A Killer App for Google’s Glasses

What would a "killer app" for Google Glass look like? Tech-industry analyst Tim Bajarin offers his input, then asks for yours

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Dan Forbes for TIME

There’s been a lot of talk and excitement about Google Glass. They’ve captured the imagination of the technorati and even garnered feedback from the mainstream media in reports that Google’s computerized eyewear might be barred in certain restaurants and bars. Clearly it’s a fascinating product and concept, though it’s harder to say if it’ll catch on or be successful beyond early adopters who love gadgets.

It’s true that solid use cases for Google Glass could develop in vertical markets, possibly for use in medicine, transportation, public safety, etc. However, at $1,500 it’s hardly a consumer device. The fact that it could take pictures, record video, deliver speech to text and put you into hangouts — even get directions — is interesting, but it would have to do a lot more for consumers to spend that sort of money out of the gate.

That’s how this works, of course: most major technology products start out quite expensive and eventually come down in price over time. Part of getting the price down comes from the early adopters, who help to pay for the R&D costs of the product. And with greater demand, the vendors — in this case Google — get price breaks from component manufacturers, which helps pay down initial equipment and manufacturing costs.

(MORE: Google Glasses Seem Cool, but Voice Control Could Get Out of Hand)

While I don’t think Google’s glasses are headed for consumer-friendly price levels anytime soon, I do think there could be a consumer-oriented app tied to these glasses that might appeal to vertical users as well as a group of consumers that could actually drive high demand for the eyewear, even if the glasses themselves are pricey.

Because of the nature of my work, I’m what you might call a reluctant world traveler. Over 35 years, I’ve traveled close to 4 million miles (6.5 million km) and visited 55 different countries doing work in the tech field. I was born in the U.S., and my first language is English. I took Spanish in high school and on the side have tried to learn French (albeit unsuccessfully). Ironically, my dad was Filipino and my mother was German, and both spoke their respective languages fluently. But I grew up in a time when making sure your kids spoke English well was a priority, so my parents didn’t see the need to teach us Filipino or German.

Like any person traveling to another country where a different language is used, getting around in cities and understanding the various directional signs and printed text is next to impossible. I’ve been to Europe so often that I recognize key words and signs, in part because they use a Roman alphabet. However, when I’m in Japan, China or any other Asian country where they use pictographic images in their writing, I haven’t a clue what they’re trying to tell me. (O.K., that’s not completely true: I have learned to recognize the local signs for “the toilet” in just about every country I visit.)

There’s an amazing app on the iPhone that I use today to decipher words, sentences and even signs in German, French, Spanish or Italian when I’m in countries where these languages are spoken. The app — called Word Lens — uses the iPhone’s camera to translate a foreign language into English in real time. But because of the size of the iPhone’s screen, it only delivers a small portion of a sign or document’s message, and you have to hold the iPhone pretty steady over the words in order to get it to work.

(MORE: Google Glass: An Eyes-On Evaluation)

Now imagine if I were wearing a pair of Google’s glasses, wirelessly tied to an iPhone or Android phone and a mobile version of Google Translate. In theory, I could pick up the local paper in Paris and start reading it as the glasses scanned the words, instantly translating them into English for me. I might be walking down a street and see a sign on the wall of a building and translate it on the spot by simply looking at it. I could go to the subway in Japan and understand signs that offer directions with little more than a glance. Imagine how much it could help any world traveler get the most out of a trip abroad.

Perhaps the biggest adopters of this type of application would be diplomats, politicians and anyone dealing with international relations — including the military. One of my assignments in the past was at the E.U. offices in Geneva, and during my time there I was dealing with documents from dozens of countries that all had to be painstakingly translated. Imagine if I’d had a pair of Google’s glasses back then, taking one of the documents and reading it in real time. It would have changed my workflow dramatically. I know a lot of world and business travelers who I suspect would gladly pay Google’s high early-adopter price for a tool that could do this.

The big question is whether Google’s currently working on such an app. It’s hard for me to believe they wouldn’t already have this in the labs, since marrying Google Glass and Google Translate sounds like a slam dunk. From what I know of the technology, this would be workable today, since mobile processors are getting more powerful and so is the translation software.

I see Google Glass as a great product, but using it for real-time translation would make it revolutionary. The technology that could make this a reality is here already. If Google offers something like this at launch, I’ll be one of the first to buy a pair.

This is my idea for a killer Google Glass app. If you were consulting with Google on the Google Glass project, what killer app would you suggest they make for you?

Bajarin is the president of Creative Strategies Inc., a technology industry analysis and market-intelligence firm in Silicon Valley. He contributes to Big Picture, an opinion column that appears every Monday on TIME Tech.

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