Microsoft, Google, Apple Strive to Define Market for Wearable Computers

NEWS ANALYSIS: Microsoft made news recently when it was reported it has won a patent for glasses that can display a computer image before the user's eyes, but so-called "wearable computers" have been in development for years.

They're each taking slightly different approaches to the technology, but Microsoft, Google and Apple are among the latest technology companies developing what are called "wearable computers" that display digital images on eyeglass lenses.

The concept behind the glasses is to enable people to view data and images displayed on the special lenses and also look through the glasses to view the world around them.

The technology, for which each of the three tech companies has applied for their own patents, is not yet in production, but soon could be. If it comes to pass, computerized glasses could be the next big thing in personal computing, assuming that people find them useful and effective.

Microsoft became the latest entrant into the field as news came out in November that the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office approved a patent for a device that, as the Los Angeles Times described it, "delivers information about live events to a person wearing a head-mounted display." An illustration of the device in the application shows a view through the glasses of a baseball game while the display adds data like the names of the players at home plate, the pitcher's mound and on base.

Google demonstrated its Project Glass research at the Google I/O Conference in San Francisco in June during which a group of skydivers jumped from an airship onto the roof of the Moscone West Convention Center; CEO Sergey Brin, wearing his Google Glasses, awaited them. Google put early editions of its glasses on sale for $1,500 at Google I/O, reported the Times, but said that the product wouldn't be widely available until sometime in 2014.

Apple was granted a patent in July for a wearable display device, but the company is being typically tight-lipped about its product plans.

The products are based on a concept called "augmented reality" in which a user's view of reality is supplemented—or augmented—by information provided on a heads-up display. The concept is familiar to fighter pilots who see their speed, altitude and the position of their wings displayed onto their visor and to moviegoers who saw through Arnold Schwarzenegger's eyes his progress as the "Terminator" in the popular movie franchise.

A variety of augmented-reality (AR) applications were demonstrated at a forum at Stanford University in Oct. 2011. Some consumer-oriented AR apps were shared—mostly using smartphones, not glasses—including one for video games and another for shoppers to see how they would look after trying on different styles of sunglasses.

Given the abundance of potential applications, the AR market is poised to generate $300 million in revenue in 2013, according to the U.K.-based Juniper Research. However, it said that consumer awareness of the technology's capabilities and potential value is still limited and use cases are confined to gaming and marketing efforts.

The nascent AR-based glasses market, as it's being defined by Google, Microsoft or Apple, has slightly different dynamics as Juniper sees it.

The market for smart glasses and other wearable devices is forecast to reach $800 million this year and top $1.5 billion by 2014, Juniper forecasts. However, Juniper counts "wearable devices" as more than just glasses. They also include products like the FitBit Tracker, which attaches to a user's belt and records their vitals to a smartphone while they are exercising, and the Nike+ fitness device that is worn on a wrist and records data to a smartphone for analysis.

Nonetheless, the entry of major players such as Microsoft, Google and Apple into the glasses as wearable computers market can be a significant driver of adoption, Nitin Bhas, senior analyst with Juniper, told eWEEK in an email. He dates the initial development of "wearable devices" to the late 1960s.

"Players such as Apple, Microsoft and Google will play an important role in the future," Bhas wrote, noting that they, as smartphone makers, can be a great force for educating the user and employing their marketing prowess to generate demand.

"Within the wearable market, they will not only provide a boost to growth, but these players are capable of replicating the success they have enjoyed within the smartphone ecosystem," he said.