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Sullivan Solar sees big impact from Google Glass

Internet giant Google has yet to make its Google Glass devices available to the public, but solar energy installer and designer Sullivan Solar Power refused to wait for it.

The solar energy firm bought its first Google Glass on eBay several months ago, thinking the hands-free device worn like a pair of glasses could significantly change the way it conducts business. Some of the changes could be simple, like saving field crews the hassle and safety concerns related to carrying extra things up ladders onto customers’ roofs -- perhaps laptops.

Mike Chagala, Sullivan’s director of information technology, said the company has found several benefits in the technology.

“We pretty much immediately recognized it as a game-changing device,” Chagala said.

After buying its first Glass, Sullivan signed on for more through Google’s Glass Explorer market-test program, and has since added a couple more. Chagala hopes to have five by January.

Because of the ability to videoconference with other Glass devices or a computer through a Google account, it’s ideal for troubleshooting on the job, Chagala said.

“The fact that it’s hands-free is one of the key points here,” Chagala said. “Being in the solar industry, a lot of the work that our field technicians do, they’re up on the roof. They already have things they have to bring up and down ladders, and it’s a problem that they sometimes have to bring information up to the roof with them.”

Using the Glass means a safer situation for field technicians. It also means that the technicians have a wealth of knowledge at an eyelash’s length. They can draw from the collective intelligence of experts and specialists away from the jobsite.

“That is invaluable, right there,” Chagala said.

The company plans to gather data from its use of Glass several more months before placing a number on benefits. But Chagala said the return on investment has already presented itself in the company’s future plans for the device.

The few Glass devices Sullivan has now are rotated among its crews and technology developers.

“We paid so much for our first device … but I can already tell you that as an investment of the company’s efforts, it’s worth it.”

Chagala’s team of technology developers has also created a mobile application to complement the Glass, which it claims is the first of its kind for the renewable energy industry.

It’s evolving as Google evolves the Glass, and hasn’t even been given a formal name yet. But the ways in which it works with the device take advantage of the hands-free portability of Glass and, according to Chagala, could be a sign of things to come in general for the device.

The app is similar to those used for mobile phones, but with one key exception, he said.

“The device itself, there’s really no precedent for how it’s supposed to be used,” Chagala said. “We have a set of needs and developed our own strategies.”

Sullivan’s specialists structured the app over a period of several months. It’s a proprietary software for Sullivan, placing volumes of company data into the digital scope of the field technicians Sullivan has using it.

It’ll display a customer’s record with the company – basic information on the customer such as names and contacts. But it also allows a technician to pull up electrical characteristics of the solar energy system being bought by that specific customer.

And if a field technician comes across a component he’s not familiar with, he can pull up information on that, too.

The information will flow the other direction within the app, as well, Chagala said.

“If a field technician discovers that information, in let’s say the customer record, isn’t accurate, or let’s say they want to take a photo of the systems using Google Glass, that information can be pushed back to our company database,” he added.

When Sullivan began designing the app -- before the company even bought that first Glass device on eBay -- Chagala was shocked, he said. His team couldn’t find any other groups writing an even remotely similar type of practical application for Glass.

“We tried to find people who have written apps who could kind of warn us, and help us set expectations of what we’re up against.” Chagala said. “We couldn’t find anybody.”

Upon seeing the outcome of the Sullivan app, Chagala began to think of it as chance for Google Glass to be a widespread practical tool, rather than something supporting what he had mainly seen developed for it so far in novelty applications.

“I think once this and other industries see that this can be used practically, it’s gonna catch on like wildfire and used in situations that you couldn’t even imagine now,” Chagala said.

Without a name already, Sullivan’s Glass app may never have one. And there’s a reason for that, Chagala said.

“We’re adding functionality to the device on a daily basis, so I’d hate to name it something that limits that,” Chagala said.

Within the realm of possibility is someday using it in the design of solar energy systems. Chagala said that while Sullivan doesn’t have any plans in that direction now, the rumored ability of Glass to be capable of recognizing dimensions for framework modeling with the right software makes it something else to consider for the future.

“It doesn’t do that natively,” Chagala said of Google Glass. “But it’s possible to write code to an app that could perhaps do that.”

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