Virtual reality (VR) is having issues, but augmented reality (AR) seems to be gaining a following in business. Ever since Google launched Google Glass and the name “Glasshole” was created, I’ve had my doubts about the security of the related solutions. Having a wireless camera on someone’s head without a huge focus on security would seem to be asking for a major problem. Everything from streamed videos of hostile exit interviews, to having a public video record of an unannounced product suggests that more should have been done about securing the stream than creating it in the first place. I get ease of use, but given that someone might accidentally wear this into a gym locker room and kill their career, I felt there should be more rigor involved in how these things were used and how aggressively the resulting files were secured.
Last week, Vuzix, which has been making head-mounted displays for some time, and BlackBerry, which has largely shifted to being a software company focused on mobile security and device management, appeared to close the gap. I think it is long overdue.
Let’s chat about secure head-mounted displays and cameras.
The Need for AR
One of the big industry needs for some form of AR can be found on YouTube, where you can find video after video of folks looking down at their phone and stepping into trouble because they aren’t looking where they are going. On a plant site often surrounded by equipment that could slice and dice a human, this behavior is likely resulting in a lot of avoidable accidents that could be eliminated by either removing the phone from the mix or shifting what was being viewed to a head-mounted display.
The difficulty in banning phones is that while this likely gives you some out if someone defies the ban, which they will, it doesn’t prevent the loss of work due to the resulting injury. And unless you enforce the ban aggressively, it likely won’t protect you from litigation either. No one should have a smartphone, or a tablet for that matter, in use while moving around in a hard hat area. Given those videos, I’d argue this should also be true on city streets.
This just addresses uses that aren’t company related, but when we get to the fact that much of the time a tablet is used, it is authorized by the firm, this safety aspect becomes more pronounced. Head-mounted displays not only increase effectiveness during activities like maintenance, training, security or inventory, they also protect that user from accidents as well by moving their eyes from their tablet to where they are going.
Even the built-in camera is useful because, when used properly, it provides context for what the display sees and can provide both a record of the activity after the fact and a stronger capability for a remote user to more effectively assist. It is, unfortunately, a critical part of the solution, but it is also likely the biggest security exposure.
If the camera or connected phone is hacked, then that camera becomes an unauthorized window into areas that used to be secure. “Used to be” is problematic if those videos make it onto YouTube. Speaking of YouTube, there is a decent video showcasing the promise and the problem of AR glasses there.
BlackBerry UEM is the firm’s Unified Endpoint Management product and this announcement signifies that it now supports head-mounted AR displays. BlackBerry UEM starts out being surprisingly complete. You can track use by location, you can disable a device that has wondered off the reservation, you can track use and activity, and you can prevent unauthorized use of a registered device. Granted, it doesn’t necessarily protect against unauthorized devices that are connected to unmanaged phones, and I’d flag that exposure to security. Authorized glasses should likely have some hard-to-duplicate physical designator so that security, and other employees, could quickly see if a device is authorized.
Particularly in secure areas, if there is a solution like BlackBerry UEM in place, no smartphone without coverage should be allowed in the space. They are too easily hacked and having a connected recording device would be extremely problematic to assuring security.
Given that Vuzix appears to be the only vendor with this connection into BlackBerry UEM, you’d think just seeing the brand might be good enough. But you couldn’t tell whether this was an approved headset and there likely will be other approved vendors in the future.
Wrapping Up: Pros and Cons of AR Are Manageable
Increasingly, AR glasses will become a requirement, not only for increased productivity in certain jobs but also for increased safety. (If I could find a headset, I likely would be using one more regularly just for navigation while taking hikes.) But AR glasses represent a severe security exposure and they need to be both physically identifiable as authorized and tied to a tracking/management platform like BlackBerry UEM to assure they are used properly. (We haven’t even mentioned an employee who used these as an ill-conceived prank.) In the end, AR glasses could be a huge help in improving productivity in some jobs, and safety in general, but they could also be a huge security problem. Assuring the former while avoiding the latter should be a higher priority than it is, regardless of the tools you use.
Rob Enderle is President and Principal Analyst of the Enderle Group, a forward-looking emerging technology advisory firm. With over 30 years’ experience in emerging technologies, he has provided regional and global companies with guidance in how to better target customer needs; create new business opportunities; anticipate technology changes; select vendors and products; and present their products in the best possible light. Rob covers the technology industry broadly. Before founding the Enderle Group, Rob was the Senior Research Fellow for Forrester Research and the Giga Information Group, and held senior positions at IBM and ROLM. Follow Rob on Twitter @enderle, on Facebook and on Google+