Google's Former 'Glass at Work' Chief Talks Smartglasses in the Enterprise

apxlabs eric johnsen 2

Eric Johnsen, APX Labs vice president of business development

Credit: APX Labs

APX Labs' brand new vice president, Eric Johnsen, chats with CIO.com's Al Sacco about his time as the leader of the Google Glass at Work program, why he decided to leave Google and his thoughts on the future of smartglasses in the enterprise.

In April, Google launched "Glass at Work," a program that certifies Glass-related products and services from third-party vendors for use in enterprise environments. The company last month announced its first five official "Glass at Work" partners and took some significant steps toward legitimizing its Glass smartglasses in the enterprise.

Today, the man who created the program and led the Glass at Work team, Eric Johnsen, announced his departure from Google to join APX Labs, one of the first five Glass at Work Partners, as its new vice president of business development. (Google says it already appointed a replacement for Johnsen, but it hasn't announced the news and isn't sharing the new Glass at Work leader's identity.) 

APX (pronounced "apex") Labs makes "Skylight" software that connects legacy business systems to Glass and other smartglasses. APX Labs says the Skylight platform is currently in use at number of Fortune 500 companies, in industries including field service, healthcare, logistics, manufacturing, and oil in gas.

CIO: For some background, what exactly is Glass at Work?

Eric Johnsen: Glass at Work is a go-to-market [program] for Glass in the enterprise. It's figuring out how to service the enterprise space with Glass and the Glass ecosystem of partners. It's similar to any other certification program or partner program. It makes it easy for customers to figure out who to work with and to feel comfortable with … as they look to solve their specific problems.

 CIO: Did you have any background in wearable tech or smartglasses before your experience with Glass at Work?

EJ: Not before joining the Google(x) team. The space is pretty new. [Google(x) is the name of the company's "secret" innovation lab and the team of people who work in it.]

CIO: Google announced its first Glass at Work partners at the end of June. The program really seems to just now be getting off the ground. Why leave Google and Glass at Work now? 

EJ: I felt like we'd gotten to a good point with establishing a whole new go-to-market area for Glass in the enterprise. What I saw as I talked to customers as the next big problem that needed to be solved, I felt like I could do a better job solving that specific problem and tapping that potential inside of APX. That specific problem is connecting legacy business systems that enterprises are using -- for example, SAP in the manufacturing world, where they've spent tens of millions, in some cases hundreds of millions, of dollars on this platform, connecting that with wearable technology like Google Glass or Epson's Moverio smartglasses.

Solving those specific integration problems and specific customer problems, that's the biggest opportunity right now. That's going to be solved by companies like APX.

CIO: Tell me more about APX. What exactly is the company about? 

EJ: APX is focused specifically on bringing information and data to workers in the enterprise by visually overlaying that information in front of them, specifically focusing on workers who don't sit at a desk and need two hands to do their jobs.

 epson moverio smartglasses Epson

Epson's Moverio Smartglasses

CIO: APX doesn't specifically focus on Glass, correct? 

EJ: That's right. APX historically has done some hardware and software. Today APX is mainly focused on the software side of things. The idea is to build a platform across a variety of smartglasses. Today the primary two that we work with are Epson Moverio on the augmented reality (AR) side and Google Glass on the heads-up display side. We're evaluating lots of other hardware manufacturers. I know the APX team has talked to pretty much everybody who has thought about developing hardware in this space.

Epson

The big differentiator for APX is building on top of those legacy systems like SAP or Microsoft and connecting that with hardware platforms like Glass and Moverio to then enable an "app store" for smartglass apps in the enterprise, if you will. Niche application providers can develop applications on top of APX's Skylight platform; integrators can use APX's Skylight platform, and, in some cases, we'll develop on top of our own platform, for specific customers, especially in the early days. Again, call it an "app store for smartglasses in the enterprise."

CIO: There are a lot of negatives stories being written today about Glass. Some stories suggest Glass is just an expensive novelty or that it's already "doomed." What are your thoughts on the future of Glass specifically? Do you think that idea behind smartglasses is more viable than Google's implementation of it?

EJ: Anytime there's new technology innovation, there's always a bit of pushback. I think the resounding feedback that I've seen when I talk to people in person about Glass, and they try it for the first time, is excitement. Things like, 'Wow, this is going to change the world.'

I think wearable technology in general is inevitable. In the enterprise, smartglasses bring a tidal wave of economic benefit and gain, specifically for CIOs. If nothing else, it gives CIOs the ability to take their investments [in legacy systems] and push that out to the rest of their workforce, if you will.

Today, most of the people who interact with those systems are sitting at a desk. All the workers that are out there with gloves on at an oil pipeline or with sanitized hands working on a patient in surgery, manufacturing line workers, they're not able to leverage the gains of all those investments that have been made in legacy business systems. That's what smartglasses do.

