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Foto: Niek Zuidhof

Smart glasses flop for consumers but flourish in healthcare

Sija van den Beukel,
3 april 2024 - 12:34

Google Glass, the smart glasses introduced by Google in 2014, seems to have died a quiet death. But the opposite seems to be happening in healthcare, observes UvA doctoral student Niek Zuidhof, who researched the medical applications of the smart glasses. “Technology is often used in a different way than it was originally intended.”

When Google Glass was launched in 2014, expectations were sky-high. The smart glasses would revolutionize the world because, for the first time, the user could see more than with the human eye. Via a small cube at the right corner of the eye, the glasses projected an additional screen onto the “real” world. The glasses would integrate the digital and physical worlds, was the big promise.


Healthcare could benefit from this, observed Niek Zuidhof, lead researcher in Technology, Health & Care and Employability Transition at Saxion University of Applied Sciences, who has been closely following the smart glasses since 2014. Zuidhof has spent the past eight years doing a part-time PhD on the topic, research he is completing at the UvA, the university where his doctoral supervisors Peter-Paul Verbeek, the current rector magnificus of the UvA, and Somaya Ben Allouch transferred to in the meantime.


Why was Google Glass an instant flop?

“Google marketed the glasses to consumers very early on, resulting in people walking around with them on the street and at conferences. The glasses were meant to take pictures or movies that you could immediately share on social media or with your friends. But privacy concerns arose. After all, the camera could always be filming and people also found the glasses ugly. So as a consumer product, the glasses flopped - for now - but they are being used in healthcare. Unlike with a smartphone or tablet, with glasses, you have your hands free.”

Foto: Niek Zuidhof with the smart glasses for Saxion University of Applied Sciences
Thomas Busschers, Saxion

What are the glasses being used for in healthcare?

“The most successful application I know of is in wound care, which is what I researched in my dissertation. If a patient has a complex wound, they normally have to come to the hospital for monitoring, but the district nurse goes to the patient’s home for care anyway. By giving the district nurse smart glasses, the doctor can watch the patient directly from the hospital. Through the glasses, the doctor can then place a virtual cursor on the wound to give instructions.


“The glasses then do not film continuously, but only when the district nurse connects to the hospital in consultation with the patient. This is done via a Bluetooth speaker so that the patient can listen in and a three-way conversation can also take place. This benefits the quality of care since the district nurse learns more about wound care, and the hospital spends less time with the appointment and gains something from the home situation. Patients also found it a lot more personal because they can also show their home situation.”


And what about privacy concerns?

“Those fade into the background the moment there is a good application, our research shows.”


If smart glasses work so well in wound care, why haven’t they already been rolled out more widely in healthcare?

“The use of the glasses in wound care is relatively simple, but if you want to use them for performing complicated surgery, more complex software and augmented reality (AR) are involved. In addition, the smart glasses are still too expensive. The cost doesn’t quite work out for wound care yet. I think that the hospital and district nursing should make agreements with each other about who bears the costs, which now fall on the hospital, whereas it is the patient and district nurse who benefit most from them. Costs are also saved, such as for the cab ride to the hospital.


“Also, with smart glasses, the work becomes more complex. The district nurse must perform several additional procedures: the battery must be properly charged, the glasses must be updated, and the schedules with the hospital must be properly coordinated. So the glasses are causing a change, which may well trigger a domino effect.”

“When the Walkman first came onto the market, people thought it was very rude to listen to music in public”

So have smart glasses actually flopped?

“That is indeed the question and it depends on the context in which you look at the glasses. Also, it is too early to answer that question. After all, technology use and our values about it change over time. When the Walkman first came onto the market, people thought it was very rude to listen to music in public. If you look down the street now, that’s all you see. People also did not see the point of the cell phone at the time. Eventually, text messaging proved popular among young people, a side effect, as we call it in the philosophy of technology. That texting triggered the development which led to the smartphone becoming more like a mini-computer with calling as a by-product. That’s what I find interesting about technology; it is often used in a different way than it was originally intended. Those very side effects can end up having very far-reaching consequences.”


Will smart glasses ever break through on a large scale?

“That’s speculation, of course, but I don’t rule it out. New smart glasses are still coming onto the market, such as display glasses, which you can connect to your smartphone and laptop, allowing you to work on a large floating virtual screen in public transport or on an airplane. That mixed-reality feature is also in the Meta Quest, the glasses from Facebook, and Apple’s Vision Pro. With the latter ski goggle-sized glasses, not only the projection but also the view of the real world is of such good quality that the digital and physical worlds integrate seamlessly.”


Now that your dissertation is finished, will you continue to pursue smart glasses?

“Absolutely. We are working with industry - factories that glue drainpipes and manufacture coir mats - to use the glasses to pass on expert knowledge. With smart glasses on, experienced employees can speak to indicate what noise in a machine you need to pay attention to, for example, or how exactly to adjust the blades for cutting coir mats. That knowledge is transmitted better through the glasses than through text. We will also look at how employees adopt these kinds of new technologies.


Niek Zuidhof will receive his doctorate on Wednesday, April 3rd at 2:00 p.m. for his dissertation “Tools or toys for healthcare. Investigating the appropriation of smart glasses by healthcare professionals.” The defense will take place in the Aula (Oude Lutherse Kerk) and is free to attend.