Iterations: How Six Technology Investors Size Up The Google Glass Opportunity

Editor’s Note: Semil Shah is a contributor to TechCrunch. You can follow him on Twitter at @semil.

People won’t stop talking about Google Glass, and rightfully so. Ever since the epic parachute-hangout demo, the Valley has been buzzing about the future coming of what is arguably one of the biggest potential advancements in computer interfaces since the iPhone. Lately, the buzz has been bubbling as Google employees, early adopters (Scoble just posted his detailed review), tech bloggers, and contest winners have started to receive their glasses, combined with heavy, consumer-focused advertising, a dedicated fund pairing Google’s own venture arm with two of Sand Hill’s most storied venture capital firms. It’s gotten so much ink that new monikers have emerged, such as “Glasshole,” and the phenomenon was hilariously lambasted in the latest installment of “Jesus Christ, Silicon Valley,” a Tumblr devoted to over-the-top yet oftentimes valid tech-focused satire.

There’s so much to investigate with respect to Glass, so in this week’s “Iterations” column, I’m just going to focus on the early-stage investment side. There’s no shortage of opinions here. My two cents is while Google is investing lots of dollars into a consumer-focused campaign, Glass will not initially be a device that the majority people will want, need, or be able to afford (unlike a cell phone), even when the price comes down. It will also be a very different type of interface. That said, it’s no matter, because the commercial applications for Glass are boundless: Imagine a bunch of kids on a school trip to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, able to press on Glass and learn more about the sea life they see in the tanks. Well, I don’t even know if that’s possible on a watery service, but regardless…instead, I emailed a handful of experienced technology investors I know well to briefly weigh on how they think of Glass as an interface to invest in and around. Below is a collection of the answers I received, edited briefly:

Bill Lee is a serial entrepreneur, currently working on a mobile app, Twist. He’s also a well-known angel investor and LP in the Valley, and also sat down with me “In The Studio” earlier this year:

I’m skeptical that GG will get mass adoption. As someone that grew up with glasses, I couldn’t wait until I got LASIK/corrective eye surgery. I just can’t see myself wearing glasses again voluntarily (no disrespect to fashion icon NBA basketball players such as Lebron James wearing hipster glasses). While I don’t think there will be mass adoption, I do see several niche markets springing up. For example, people that really need glasses (elderly, jewelers, surgeons, etc.) should derive tremendous benefit from GG applications. I haven’t seen any GG pitches yet, but I expect to see several this year. As with all investments, I’d put more emphasis on finding the right team than needing to be the first in the space. If GG takes off, there should be ample room for a great team to innovate even if they aren’t first. – Bill Lee

Matt Ocko is a partner with Data Collective and one of the most selective seed-stage technology investors in the Valley:

In five years, it’s not about Google Glass per se, which is a brave but still early evolutionary step, but how dependent everyday people will become on certain types of ubiquitous but non-intrusive tech.  Specifically, tech that has to be amazingly powerful and sophisticated to achieve that very non-intrusiveness in the first place. A great example – and I think, the more interesting story — is speech recognition, which of necessity is a big part of Glass. Whether it’s in every car via a service arrangement with Apple and Google competing with each other to be the backend, or in lightweight smart earphones that can be left in for one or more days, or in Google Glass-like glasses, always-on listening with deep, smart taxonomies will be a fact of life – i.e., near total adoption by the middle classes of the G7 and beyond.

As an investor, I am looking for companies that presume the success of this kind of technology, then look at how they can apply equally profound compute and algorithmic innovations to transform different industries. For example, what do certain medical practices look like when the EMR/EHR platform is listening in on doctors and nurses, and has something like IBM Watson behind it, watching for missed diagnoses (e.g., sepsis in a hospital), mis-medication, or even malpractice? What does CRM look like when a salesperson’s or customer service rep’s efficacy can be analyzed in real-time from their conversation with a customer?  If the video appurtenance to GG’s “speech recognition delivery platform” (my own biased view) turns out to be important, then machine vision becomes the next huge ubiquitous technology (where Google already has an early lead), and we ask questions like “what does the advertising targeting chain look like when every product in a store is lit up under live video scrutiny by the analog of Google Goggles?” I’m indifferent to whether other hardware makers develop their own products, but a) I think they have to, if they want to be part of the “always listening” value chain, whether or not there is a screen attached (the GG incarnation) and b) I want them to, so that a “thousand flowers bloom” and there is innovation and consumer choice that drives rapid adoption. – Matt Ocko

