Have you ever watched The Terminator movies with Arnold Schwarzenegger as the cyborg from the future, his eyes viewing the world through a computerized lens of augmented reality with a constant display of relevant information, alerts, and visually-enhanced stimuli? Our popular culture has long been fascinated by the potential of augmented reality and futuristic wearable computers as a way to change the way we interact with and interpret the world.
Changes driven by augmented reality technologies are still at an early stage. Increasingly catalyzed by smaller, faster, and cheaper technologies, the advent -- and now ubiquity -- of cloud computing and mobile devices, and the power of a connected, globalized world, the next phases of this technology evolution will provide humans with experiences only previously envisioned in Hollywood basements, video games, and science fiction novels. Truly augmented reality is coming to a home, hospital, car, street corner, and grocery store near you, and it will change the way we experience the world.
Soon, Google will release a new product called Google Glass. It provides an augmented reality experience, where images are superimposed over what the user sees in real life through a wearable computer built into glasses. For Google, the glasses are a step closer to its dream of ubiquitous computing, in which computers and the Internet will be accessible anywhere, opening up a new world of information, communication, and social connection. Google envisions this technology as "seamless, beautiful and empowering," enabling users to share the world through their eyes. As you can imagine, the potential for new applications is enormous and could potentially be the harbinger for incredible new innovations in the augmented reality space.
Augmented reality, driven by wearable technologies, is the logical next step in the evolution of computing. But, what does it mean for health and wellness? As sensors and hardware become increasingly commoditized, a domain of data that was previously inaccessible will become unlocked: data about the body.
And this data, translated into information, then translated into insight and action, has vast potential to impact healthcare in multiple ways:
Alerts and Advice: Sensors can now cheaply track everything from your heart rate, blood pressure, and blood glucose, to the number of steps you've taken and if you've taken your medication and taken it correctly. Google Glass could instantly alert you, your doctor, or a caregiver that something isn't right.
Healthy Eating: Google Glass apps could instantly look up the nutritional information at a grocery store or restaurant, prompting healthy eating habits. The glasses could snap pictures of everything on the store shelf or on your plate, calculating how much you've eaten already, and privately advising you that maybe you should skip dessert or if you have a food allergy or if your blood sugar is too high.
Doctors and Nurses: The use of a hands-free, voice-activated pair of glasses could allow doctors and nurses to care for patients with both a technology-driven approach and an attentive bedside manner. Clinical decision support apps could also provide instant access to advice on potential diagnoses and alert clinicians when their patients in the hospital are experiencing decline and need attention. Other applications could include caring for trauma patients in the ER, when the use of both hands may be critical.
Happiness and Social Connections: Research has shown that pupils in the eyes dilate when people are excited or aroused by visual stimuli. Google Glass could also analyze your pupils with a second camera, it could calculate a Happiness Score based on what people see and save the date, object of interest, time and location of that score. This would open up new applications such as real-time matchmaking. For example, Google Glass could sense to whom you're attracted at a bar and could facilitate interactions. Google Glass could also inform you where in a city you'd be the most happy on a given night, based on where in the city people are the happiest and your particular happiness metrics and social network.
With Google Glass, Google has certainly taken a big step forward toward a future of ubiquitous computing. More broadly, the potential for Google to really live their promise of changing the world for the better has never been greater. The power of information to impact health, wellness, and patient care across hardware, software, services, and multiple use cases is staggering. The potential for this information to disrupt much of the entrenched status quo by tearing down systemic walls, empowering and informing individuals, and simplifying and beautifying design and user experiences could be transformative. With the U.S. healthcare system increasingly focused on the consumer and healthcare reform now the law of the land, Google has a unique opportunity to deliver needed changes to healthcare by re-entering the health IT space with a new strategy and continued commitment to an open, "de-walled" ecosystem.
As part of its healthcare strategy, many easy-to-use apps and services that the company has today could be deployed as new healthcare solutions, and an innovation ecosystem around new apps and services could be developed. If privacy concerns are addressed, the vast potential to reasonably integrate personalized advertising into this strategy as a profitable business model is an important consideration. For example:
Laura is walking down the street and is alerted that she has low blood sugar: She receives a note (advertisement) from a nearby Starbucks offering a chai tea latte (perhaps even at 10 percent off).
Jon is out exploring a new city and is committed to eating local, organic food: He receives an ad from a nearby restaurant or grocery store committed to these same ideals.
Kate's New Year's resolution is to walk 3 miles per day: An app for Google Glass reminds and motivates her to walk and provides personalized walking routes and ads based on this route and her interests.
For Google, a healthcare strategy should be an information strategy, focused on empowering, connecting, and healing people through seamless and beautiful hardware, software, and services.
I just hope that Google realizes how big the impact could be.
Joe McWilliams is a healthcare strategy consultant and committed supporter of a smarter, more efficient healthcare system. He currently works in strategy and marketing at Philips Healthcare, where he is focused on the identification and development of new business models for next-generation healthcare applications. Prior to Philips, Joe worked at Scientia Advisors, a healthcare strategy consulting firm in Cambridge, Mass. He has also worked as a consultant at Accenture and in business development and licensing at Partners Healthcare Research Ventures and Licensing, the technology transfer arm of Partners Healthcare responsible for investing in novel technologies from Massachusetts General Hospital.