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A new age of wearable technology

Farming is one of the -- if not the most -- hands-on professions in the world. Sometimes your hands are literally full, so it's tough to stop, dial a phone number or search for information on your smartphone, even though that brief task may mean the difference between productivity and a standstill. All of the most advanced technology in the world doesn't do you a bit of good if you can't operate it.

There's a new class of digital technology on the way that will change the way you communicate and operate on your farm and eliminate this conundrum. It will free up your hands and eliminate the friction between intent and action. It will make your smartphone or tablet computer part of you.

Wearable computers -- like the Google Glass device -- are making their way to the consumer marketplace. With availability expected sometime in the first half of 2014, Google Glass, a device tied to a smartphone or tablet and worn just like a pair of glasses, is touted as a way to have direct access to all the features of these devices without having to reach into your pocket and divert your attention for that access.

"Is this a glorified smartphone, and that's all it is? Something tells me there's more to this than that," says Higginsville, Missouri, farmer and crop insurance agent Gary Riekhof after trying on a Google Glass for the first time.

Glass is made of titanium and plastic, a durable combination, and uses a .5-inch square prism to display content in a translucent square that sits just above the user's right eye. Content is displayed just above the normal line of sight, going a long way to preventing it from being a distraction or intrusion.

"When you're looking at the display, it's like a 25-inch screen 8 feet away. So, when you're looking at it, it's a pretty sizable little rectangle," says Daniel Lopez, a Google Glass Guide at the company's Venice Beach, California, campus. "If pressed, I would say it's less distracting than looking down texting. The device is designed to be out of your way when you don't want it and to be there when you need it."

The nuts and bolts of Glass

Google Glass doesn't operate on its own. The device is paired to a smartphone -- Android, Apple iPhone, or Blackberry -- via Bluetooth. It operates in concert with an application that's downloaded to the phone and is tied to the user's Google account. Google is developing Glassware, its app platform that creates content in cards. In the Glass view, the cards are displayed to the user as if they're encircling his or her head on a ring.

The device has a touch-sensitive panel on which the user can tap and swipe forward, backward, and down in order to navigate through the applications. It also features a set of native functions common on most smartphones: photo and video capability, navigation, Google search, weather, email, texting, and phone.

For audio, there's no ear plug, but the device's earpiece makes sound audible via contact to the user's head and auditory nerve behind the ear, avoiding intrusion into the user's hearing just as the prism does with vision by its placement and translucence.

The device responds to a set of head movements (you tilt your head back slightly to "wake up" Glass) and verbal commands. To initiate one of the device's native functions, the user speaks, "OK, Glass," then says one of the commands. So, for example, if it's video the user is after, he or she speaks "OK, Glass, record a video."

"The voice recognition is right there where we expect it to be. If I didn't already have an iPhone with good voice recognition, this would've been a real eye-opener." Riekhof says. "It's easy to use. I wear glasses to read, and I can read the screen. I'm kind of looking up there concentrating on it, but as I get used to it, I think I'll learn not to look at it. When farmers first started using lightbars, they were staring at the lighters so long they couldn't work. Once you got used to it, you'd continue working, but yet you could make a phone call, send a text, take a picture, totally hands-free. That's going to be the neat part."

One (sort of) drawback to the device ironically is its responsiveness, says Bruce Rasa, a Google Glass "Explorer" and early beta tester of the device. Computer users are -- whether consciously or subconsciously -- accustomed to waiting for devices to perform certain functions. With Glass, the lag time between intent and action is slashed.

"It just takes a while to get used to. The crazy part is when you tap it, it starts in a second or less than a second," Rasa says. "It just takes a while to get used to how responsive it is. It's faster, basically, than any computer."

One early criticism of the device, and others like it, is privacy. There are many concerns surrounding the user's ability to take photos or record video undetected, something that could have major implications to its use -- and misuse -- on farms. In its current version, which will likely be much different in design once it's available to the general consumer, there's built-in transparency that shows when the device is operating and recording.

"People often ask ‘Are you recording me?’ You can see when the device is on," Lopez says. "As opposed to having a red 'Terminator' indicator light, it's a reflective prism, and if you look close enough, you can see what is on the screen."

Uses on the farm

The hands-free aspect of Google Glass, at first glance, is its primary benefit for use in the field, farmers say. Gary Riekhof's son, Garrett, who's in the process of taking the reins of his family's corn and soybean farm in west-central Missouri, says this aspect of the device is the first thing he thinks of when it comes to boosting his efficiency on the land.

