The patented history and future of… Google Glass

Quite the spectacle
The patent history of Google Glass

The story of Google Glass is one of bold visions and broken dreams. It's a tale that will be told to the end of time, on the pages of history books and the whispers of folklore. "Mother, father," your children will beam as you sit around the roaring fire, "tell us again about Google Glass". And then for hours you'll regale them with tales of the short-lived wearable. How Google envisioned the future of smartglasses. How so many believed in the dream. How it was left destroyed, a hundred shards across Robert Scoble's shower floor. "I saw one with my very own eyes," you say as the embers eke out their final breath. "Yup, a real life Glasshole".

Either that, or we'll all be wearing Google Glass 7.0, which seems far more likely. As we've said many times we think Google Glass was always more a proof of concept than a real product, despite being made widely available, and we believe there's more to come.

And as we've learned from the rest of our Patent series, to tell the future we often need to delve into the past. Here's a rundown of the most important patents that led up to the launch of Google Glass, and the ones that have followed since.

April 2012: X marks the spot

The patented history and future of… Google Glass

Google announces Project Glass, its first wearable and a creation of its X Lab. Remember this early concept video - looked good, didn't it?

Sergey Brin wears a prototype to the Foundation Fighting Blindness event in San Francisco the same month. Details are scarce, but Google asks for input on what people want to see, and reveals that it's working on making a product that glasses-wearers can also enjoy.

August 2012: Unlocking the eyes

The patented history and future of… Google Glass

Google wants to patent an idea for unlocking a screen using eye tracking. It reads: "The computing system may determine that a path associated with the eye movement of the user substantially matches a path associated with the moving object on the display and switch to be in an unlocked mode of operation including unlocking the screen." In short, a bit like swiping to unlock your phone but, you know, with your eyes.

February 2013: Detailed design

The patented history and future of… Google Glass

Details of Glass are still quite thin, but this patent reveals a lot more about how it works. It explains how weight will be distributed across the frame, and outlines provisions for a gyroscope, accelerometer and other sensors.

It also describes the potential to use augmented reality to meld virtual images with the real world. It's clear that Google wants this gadget to do a lot, but it's not certain that all of these things will make it into the final product.

April 2013: Glass on sale

Google starts selling its wearable to qualified "Glass Explorers" for an eye-watering sum of $1,500. Glass leans on Google Now for many of its smarts and includes a camera and touchpad for interacting with it when not using your voice.

It doesn't go on sale to the general public until May 2014, by which time Google offers a range of different frame designs, and announces a partnership with eyewear company Luxottica. The main unit, however, is very similar to the Explorer edition.

September 2013: Glass for all types

The patented history and future of… Google Glass

Patents reveal Google is thinking about different forms of Glass beyond the basic frame. One shows Glass as part of an actual pair of specs, another reveals a sporty design for the wearable that would wrap around the user's head to keep it in place during more vigorous activity. Of particular note on this one is the lack of camera; the idea suggests a form of Glass that would be just about delivering visual information.

October 2013: Have heart

The patented history and future of… Google Glass

One of the limitations of Glass is how we interact with it. The trackpad provides one interface, but Google has an idea for hand gesture functionality, as revealed in this patent. Rather than tapping or swiping anything on the frame, you would be able to perform certain gestures with a hand to interact, so long as it's in view of the camera.

The patent describes examples of this, like tracing objects in your vision to cut them out of the landscape, or making the shape of a heart with your hands to "like" something you see and post it to social media. The idea never surfaced in Glass, but we can definitely see it becoming a reality in any future iterations of the device.

December 2013: More eye tracking

Google is looking at ways the human eye can be an input device. In this patent it considers a "gaze axis" and tracking the pupils so augmented objects are easier to see.

April 2014: First contact

The patented history and future of… Google Glass

Google's contact lens make its first appearance in a patent which says it would be powered by solar power, radio waves or even tears. It's a big leap from the Glass we've seen so far, and while they technologies could apply to the same device, the illustrations clearly show a contact lens that's very different. If Google Glass is dead, is this what's next?

May 2014: A more traditional look

The patented history and future of… Google Glass

Google Glass's biggest problem was arguably looks, but what if Google could make it less conspicuous? That seems to be the idea behind the latest patent which, again, describes mounting the display entirely into a pair of glasses with no external projector. Not only would it make Glass more appealing to wear, it could even make it easier to use.

More evidence that Google is interested in applying the idea to a more traditional glasses design. Note that this this patent was refreshed in October 2016. That doesn't mean the next Glass will definitely look like this, but Google is holding onto the idea. Another one follows in August.

June 2014: A new audio solution

Google invents a new way of delivering sound to the Glass wearer: ultrasonic waves. It describes a means of wirelessly beaming the audio to the ear in a way that only that person could hear the sound. Neat.

November 2014: Projecting

The patented history and future of… Google Glass

But what if Glass could project onto other things, like a wall, or a car windshield? Google has a new invention for a Glass projector that would mean you could share things with other people, or simply throw images and information on a bigger surface.

December 2014: Glass to slim down?

The patented history and future of… Google Glass

Bulk isn't really Glass's problem - it's more the shape that's going to draw gazes - but it can't harm it to make it a bit more svelte. Google patents a version of Glass with a slimmer design; the battery pack is gone, and all technology is crammed into the casing around the prism. Still looks a bit weird, but better.

January 2015: Google calls time

The patented history and future of… Google Glass

Google announces it's ending the Explorer program, halting sales of the wearable. It insists Glass is not dead, putting Tony "The Podfather" Fadell in charge of the project, but it feels like the dream is over for now.

We soon learn that the next version of Glass won't be for normal consumers, but aimed exclusively at enterprise. The enterprise edition pops up at the FCC, complete with a foldable hinge, and then in 2016 on eBay.

October 2015: Holograms?

The patented history and future of… Google Glass

A published patent similar to the November 2014 projector one appears, but this one makes reference to holograms, and there's some speculation that Google may be getting cozy with the mysterious AR company Magic Leap. We still know very little about Leap's hardware even today- could there be a partnership we don't know about?

November 2015: Easy on the eyes

The patented history and future of… Google Glass

Taking the slimming down a step further, Google patents a version of Glass that would act more like a monocle. It would rest on just one side of the face with a flexible frame that could be easily adjusted. We certainly prefer the look of it, and there's every chance it could be a sign of what's to come.

Read next: Smartglasses are being deconstructed and that's good for us

As we said at the start of this piece, the past hints to the future, and we'd bet our bottom dollar that some of these ideas are still being worked on somewhere in Alphabet land. We still haven't seen many of the patented concepts appear in the flesh, including some of the more advanced gesture controls and minimal designs.

Snapchat Spectacles have proven there's a thirst for smartglasses done right, and with Google's ideas reaching so much further, it could easily succeed with Glass 2 by making something that's as stylish as it is functional. It may be living in the enterprise realm for now, but it's high time for it to break out and have another go at winning over our faces.

Read more:
The patented history and future of... the Apple Watch
The patented history and future of... Android Wear and the 'Google Watch'
The patented history and future of... Samsung's smartwatches

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