Thursday, April 19, 2012

Google Has Competition for Internet Eyeglasses

Story first appeared in The Wall Street Journal.

Google Inc. generated a heavy dose of nerdy buzz for its “Project Glass” eyeglasses earlier this month, but the Web search giant may find an unlikely Japanese competitor eyeing the same prize.

Japan’s telecommunications monolith Nippon Telegraph and Telephone Corp. developed a prototype pair of glasses running its “SightFinder” technology earlier this year. It taps into the power of cloud computing, or computers running over the Internet, to help blind people walk the streets safely or prevent the elderly from getting into accidents that they don’t see coming.

While a staid, former government-owned monopoly like NTT can’t match the Silicon Valley cache of Google, both pairs of glasses try to integrate the Internet with glasses. Google’s “Project Glass” eyewear allows the bespectacled to receive messages from friends, check online schedules, and map out directions through the glasses.

By contrast, NTT’s SightFinder sends streaming images from a camera to one of NTT’s data centers to recognize and identify street signs or potential obstacles. In real time, NTT’s computers analyze the images and provide warnings – street construction causing a detour or a cone in front of a pothole – via an Internet-connected device like a smartphone to help the visually impaired to  move freely.

While NTT says the technology is not limited to glasses, it may make the most sense there to track what people are looking at. Other possibilities under consideration include putting the SightFinder in wearable objects such as neck straps. NTT’s glasses, like Google’s, will also be able to provide directions, a feature that the company thinks foreign travelers will find useful.

In a Japanese video NTT posted on Facebook, it showed other potential scenarios for the technology including warning the elderly about oncoming cars.

NTT said it hopes to launch SightFinder this year, but price and timing is still undetermined. The company is in talks with potential commercial partners including local governments, but nothing has been finalized yet.

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