(Bloomberg) -- A few weeks ago, a New Zealand doctor donned Google Glass and beamed video of an aortic surgery to the U.S. offices of medical device maker Endologix Inc.
The test demonstrated the potential power of a technology that famously flopped with consumers but is quickly becoming a go-to gadget for the medical world. Google is expected to roll out a new version of Glass in the coming months, and medical device makers, hospitals and family doctors are eagerly anticipating improvements. These will probably include an adjustable eyepiece, longer-lasting battery and water-resistant properties, according to people familiar with the project.
Medical professionals see Glass -- lightweight eyewear that lets wearers livestream events, take notes, surf the Web and more -- as a way to save money and provide better care. Endologix plans to use Glass to train doctors to implant the stents and arterial grafting technology it sells.
“In the future, I could see every physician wearing the Glass for training,” said Keri Hawkins, Endologix’s global director of professional education. “It will change the way we train in healthcare.”
While Google doesn’t make much money from the relatively small business, Glass is another way to hook users on its features and services, which in turn lets the company scoop up data and sell more ads. Google declined to comment.
When Google rolled out Glass in 2013, initial rapture for the concept quickly gave way to ridicule. Early adopters willing to pay $1,500 for a pair of Web-streaming glasses were deemed “glassholes” and Google stopped selling the gadget to consumers earlier this year.
Still, the company said it would continue to invest in the enterprise market and last year announced “Glass at Work,” an initiative to encourage software developers to target businesses. A host of startups are doing just that for a range of industries, from health care and telecommunications to manufacturing and energy.
“We recognized the medical applications very early,” said Jim Kovach, a senior vice president at CrowdOptic, which sells Glass software for industries ranging from healthcare to sports. “You are saying to yourself, Gosh this would be a great clinical tool.’ When Google said we are going to retrench and make it an enterprise device, we were ready.”
Ramon Llamas, an analyst at researcher IDC, says most of the Glass devices sold last year probably went to corporate clients -- many of them in the medical field -- who have kept buying this year. Distributors interviewed for this story say Google may have sold hundreds of thousands of units. Glass is outselling other light, eyewear displays at least six to one, according to Brian Ballard, who runs APX Labs, a company that provides software for wearable devices.
Getting a fix on Glass’s sales potential is hard because analysts include it in a broad category of headmounted displays that include everything from fancy binoculars to the gear pilots wear. The market for head-mounted displays is expected to reach a cumulative 25 million units by 2018, Gartner says.
Distributors and software providers are betting that Glass sales will pick up once the new version comes out. Earlier this year, Tony Fadell -- who helped design Apple Inc.’s iPod before creating the Nest thermostat -- was put in charge of the Glass project, and has been charged with making the device more elegant and user friendly.
The eyepiece, or prism, is bigger, people familiar with the matter said, and can adjust up and down -- something the previous version couldn’t do. Now foldable, the device will let users swap prescription lenses in and out with a push of a button. Besides a more powerful battery, the new Glass features two antennas for improved connectivity, said the people, who asked not to be identified because the information isn’t public. The device is also highly water-resistant, so doctors can safely wipe it with an antiseptic, they said.
For Endologix, which uses CrowdOptic technology, Glass promises to be a cost-saver. Today the company flies in small groups of doctors to attend training surgeries; in the future, up to 450 people will be able to watch a Glass-wearing surgeon from their desktops, asking questions and receiving answers in real time.
Augmedix, which has raised $28 million from investors such as Emergence Capital Partners since its 2012 founding, provides Glass devices loaded with software that automatically fills out medical records as doctors speak with patients. The company charges “single-digit thousands” every month for each doctor, said Ian Shakil, Augmedix’s chief executive officer, who says right now doctors spend a third of their time on paperwork.
“We have seven health-system customers, hundreds of users,” Shakil said. “Next year we’ll reach thousands.”
At the Palo Alto Medical Foundation for Health Care, Research and Education, 10 internal medicine doctors have been testing Google Glass for the past nine months, using it to take notes during consultations. Now the non-profit healthcare provider, plans to give the device to many more doctors.
“It’s been a real physician’s delighter,” said Francis Marzoni, the foundation’s executive vice president. “The pilot has succeeded beyond my wildest dreams.”
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