September 16, 2013

CT companies look to take Google Glass beyond the consumer

Image | Contributed
Image | Contributed
Connecticut companies are experimenting with early versions of Google Glass, the futuristic eyewear technology, shown above, with computer capabilities.
Photo | Contributed
Michael Wengrovitz, vice president of innovation at Wallingford’s MutuaLink, shows off at a recent tradeshow how the company’s radio networking technology can work in tandem with Google Glass.

How does a communications networking provider that counts police departments, hospitals and militaries among its core customers get access to Google Glass?

Just like anyone else. They ask nicely and hope. That's what happened to Wallingford's MutuaLink, which makes technology that allows incompatible radio systems to talk to each other.

MutuaLink executives say they see the computerized eyeglasses as an intriguing hardware add-on to the company's services, one that could allow police officers and firefighters to share live video, audio and building blueprints in emergency situations like school shootings.

Company execs pitched their idea to Google earlier this year in a contest held through social media websites like Twitter and Google Plus. Google was looking to send a limited number of its new eyewear technology — still in the development stage — around the country to learn more about how various industries might use them. When Google informed MutuaLink that it had been selected to purchase an early version of Glass, the communication firm's executives drove to New York City to buy a pair for $1,500. They were one of 8,000 "explorers" selected by the search engine giant, which hopes its space-age specs will be the next big thing in tech.

Though a Google spokeswoman would not reveal a full list of Connecticut explorers, several other organizations in the state are test piloting the futuristic eyeglasses. They include Hartford Hospital, Community Health Center in Middletown and Yale-New Haven Hospital.

Michael Wengrovitz, MutuaLink's vice president of innovation, is building Google Glass software to test how first responders might be able to use the glasses with MutuaLink's peer-to-peer IP network.

Hundreds of emergency agencies, including some in Hartford, use the company's network and software to link their radio systems with agencies in other towns or states.

Wengrovitz thinks MutuaLink's pitch was unique because it added another element to the idea of video conferencing, in which participants can see and chat with each other.

"We have a twist on it here," Wengrovitz said. "You could listen to one group of people you never see, but be watching video of other guys."

That could come in handy in numerous emergency situations, like when a police commander is watching a live feed from a responding officer, but communicating through audio with a dispatcher.

MutuaLink CEO Mark Hatten said the firm has already received inquiries from various domestic agencies about Glass capabilities, as well as from security forces the company is working with in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, the site of the 2016 Olympics.

A more developed version of Google Glass likely won't be released to the market until 2014, but MutuaLink is showing its Glass work at emergency responder and communications trade shows. The company thinks it could have its system ready for Glass integration within four months of the official release.

"We are definitely promoting it to agencies as something up and coming in the future," Wengrovitz said.

In selling experimental versions of Glass to firms and individuals in various industries, Google is taking a cautious approach with a product that has an uncertain appeal to consumers, said Guido Lang, assistant professor of computer information systems at Quinnipiac University in Hamden.

"An everyday consumer who expects a polished product would pick up the Glass and be disappointed," Lang said. "Geeks don't mind dropping the $1,500. It feels exclusive."

Collaboration among various companies — and the industry-specific uses they turn up — is going to be a key factor for Glass's potential future success, said Lang's Quinnipiac colleague Ruby El Kharboutly, an assistant professor of software engineering.

"I think what Google is trying to do is test it on a diverse range of people, and this is one easy way to do it," Kharboutly said.

Glass for health

The emergency room can be a hectic place, with demands on doctors and staff changing on a dime. At Hartford Hospital's Center for Education, Simulation and Innovation (CESI), doctors and technologists work to develop better ways to train physicians, nurses and other medical staff using high-tech mannequins and simulations.

Google Glass, said simulation technician Chris Madison, seemed like a natural fit.

"We can test things like 'what if we put the mannequin's vital [signs] on Glass?'" Madison said. "We can start examining how that impacts patient care."

Since there is not yet scientific proof — only a hunch — that Glass would help doctors, CESI aims to conduct and publish a research study on using Glass.

The center is also looking into more advanced features, such as linking a fiber optic camera to Glass, or creating a scheduling app to assign emergency room doctors to patients, said Dr. Thomas Nowicki, an ER physician and director of cognitive simulation at CESI.

Another idea is to beam vital lab test results to ER doctors that signal when a patient needs immediate attention.

"The thing we're balancing it all against is information overload," Nowicki said. "If you get told everything that's happening, it's overwhelming and not useful."

On the opposite side of the emergency care spectrum are community health centers, which provide services for elderly or low-income patients.

Aldon Hynes, social media manager at Community Health Center in Middletown, convinced Google the center could highlight health disparities for underserved populations.

One idea he has is to use the GPS capabilities of Glass to provide pop-ups to the user containing information about nearby health services, amenities and places to purchase healthier food.

Another idea Hynes is developing is using Glass for multi-doctor videoconferences. CHC holds videoconferences for patients who have complicated health problems, such as Hepatitis C. Hynes wants specialists conducting a teleconference to be able to see the patient as if they were in the same room.

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