Health Tech

For Your Eyeballs Only

By KIM BELLARD

There’s so much going on.  There’s the coronavirus: It’s now a pandemic!  China can build an entire hospital to treat coronavirus patients in under two weeks!  Or there’s primary care: One Medical’s IPO boomed!  AmazonHumana and Walmart are testing their versions!  People are flocking away from primary care!  Or, on a completely unrelated note, Tesla wants to disrupt auto insurance too. 

As interesting as all those are, it’s augmented reality (AR) that I want to talk about. 

Stop thinking about Snap Spectacles or Pokémon Go as what you think of when you think about AR.  Stop thinking about the supposed failure of Google Glass.  Start thinking about AR being ingrained in our daily lives.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg believes “at some point in the 2020s, we will get breakthrough augmented reality glasses that will redefine our relationship with technology.”  He went on to elaborate:

Instead of having devices that take us away from the people around us, the next platform will help us be more present with each other and will help the technology get out of the way. Even though some of the early devices seem clunky, I think these will be the most human and social technology platforms anyone has built yet.

Not surprising, Facebook is rumored to be working, in conjunction with Luxottica, on its own (AR) smart glasses project — code name Orion — that is expected to become available sometime between 2023 and 2025.  CNBC reported: “The glasses would allow users to take calls, show information to users in a small display and live-stream their vantage point to their social media friends and followers,” and have an accompanying A.I. voice assistant.

Bosch smart glasses display. Credit: Bosch

Apple’s Tim Cook agrees.  “I’m excited about AR,” Cook said, reports Silicon Republic. “My view is it’s the next big thing, and it will pervade our entire lives.”  Apple’s AR headset is expected to launch as early as this year.  Bloomberg reports: “The glasses are expected to synchronize with a wearer’s iPhone to display things such as texts, emails, maps, and games over the user’s field of vision.”

Samsung is also expected to launch AR smart glasses this year, among others, and, of course, Google Glass never really went away, just changed focus. 

But what excited me lately about AR was a report from CES 2020 by Evan Ackerman about what Bosch is doing.  Instead of projecting the AR on a screen or in front of you, it “paints an image directly onto your retina.” 

Now we’re talking.

Here’s the Bosch promotional video, featuring a number of interesting use cases:

Mr. Ackerman was fitted with a customized set of smart glasses, as is necessary, and marveled:

It’s definitely true that for the first 10 or so minutes of wearing the glasses, your brain will be spending a lot of time trying to figure out just what the heck is going on. But after that, it just works, and you stop thinking about it (or that’s how it went for me, anyway.) This is just an experience that you and your brain need to have together, and it’ll all make sense.

Bosch is reportedly less interested in producing consumer products itself than in licensing its Smartglasses Light Drive to other manufacturers as “a complete, ready-to-use solution for smaller, lighter, more stylish smartglasses.”  Mr. Ackerman says “The earliest any such product might be available would likely be 2021. The light drive technology is not inherently super expensive, though, so any consumer smart glasses made with it should be available at a cost comparable to (or cheaper than) other smart glasses systems.” 

Because the image is projected directly into your retina, it is always in focus and works under all lighting conditions.  Others not only can’t see what you are seeing but wouldn’t even know you are seeing anything at all. 

We’ve all experienced being with people who can’t tear their eyes away from their smartphone or other screen.  It is often particularly felt in the healthcare setting, where patients often feel that their physician spends more time looking at the EHR than they do looking at them, and physician burnout is often tied directly to all that screen time.  

The Bosch approach could at least diminish the patient perception, even if physicians are still looking at other information as they talk to them.  

Tim Cook, for one, think this is something AR can help with.  “I think it’s something that doesn’t isolate people,” he said. “We can use it to enhance our discussion, not substitute it for human connection, which I’ve always deeply worried about in some of the other technologies.”  And he is “extremely excited” about tech helping healthcare, noting: “I’m seeing that this intersection has not yet been explored very well.” 

survey by E-Commerce Times found that only 12% of consumers (actually, heads of U.S. household that have broadband) consider themselves “familiar” with AR, although that is true of a quarter of Millennials and a third of Gen Z households.  Despite the low current familiarity, more than 60% expressed interest in getting information via AR. 

Right now, consumers still think of AR as through smartphones, but as smart glasses get both sleeker and smarter, that should change.  I’ll go a step or two further: just as I’ve long viewed smartphone and other physical screens as transitional, in a world of ubiquitous computing I believe that even smart glasses are transitional. How what devices might be “painting our eyeballs” in such a world, I don’t know, but I’m sure that in twenty or thirty years we won’t all need to be wearing physical smart glasses.   

Healthcare is usually late to technology innovations.  It kept paper-based business records long after other industries, it continues to fail on sharing/transmitting customer information, and usability is often at best an afterthought.  It is dipping its toe into both AR and VR, with some experts predicting AR will grow much faster over the next ten years, but in the case of AR I hope healthcare is a leader, or at least a very fast follower, instead of a laggard.  

Don’t blink or AR might pass healthcare by.  

Kim Bellard is editor of Tincture and thoughtfully challenges the status quo, with a constant focus on what would be best for people’s health.

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