"It's just kind of the epitome of hands-free technology. It would give me the ability to send a message or answer the phone when my hands are occupied or too dirty to answer a touchscreen phone. I would be able to maybe load a planter with seed while talking on the phone or trying to look up a phone number or getting directions or something verbally and see it right in front of me," Garrett says. "If we're tearing apart a pretty detailed piece of equipment, I could just have these things on and it would record how I disassembled that item. Then, come reassembly after the parts are in a couple of weeks later, I might have forgotten how that went together exactly and I can just bring that photo or video up and have step-by-step instructions of how it went back together. That's a rather simple example, but sometimes I wish we had things like that."

Adds Garrett's father, Gary: "I can't imagine the times that I've been able to take something apart, but I'm not really sure how to describe the broken piece to the parts guy. So, you just say, 'Look, Mark -- right here is what I'm holding in my hand. Do you have it on hand, or do I have to go to another dealer?' You don't have to stand there and try to describe it."

There's more to it than just being able to have these digital tools at your disposal without using your hands. Steve Cubbage, who farms near Nevada, Missouri, and operates several precision ag businesses, says the ability to monitor certain operations on the farm can inject greater efficiency in things like making agronomic and crop-input decisions.

"It's visually being able to monitor pivots and monitor the growing of crops, or even a time lapse of how that crop's growing, how it looks from day to day," Cubbage says. "From a precision ag standpoint, the possibilities . . . well, let your mind run wild. The support side is going to be the first one out of the gate. Literally, with our customers, if they have one of these, we can see what they see. So, we're immediately right there at the point of the problem, rather than driving two hours. So, putting ourselves literally right there in front of the customer through Google Glass, it's something money can't buy."

Gary Riekhof operates a crop insurance business alongside his farm. This sector is one he sees enormous potential benefits in the efficiency Google Glass can bring to the crop insurance claim filing process.

"As an agent, we have to stay at arm's length on claims with the federal program. But there's an awful lot of coordination that we are allowed to do. When a producer calls us about the need to replant, it's the obligation of the insurance company and the adjuster to make that determination: Does this field really need replanted, can he file a claim and get paid to replant?" the elder Riekhof says. "So, we can do this in a minute's time, instead of hours. A picture's worth a thousand words. We can do a 10-second video, and the entire message can be conveyed."

The case for wearables

Wearable computer technology like Google Glass marks a major step forward in both the consumer space and what it can offer for farmers. It's a shift away from what are considered instinctive ways of operating technology via a keyboard, mouse, and smartphone screen and carries with it a potentially sharp curve for widespread adoption. But farmers like Gary Riekhof are looking not at the change in how the device is operated, but what that change can mean to the way a business is operated.

"Back before cell phones, it was just a nightmare to go home at night when you'd been farming, because at night you had to make all your phone calls for the next day. You couldn't relax," he says. "But now with my phone, other than somebody trying to sell me something, it almost never rings at night, and I almost never call anybody at night because I've taken care of it during the day.

"Yeah, we cuss all the interruptions we get, but at least we can continue business during business hours and have a little peace and quiet at home. I don't mind that part of transition to technology."

Cubbage has already seen the digital transition in his work as a crop adviser and technology consultant. When yield maps first came along, the three-ring binder and file cabinet were the primary vehicles for sharing and retaining that information. Today, he uses tablet computers to do the same job. In the near future, the information may reside in an altogether different place, and in the process, grow in its utility to his fellow farmer customers while eliminating the friction between the moment a decision is made and when the action required is carried out.

"A lot of times, people will call us, as far as even a technical problem. 'Well, it's doing this, or did this.' If you're not there at the time it's doing it, you may not be able to recreate that. There's that friction," he says. "So, that instant response -- that instant gratification, so to speak -- is really something I think is going to be a big deal. It's kind of like when the tablets came out. Now, we don't use three-ring binders for our customers for their maps. We literally include with their fee a tablet just because they want it digitally. I can see this being just another one of those delivery tools to do business. It's part of the bundle."

Gary Riekhof also recognizes it may not be the easiest transition for many farmers. Yet it's the type of change he sees as both natural and critical to his farm's success and sustainability in the future.

"To me, it's just evolution. In my old family home, our telephone stood on that wall. 'Two longs and a short' was our ring," he says. "I couldn't give myself two longs and a short now if I had to. But, I don't really need to. We've gotten beyond two longs and a short now. Andy Griffith doesn't call Mayberry anymore, either."

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