The application looks to patent multi-touch interactions with glasses including tapping, swiping, pressing, or pinching sensors located within the eyewear's frames, lenses, or the stem of the glasses. The filing, which was originally submitted in December 2012, became public this week. The patent was filed about six months after Google showed off an early version of what would ultimately become Google Glass.
The patent application is more proof the Microsoft intends to enter the wearables market. In recent months rumors of a watch running Windows 8 were reported on numerous technology news sites. Geekwire even reported that as long as two years ago Microsoft had plans for Xbox-themed interactive glasses. Nothing came of those leaked plans but evidence appears to be mounting that Windows-driven wearables are in the company's plans.
Is this the next big thing?
Google Glass, which the company describes as "a lightweight wearable technology that you can customize with different shades, frames and earbuds" is still being beta tested. The glasses were only recently made available to the public -- first in a one-day sale now in an open-to-all beta.
Glass has achieved a sort of celebrity that's bigger than its actual market impact. Wearables in general have received a lot of hype but none have done any serious sales. Research firm IDC released a report in March that predicts the total wearables market will be 19.2 million units in 2014. The researcher noted that "smart wearables like Google Glass have yet to reach millions of units shipped."
The small current market does not mean that growth is not coming. IDC expects to see "millions of units" shipping in 2016. Both Google and Microsoft -- along with other players including Samsung (NASDAQOTH:SSNLF), which offers an Android watch -- are betting that a huge market for wearable technology will develop.
"Wearable computing is still at the launchpad," says Ramon Llamas, research manager with IDC's Mobile Phones team. "The market has certainly warmed up to the notion of wearables, but the spectrum of devices is so large ranging from very simple, single-purpose devices to full-fledged computers that different categories will be able to gain salience sooner than others. This will either allow vendors to hone their products and services or jump in sooner and establish critical ties with suppliers, distributors, and other players in the ecosystem."
In short, wearables are coming but nobody knows which ones will catch on with consumers. Some form of glasses becoming a hit seems possible, but whether an eyewear product can become mainstream remains to be seen. It does seem likely that a glasses-based device will catch on with specialized uses including medicine, where doctors need their hands for other things. Gaming uses becoming popular also seems possible.
What will Microsoft do?
Google spends money on research and development of products or concepts that may never become an actual business. Sometimes that pays off, as it has with the company's ambitious mapping efforts. In other cases it's about lessons learned and gaining experience.
Microsoft is not as well-versed in the "let's do stuff because it might be good for mankind" philosophy. If the company is patenting technology for glasses there is a decent chance it has seriously considered making them. Right now Microsoft appears to be hedging its bets researching wearables and preparing for them but not jumping into a category that has yet to become established.
Microsoft was very late to the tablet game and lacked a real smartphone strategy until less than two years ago. With wearables the company looks to put the machinery in place to act quickly if a new category grows.
It was fine for Android tablets to enter the fray after Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) established that market with the iPad. The same could be said with Android and smartphones after iPhone. Being essentially third to market in tablets and smartphones has made it hard -- if not impossible -- for Microsoft to catch up. The company looks poised to make sure that doesn't happen in wearables.
Who will win?
Though the ascent of wearable technology seems more and more likely it has not happened yet. Google Glass is so far a novelty. Smart watches have yet to catch on, and the various exercise bands have not moved into the mainstream.
Google has put its wearable eggs in the Glass basket -- likely because wearable eyewear ties the company's search, mapping, and social interaction services together well.
Microsoft has not committed to any one technology and looks well-positioned to offer a Windows-based alternative to whatever type of wearable tech becomes popular. That may not be a trailblazing or an adventurous strategy but it's a sensible one.
There is no guarantee the public wants computers embedded in glasses, watches, shirts, or anything else. If they turn out to be, Microsoft looks prepared to capitalize in a way the company was not as the shift from computers to tablets began.
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Daniel Kline is long Apple and Microsoft. He wears glasses but not the Google kind. The Motley Fool recommends Apple and Google (C shares). The Motley Fool owns shares of Apple, Google (C shares), and Microsoft. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.