Manu Kumar is a former entrepreneur and now microVC with K9 Ventures focusing on deeper technology investments, and about a year ago, hung out with me In the Studio to discuss mobile camera imaging:

While I was a student at Carnegie Mellon, there was a lot of work on “wearable computing” back then. For instance, check out VuMan from 1997 and Navigator. I cite these to show that the concept of Google Glass as a wearable computer is nothing new. It’s been around for well over a decade. What has changed is that now the technology has become advanced enough to make it a *lot* smaller, *somewhat* less dorky, and by means of being connected, hugely more information-rich.

I believe that Google Glass will be a long-term platform. The initial consumer adoption will be by early adopters — by a lot of us Silicon Valley geek-types who want to play with the tech. However, I suspect that the real adoption will come from more commercial applications — people who need to work with their hands and can benefit from instant access to information. Police cars are equipped with computers to provide cops with access to information on the road. You can imagine a Google Glass app designed specifically for police, fire, EMS etc. Likewise in construction, maintenance, inspection, lots of tasks become orders of magnitude more efficient, when imagined with Glass as the underlying platform.

As you know, I’ve been spending a lot of time on computer vision, cameras, etc. Glass presents the first really usable Augmented Reality platform, because it’s the first time that you can get a true overlay on reality, without having to be walking with your phone/tablet in front of your face!  I’ve already had conversation with some companies who are doing advance computer vision and augmented reality work where they could potentially do interesting things with Google Glass. However, since it’s been in such limited distribution so far, it won’t be until they get their hands on it and can evaluate what it’s capable of, before we can really talk more concretely about it. In other words, I’m very curious to see the potential of Glass as a platform for new products/companies, but don’t have enough information to act on it just yet. – Manu Kumar

Albert Wenger is a partner with Union Square Ventures:

I am quite optimistic about the long term potential of augmented reality. But I question whether now is the right time for a top down adoption strategy with a polished consumer product. It seems to me that we are at the hacker and early adopter stage instead. By going with an immediate mass market strategy and embracing celebrities I think Google is taking a very big gamble. Let’s keep in mind that the iPhone was far from the first smart phone. A lot of software and application tinkering had happened on Blackberries and other predecessors most of which had niche use cases. I often find myself saying to entrepreneurs that you “can’t push on a string.” It may be a tired cliche but it seems highly relevant for consumer products. If people aren’t ready for it, no amount of hype or spending will make the product stick. The people who are ready now are the hackers and tinkerers. So why not embrace them instead? (reproduced from Albert’s blog, with permission). -Albert Wenger

Hemant Taneja is a partner with General Catalyst:

Seeing a device from your childhood science fiction novels become reality is one of the most exciting moments for any of us who work in tech. However, the commercial success of Google Glass relies on three crucial parts. First, consumers must love the hardware. The product has to be intuitive and function seamlessly with everyday activities. Second, Google must develop a high-quality API that allows developers the freedom to create top-notch software and fully leverage Glass’ capabilities. Third, Google has to ensure that the best applications are discovered by users. All three of these areas are non-trivial and will take more time, and users should be prepared for the day when hype meets reality. Google Glass is an entirely new form factor, and thus there will be a longer uptake time than we have just saw the past two years with tablets. Given that dynamic, we are going to look for simple but effective applications that can can go mainstream as adoption of the Glass product increases with Google’s future iterations of the product. -Hemant Taneja

Rohit Sharma is a venture partner with True Ventures:

As an investor, the most exciting possibility about Google Glass is the behavior change it might produce. If Glass or other devices begin to connect and share meaningful information about consumers and their digitized presence, it opens up a massive new arena for applications. Another possibility is that Glass becomes the hub for multiple devices (FitBits, bloodchem sensors, watches, etc.) and becomes an additional app platform connected to but independent of smartphones/tablets. I don’t know if consumers will adopt it, that’s the biggest “if” — not the technology or the devices. There’s plenty of time for investing in a post-Glass reality if adoption happens. I haven’t seen any pitches yet but also haven’t been looking yet, as I’m much more interested in the behavior change it induces and provokes. -Rohit Sharma