Google Glass in the Lab

During our recent San Diego Informatics Lunch program, we had a lively discussion about the possibilities that Google Glass and other wearables bring to research labs.  To get the conversation started, I posted a video clip from Digital Sciences, and Imperial College London, where they had envisioned what an augmented reality might look like in a research lab.

Is This a Tube I See Before Me?
Borrowing a line from MacBeth, one of the most commonly cited use-cases was the need to see the contents of a tube.  Imagine being able to scan the barcode of a tube and instantly see information about the compound or reagent in the tube. This might be the compound ID, and structure.  Or for a biological sample, you might have the protein symbol and 3D structure or sequence.

Admittedly you could probably do the same thing with the Google Goggles mobile app and QR codes instead of barcodes.  But this would be more cumbersome to do and you run the risk of contaminating the surface of your phone with the residue of whatever experiment was last on your gloves.

The advantage that Google Glass brings to this scenario, is that the experience would all be hands free.  You simple look at the tube, and Glass tells you what’s in it.

How Could Glass Fit Into the Workflow?
In some commercial labs, the process of performing an experiment is tightly controlled. A lab tech may be working from a barcoded work order that contains a printed protocol, and barcoded lists of materials to be used.  The tech usually scans their badge, the work order, and the barcodes of the materials before performing the experiment.

Imagine being able to simply glance down at your bench, automatically register the materials and the work order, and verify that all of the materials actually belong to the order that you’re currently working on.  Any materials that are out of date, might appear highlighted in red.

Imagine that you’ve just run an experiment with a plate of samples.  You glance down at the plate, and it shows you the results for each well of the plate.  If one of those samples has a problem, the well appears in red.  Suppose it’s not the pipetter.  Could it be the compound? Suppose you could instantaneously scroll through all of the plates where a given compound was used to see.  Or compare the results of the first batch of a compound against the current batch.  Did both batches of compound come from the same source? Show me the vendor card for this compound.  What was the age of each batch before the compounds were used?  Show me the batch information.

Are you free?
In many labs, it’s a constant hunt for a free machine (a gene chip machine that’s not being used, or a thermocycler that’s free).  Suppose you could look at a machine and know that it would be free in half-an-hour.  Time for a quick run around the park before returning to the lab.

Inventory with Glass
Finding materials within a lab can also be challenging. Racks and plates can become overiced, making it difficult to locate them without spending lots of time rummaging around.  With many freezers you want to limit the number of times that you put a rack of tubes through a freeze-thaw cycle, in addition to limiting the number of times the freezer itself is opened.

Imagine a shopping cart scenario where the lab manager knows that on a given day, these 5 work orders will be processed.  Rather than opening up the freezers each time you start a workflow, you could create a consolidated materials list in a shopping cart.  Simply staring at a freezer could show you an “X-Ray” view of the freezer with the locations of the racks you needed. You open the door quickly, pull the racks you need, and shut the door within a few seconds, without the need to dawdle in front of the freezer like a teenager with the munchies.

To transfer a tube from one rack to another, you simply move the tube to an open slot, and re-scan the rack.

The same scenario would also be useful for identifying the locations of expired materials within the freezer.

Safety Glass
Safety is another scenario where Google Glass could be very handy.  Suppose that a colleague has accidentally spilled the contents of a tube on themselves.  Do you simply wash it off?  Imagine looking at the tube and getting the Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) for the contents of the tube.

And speaking of safety, the current version of Google Glass can be used with prescription lenses, and potentially attached to safety glasses, depending on the type of frames you have.

Gesture Support
Currently, the primary way that users interact with Glass is through voice command, and by swiping the right temple of the frames.  But that can be annoying to your colleagues when every other word out of your mouth is some command to an unseen entity.

Currently Glass supports the ability to swipe the touch pad at your temple to swipe a card out of your field of view.  You can also navigate by voice using the keyword “Next”, by moving your head, or by blinking. But full-on gesture support is not there yet.  So no waving your hands around the in front of your face.  It should be noted though, that constantly swiping at the touch pad could also pose contamination and safety problems, especially near your eyes.

Getting Google Glass
If you haven’t heard by now, Google is opening up its Explorer program for the day to let anyone (with $1500 to spare) to purchase Glass.  You can find out more about it here.

How are you using (or planning to use Google Glass) in your lab?  Is Glass still in search of that killer app? Drop me a line.


About Mark Fortner

I write software for scientists doing drug discovery and cancer research. I'm interested in Design Thinking, Agile Software Development, Web Components, Java, Javascript, Groovy, Grails, MongoDB, Firebase, microservices, the Semantic Web Drug Discovery and Cancer Biology.
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