had in my pocket. He had been wearing his glasses for over 5 years by then!
Thad didn’t just pioneer this technology, he LIVED it for almost 20 years. He (and his team) used it in every day life. They “ate their own dog food” and as a result had figured out many of the challenges by the time the market was ready. When he developed the technology I don’t know if he envisioned asking it for directions, SMSing uninterrupted, using it as a ‘teleprompter’ for this presentation, or using voice control to have information instantly available in a conversation – but he was clearly convinced the applications would evolve.
Thad already knew Larry Page so the connection was natural. But more importantly, to hear Thad tell the story, it was a perfect fit for the commercialization phase. Google was born out of their work at Stanford and had commercializing academic research in it’s DNA. Larry and Thad both valued the goal of shortening the time between “intent and action” and focused on tasks that using the technology would make not only easier – but instant. They also shared the view that actual usage in the field was critical during the development cycle. Not only did Google have the resources, distribution, and relevant IP – but the shared vision and passion to make it a reality were critical for commercializing the technology.
As captivating as his Google Glass story was – he seemed equally excited to tell us about his latest work exploring wearable computing for ‘passive haptic learning.’ His team has developed a wireless glove that can literally teach you the muscle memory needed to play a song on the piano just by wearing the glove while you go about your everyday life (check it out here). The potential applications for physical therapy and recovery are mind-boggling.
The audience of mostly tech CXO’s was blown away by his presentation. I’ve learned a ton watching him evolve and then commercialize his technology. Atlanta and Georgia Tech are lucky to have Thad here – I would bet this won’t be his last commercialization success!