CIO: In leaving Google to join APX, are you distancing yourself from Glass?

EJ: I'm doubling down [on Glass], really. I'm jumping out into trenches, in the field, with customers and with APX. Another way to characterize it is, I'm climbing up the stack to a higher level of distraction, on top of the Glass stack, to solve deeper and more specific problems for customers. I'm going to be dependent on my relationship with the Glass team, so I've got to be confident in Glass at Work.

CIO: At first, most people thought of Glass as a consumer tool. But today, some of the most interesting, and potentially valuable, uses are enterprise related. Do you think that, over time, smartglasses will evolve into an enterprise-specific tool? Will consumers still use them? Or a little bit of both? 

EJ: It's going to be fascinating to watch. I think smartglasses will be used by both consumers and enterprises. They'll just evolve at different speeds, like any technology does. Before Apple, the standard way that new technology evolved was through the enterprise. I think Apple and Google changed that. People refer to the consumerization of IT.

My background is in the enterprise, that's what I know, so that's what I can really speak to. It's hard to contrast with the consumer side. I think the consumer side will play out over time, with definite ways that consumers can use smartglasses. Personally, I love wearing Glass when I play golf and when I run and when I cycle.

The things that are crystal clear to me are the use cases for enterprises in manufacturing, and oil and gas, healthcare and field service. There's a drumbeat of the same use cases coming up over and over and over. These companies have real business metrics and ROI that they feel like they can justify spending significant money to solve these problems in the enterprise.

CIO: We write about wearable tech on CIO.com often, but it's still difficult to find companies using wearables every day. When will smartglasses become commonplace in the enterprise? Is it going to take a long time for businesses to embrace wearables on a large scale? 

EJ: That's the big question. A big part of my role [at APX] is going to be to drive ubiquity of smartglasses in the enterprise. We think we're going to see huge uptake over the next two to three years, to the point where we'll start seeing the majority of Fortune 500 enterprises using smartglasses in some part of their businesses.

googleglass Google

Google Glass

I feel like this is going to happen really, really fast. From where I sat over the last year [at Google], I talked with hundreds of customers. Especially in those verticals I mentioned earlier, these guys have been trying to solve wearable-related and smartglasses problems for decades. The missing piece was the hardware. Now that we have it, they're all ready to run pilots and proofs of concept. It's like they had the battle plans sitting there, waiting. They had the legacy systems, they had the use cases, and the business problems ready. Now they have the hardware.

CIO: What are the main IT challenges related to smartglasses that enterprises will need to overcome to make wearables work for their businesses? 

EJ: The biggest challenge, frankly, is focus. There's so much potential and so many problems that can be solved with smartglasses. There's also really "boring," low-hanging fruit, such as using smartglasses for checklists. With a super-innovative, high-tech, bleeding-edge technology, why would you start with something as simple as boring as checklists?

The reality is, there's tons of ROI with something simple like checklists that can increase efficiencies in picking and packing in a warehouse, for example. Logistics is 10 percent of the world's economy. If you can make even single-digit percentage point improvements in picking and packing in warehouses, the impact is huge. It's just that focus. It's not trying shoot for the moon or solve crazy problems right off the bat. It's about solving really simple problems to prove the technology, and then it expanding over time.

CIO: What about cost? Glass is expensive today. Can logistics organizations afford to put smartglasses on all of their factory workers?

EJ: I don't see cost as one of the first things that enterprises push back on. They spend tens of millions of dollars on SAP rollouts or Microsoft Dynamic rollouts. Often they're thinking more about battery power or safety shields or ruggedization as they think past the concept stages. Those things are all manageable in a proof of concept, but as they think about 100- or 1,000- device deployments, that's when they really start to think about these things. I don't hear a lot of pushback on price. Consumers are a bit more sensitive on that. On the enterprise side, I don’t see that as a big issue.

CIO: What do CIOs need to know about the state of smartglasses in the wearable world right now? 

EJ: I encourage all the CIOs out there to get engaged and think about business problems they can solve and run proofs of concept. It helps them tap the investments they've already made in large technology software rollouts.

It's a really exciting area. I know a lot of CIOs are trying to find ways to get closer to the business side of their enterprises, to get more entrenched with operations executives. This is a great way to do it. It's a great way to help innovate. Not only is there a lot of hype and excitement around [smartglasses], [CIOs] can really help impact bottom line and increase top line, by making workers more efficient, more accurate and more highly accountable … It helps them get closer to the business, which is a struggle that a lot of CIOs deal with.

CIO: Is time to starting jumping in right now? Or is it prudent to sit back for a while to see how the market develops?

JE: To some extent, it's early days still. But in manufacturing, in oil and gas, in healthcare, in field service, their peers are already doing it. Quite a few of them are doing it with APX. We're not ready to share specifics, but we'll share some soon. I'd say to CIOs, 'Your peers are already doing it' -- and I think they know that.

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