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Babak Parviz Goes Through the (Google) Glass

Babak Parviz Goes Through the (Google) Glass
Golden Mousetrap Lifetime Achievement Award winner, Babak Parviz, on how he created Google Glass, his new gig at Amazon, the Smart Contact Lens, and why humanities, not tech, is the future.

Babak Parviz

“To be entirely honest with I don't know if I qualify for an award like this,” Babak Parviz isn't being modest when he says this. He states it like a fact. Though feeling this way probably comes with the territory when you find out you're receiving a lifetime achievement award at the ripe old age of 40.

Parviz, who will be receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2015 Golden Mousetrap Awards in Anaheim,CA, is responsible for some of the most exciting technologies of the last few years, but at the same time he's probably the biggest name in tech you've never heard of. While he now sits at a top secret position within Amazon, Parviz is best known as the man behind Google Glass and Google's Smart Contact Lens project. And if his work thus far is any indication, he wants to completely change the way we interact with technology and the devices around us.

The Glass 'Experiment'

A former professor at the University of Washington (UW), Parviz holds degrees in electrical engineering, physics, chemistry, chemical biology, and english literature. His research background reads like a science fiction novel — nanotechnology, MEMS, biotechnology, augmented reality, and wearable computing. Yet when he talks about the origins of his projects he makes it sound almost casual, as if he was just the guy who decided to say what everyone in the room was thinking.

“When [the Google Glass project] started it has only one,” Parviz laughed. In 2009, a social dinner between Parviz and Vic Gundotra, then the Senior VP of Social at Google, sparked the genesis of Google Glass.

“We were having a social dinner and this topic of head-mounted systems came up,” Parviz recalled. “We brainstormed a little bit. At the time I was still an academic and we said we'd keep in touch. Over the course of the fall of 2009 we went back and forth to figure out what could be an interesting relevant program for these head-mounted systems and what shape it should take.”

Parviz's ideas eventually caught the interest of Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin as well as Sebastian Thrun, a researcher and computer scientists who founded Google's secretive R&D wing Google [x]. By 2010 Parviz had moved to Google to start working on Glass in earnest.

Since it's debut Google Glass has been both hailed for its innovation and cricitized for its problematic social implications (Image source: Google) 

By 2013 Glass was shipping in limited quantities to developers at a price tag of $1,500. It proved to be just as divisive as it was innovative. On one hand companies have implemented Glass into their manufacturing workflow to control robots, and healthcare companies have experimented with using it for patient monitoring and hands-free assistance for doctors. On the other hand restaurants don't want creepy “Glassholes” secretly recording their patrons and The Daily Show has mocked Glass users (branded by Google as “Explorers”) as being woefully disconnected from society. “An interface between yourself and the real world? Those are called eyes!” the Daily Show's Jason Jones joked. “...Magellan was an explorer, Chuck Yeager was an explorer, you guys have a ---- camera on your face.”

Google has announced that as of January 2015 it will no longer be selling Glass in its current iteration. While it will continue to support those who have already purchased Glass, the company is pulling back to focus on new versions of the device. The move shouldn't come as much of a shock. Google has never marketed Glass as a finished product and Parviz himself has said the device is still in its experimental phase. “It's still an experimental device, but I think it's actually been a very interesting experiment in getting a new device out that really impacts the interaction of people and the device, people with people, and people and their environment,” he said.

Unconventional Shapes

To get to the beginnings of Parviz (and Google's) most ambitious project to date —the Smart Contact Lens— you have to go back over 10 years to his days at UW, experimenting with contact lenses as a both a display device and a biomedical sensor.

“My area of research at the time was trying to put function into unconventional shapes and materials,” Parviz said. “I was working on integrating computing, sensing, and power into plastic, glass, and even paper – very unusual materials.”

As a contact lens user himself, Parviz was thinking of these problems every morning while holding a tiny piece of plastic on his finger. “At some point you put the two together and think, what can I do to create this incredibly miniaturized device and enable putting these devices into unconventional surfaces and unconventional shapes? It became about turning a contact lens from a material into a system.”

A deal with Novartis could see Google's Smart Contact Lens for blood glucose measurement brought to the market. (Image source: Google) 

Parviz and his team fell on two use cases for the contact lens – as an augmented reality display, layering digital information on top of the real world, and as a healthcare monitoring device.

“The display is interesting when you think fundamentally about what we see during the day,” Parviz said. “When you wake up you see your alarm clock, you see your laptop screen, you see the car dashboard, you see billboards, you see TV. All these things are just putting an impression on your retina, so in principle you don't need any of them. If you had a personal device in the form of contact lens that created a similar impression on your retina you could substitute all these other displays. You could have one display and talk to all these other devices.”

