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Google is about to create a multi-billion dollar market for cyborg accessories

AP/Jeff Chiu
If there’s one thing history can teach us, it’s that people will put almost anything on their faces.
USAPublished This article is more than 2 years old.

There are fewer than 10,000 Google Glass headsets in the wild—2,000 in the hands of developers and another 8,000 trickling out to early adopters—but already, creative entrepreneurs are thinking ahead to what will be a brand new, multi-billion dollar industry: accessories for Glass and other face-based computers.

Accessories for smartphones were a $20 billion business in 2012, and are projected to be a $38 billion business by 2017. That’s a lot of protective cases, keyboard stands and speaker docks. If Google Glass and the many competitors that will inevitably follow eventually ship in numbers that are even a fraction of the market for smartphones, you can bet that a healthy trade in accessories will arise to serve the world’s cyborgs.

At first glance, a wearable computer seems like a hard thing to accessorize—do we really want to stick more things on our face and/or head? But if anything, there is even more potential to accessorize Google Glass than a typical smartphone, in part because of its built-in wireless (WiFi, Bluetooth) and wired (USB) connections and always-on nature.

A boon for eyewear makers

Given Google’s target market, you can bet they’re working on a model that attaches to existing eyeglasses.

Google is rumored to be talking to hipster eyewear purveyor Warby Parker about creating frames that can specifically accommodate the little computer / eyepiece combo that comprises Glass. A recent patent suggests that Google is also considering putting magnets on Glass so that it can attach to any pair of glasses with corresponding metallic or magnetic bits. If Google Glass takes off, even people who don’t normally wear glasses could end up with a pair, resulting in a whole new market for makers of all types of eyewear.

Even before Google makes Glass compatible with regular glasses, the tinted and clear lenses the existing Glass headset comes with are a point of entry for a nimble accessory-maker. These lenses are a single piece that people can simply snap into place, making them an obvious point of potential customization.

Getting creative with add-ons

Todd Blatt
You can’t spell success without “accessory,” probably.

Todd Blatt of Brooklyn, NY has used his design skills and the insta-manufacturing power of 3D printing to launch a successful Kickstarter campaign for a variety of snap-on Glass accessories. While they’re mostly whimsical, one that puts a macro lens in front of Glass’s camera has at least some utility.

Todd Blatt
Macro lens for Google Glass lets you record strangers’ startled expressions from only inches away.

And accessory makers have only just begun to think about ways to improve Glass. At the launch of the iPhone, who could have predicted that an endless variety of iPhone stands and camera mounts would sell so well?

Glass will need all kinds of backup battery add-ons

Google says that Glass can go all day on a single charge, but reviewers have found the headset is more likely to last 3-4 hours with “normal” use, and it’s possible to kill the battery in just two hours with heavy use. Clearly, Google didn’t want to make Glass any heavier by putting in a bigger battery, but fortunately, there’s an alternative. Glass has a small USB connector that can be connected to a cable that could be run down the back of a user’s shirt, and connect to batteries and other peripherals.

Sure, running a wire down your shirt from Glass to a battery pack in your pocket isn’t going to help make Glass look any less ridiculous, but for people who are actually relying on Glass all day long, it’s going to be practically mandatory.

Hackers and hardware makers will make Glass the centerpiece of an ecosystem

Currently, Glass requires that you have a phone in your pocket for it to be truly usable. But connecting to Glass through its USB connection or wirelessly has the potential make it everything from an always-on video recording system to something like a real phone. For accessory makers who are ready to create their own hardware, this is the real potential of Google Glass: as a platform.

We haven’t seen a ton of accessories like this for smartphones because smartphones are already so versatile and self-contained. (The success of credit card-reading dongles like the one from Square is a notable exception.) But it’s Google Glass’s very limitations—limited screen real estate, processing power, battery life, and means of interaction—which suggests that accessories for Glass won’t just be cute add-ons, but rather enablers of an entire Glass ecosystem.

Perhaps the ultimate use case for a smart watch is as a complement to Google Glass; together they comprise a reasonable replacement for a smartphone. Or maybe we’ll get smartphones without screens that use Glass as their sole display. The possibilities aren’t just limitless, they’re also intriguing and weird, and suggest that Glass accessories could inspire creativity well beyond what we’ve seen in accessories for other mobile devices.

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