Picture this: A patient at home is struggling to breathe and calls 911. The emergency medical technicians arrive and determine they need help from a doctor. One EMT slips on a pair of 5G-enabled smart glasses and is able to receive guidance from a doctor at the local hospital who can see the patient through the EMT's glasses. The glasses allow the EMT to be hands-free and able to conduct whatever procedure the doctor recommends.
This may seem a bit far-fetched, but the current COVID-19 pandemic is putting a spotlight on the importance of 5G and what it can do for mission-critical services such as remote healthcare. The end result is that demand for smart glasses and other 5G-enabled wearable technologies is increasing rapidly.
According to Paul Travers, president and CEO of smart glasses manufacturer Vuzix, the timeline for 5G-enabled smart glasses has accelerated. To that end, Verizon in July announced a partnership with Vuzix to develop 5G-enabled glasses that can be used by first responders and public safety agencies. Verizon is giving Vuzix access to its 5G First Responder Lab as well as its 5G specialists so that the two companies can develop these 5G-enabled glasses over the next six months. Vuzix plans to unveil a commercial version in January 2021 to workers in the emergency management sector.
Travers said that the company has been approached by a number of wireless firms and it is working with other operators in addition to Verizon.
Although it's still early in the Verizon partnership, Travers said the Vuzix Wi-Fi-enabled smart glasses already can connect to a 5G hub or hotspot that is located in an ambulance or fire truck. He calls this the first phase.
For the next phase, the 5G-enabled smart glasses will need a 5G module that is small enough to embed in the glasses. "5G radios aren't low power yet," Travers said, adding that power is the biggest issue because it adds weight to the glasses. One way to get around this, Travers said, is to have the glasses wired into a battery pack and a 5G module, but that is still just a short-term solution until 5G modules shrink in size.
Travers said that the Vuzix smart glasses can connect using 4G or Wi-Fi. But the advantage of 5G is that the network will be able to stream video without delay. "Our glasses can stream video over 4G but you have to give the Internet time and sometimes there is delay," Travers said. In a remote medical environment, a delay can be extremely problematic.
Travers said 5G and edge computing technologies could eliminate delays in streaming video or other applications such as virtual reality or augmented reality.
Travers also believes that with edge computing, much more of the computing power of the smart glasses will be able to reside in the edge cloud. That will benefit the glasses and the glasses wearer because if the computing power is in the cloud, the glasses can be lighter, smaller and less expensive.
It's important for the smart glasses to be light and comfortable, Travers said, because many of the potential 5G use cases for these glasses will require people to wear them for long periods of time.
And he also admits that people don't want to wear goofy-looking glasses. Travers said that when the company was working with the military on custom smart glasses, the organization specifically asked that the glasses be made to look similar to the Oakley-brand of eyewear.
Before Google Glass
Vuzix has been around since 1997, and has been making smart glasses long before Google Glass made headlines with its consumer smart glasses.
The defense industry was one of the early markets for Vuzix's smart glasses, but the company also makes industrial wearables that are used in factories and by enterprises.
The Vuzix M-series of smart glasses run on an Android operating system and feature the Qualcomm SR1 platform. The glasses can be ruggedized and waterproof for certain applications. They cost between $999 and $2,499 per pair.
Besides Google, other Vuzix competitors include Magic Leap and Microsoft's Hololens.
Magic Leap made headlines last month when it named former Qualcomm and Microsoft executive Peggy Johnson as its CEO. The company has been trying to pivot away from its consumer-focused virtual reality business to a more enterprise and industrial-focused model. Hololens, meanwhile, is also pursuing the enterprise market with its headsets.
— Sue Marek, special to Light Reading. Follow her @suemarek.