It all sounds very William Gibson cyberpunk in principle and it's quite difficult to build in practice. “We took really solid steps in the right direction building those devices. For example, we demonstrated the first remotely powered and controlled single-pixel display on a contact lens,” Parviz said, adding that his team also experimented with different power sources for the contact lenses such as solar cells.

The contact lens display has yet to come to fruition, but Parviz's other contact lens project nearly has. In early 2014, after three years of work, Google announced it was developing a Smart Contact Lens capable of reading a wearer's glucose levels via their tears. In July diabetes drugmaker Novartis licensed the technology and announced it would be developing it for the mass market. Parviz hopes the combined expertise of Novartis and Google will get the Smart Contact Lens to market even sooner than Google could alone.

The Eyes Are the Window

It may seem odd to measure blood glucose through the eyes, but for diabetics, who have to deal with needles and syringes on a daily basis, the technology could be refreshingly noninvasive and very effective. “It's a really exciting area,” Parviz said. “It's very unusual way of monitoring someone's body. It's unique because there's nothing else that can do what a contact lens does.” For patients it offers all of the pros of an implant with non of the cons. “It's not an implant, so if you don't want it you just take it out,” he said.

“If you want to measure someone's biochemistry continuously there are multiple options,” Parviz said. “You can maybe have them wear something on their body, but that usually doesn't have the proper interface with the body interior. You can do an implant, but as of now we don't have any implants – besides being very invasive procedure — that can last in the body for an extended period of time, like years, and maintain a chemical interface.” Electrical implants such as neural implants and pacemakers are common and can last because they do an electrical exchange with the body. Measuring glucose requires a chemical exchange (such as a blood test). Today, there are really no chemical sensors available that can last for extended periods inside the body.

When it comes to continuous chemical measurement in the body, it turns out our eyes are truly the window to the soul. “[The surface of the eye] is really a amazing because its covered by live cells. It's a direct contact to the body's interior,” Parviz said. “It's on the surface, but it reflects what happens inside the body. So if you had a device that could monitor what was gong on on that surface, in principle you could get a sense of what is happening inside the person's body without doing an implant.”

Parviz delivers a keynote at the 2015 Pacific Design and Manufacturing Show in Anaheim.

Status: Super Excited

Shortly after the Novartis/Google deal, Parviz left a cryptic message on his Google Plus profile: A picture of the Amazon logo accompanied only by the words, “status: super excited! :).” Parviz later confirmed that he was indeed leaving Google to take on a vice president role at Amazon. But all lips have been sealed as far as what he's working on.

His moved fueled a lot of industry speculation. Is Amazon working on a new wearable device? Maybe a Glass device of its own? Perhaps the retail giant is venturing into healthcare technology?

Amazon hasn't been known as a company to branch out as far as say, Google, in its product offerings but the company does take chances for better or worse. The Amazon Fire, the company's first foray into the smartphone market, had some truly novel features but earned both critical derision as well as a $170 million loss for the company.

One could argue that at Google Parviz had a front-row seat to the future. Has he just abandoned that to hang out with a company that made its fortune as a bookseller?

Parviz would say Google and Amazon have more in common than most people think. “They both have a lot of amazing people and give them freedom to explore ideas and allow ideas to bubble from the ground up, Parviz said. “At the leadership level both companies have people in charge willing to do radically different things. I personally enjoy being in an environment that's a faster pace; an environment without too may conventions.”

While he could not give any specifics about his new role at Amazon, Parviz did discuss data science as one of the current trends interesting him most. Big data is allowing researchers and organizations to collect all sorts of insights from data sets that previously hadn't been able to be quantified. It's the reason Target can guess that a customer is pregnant. “And who has more data than Google or Amazon?” Parviz asked.

But it's not technology that Parviz thinks will have the biggest impact in the coming years. Like any true English Lit major, he believes that humanities still have a roll to play and it will only increase as technologies become more ubiquitous and ingrained into our daily lives. “I think the importance of humanities will increase in the coming years,” he said. “Definitely the parts related to creating new things. There's a part of humanities that's analytical — looking at what you've created. Whether that's a novel, piece of music, play, or a painting there's a part concerned with how you interact with people. I think there's a lot there and a lot is unexplored and unappreciated right now. This combination of tech and the humanities is going to be pretty interesting to look at in the coming years”

Chris Wiltz is a Senior Editor at  Design News covering emerging technologies including AI, VR/AR, blockchain, and robotics.

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