How Philips’ Digital Accelerator Lab Is Hacking Google Glass For Surgeons

Sean Carney on the accelerator he helped build inside Philips to turn the company around.

How Philips’ Digital Accelerator Lab Is Hacking Google Glass For Surgeons
Anesthesiologist’s view via Google Glass of IntelliVue vital signs in an OR simulator lab test.

In October of 2013, Philips Healthcare launched an ambitious foray into deploying Google Glass for surgeons. Developed in tandem with Accenture Technology Labs and tested with doctors, this proof-of-concept head mounted display gives a live view of critical patient monitoring data such as pulse rate, temperature, respiration rate, and blood pressure.


It connects Glass with Philips’ Intellivue patient monitors, which are used by around 190 million patients every year, to show data on vital signs inside Glass. It makes it possible for doctors to perform surgery without turning away at a critical moment to look at monitors. They can remotely check and transfer patient information on the go, en route to the operating room. And theoretically it allows doctors to take notes, realtime photos, and seek assistance from doctors in other locations all while at the patient’s bedside.

Anethesiologist in OR simulator lab keeps track of patient and vital signs during simulated surgery via Google Glass.

The Glass for surgeons program was created by the Digital Accelerator lab in Eindhoven, Netherlands. “It is basically where myself, the CIO of the company, and the head of research pooled our resources and created a lab where we could hack hardware, software, and embedded firmware to connect and build products we could beta test and then develop in realtime,” Sean Carney told Fast Company. Carney is the man hired to turn Philips around using design and new approaches to technology.

The stated goal of the lab is to speed up Philips’ digital innovation–bringing new digital products to market as quickly as possible. It has grown significantly since its inception in late 2012 to include a range of different disciplines. “We’ve got 35 different competencies within our design team at Philips, which I think is pretty unique,” says Carney. “From sociologists and anthropologists to interaction designers, user experience architects, industrial designers, the whole lot.”

There are also IT platform architects, software coders and data visualization specialists. The Digital Accelerator is mirrored with Philips’ research center in Bangalore so the two labs can pass information back and forth and work on a 24-hour cycle. “You’ve really got to team up and respect and engage and inspire and motivate all of the other competencies so that together you really then deliver that holistic user experience,” says Carney.

The hack-and-iterate approach espoused by Philips is nothing new in the startup world. But for a big industrial company–which pulled out of the consumer electronics business early last year to shore up ongoing losses–it is still considered more radical than one would imagine. “Quite often we’re pushing ahead of the businesses here,” says Carney. “In the past, you would have done an excel file and build a Powerpoint. But now we’re able to physically hack these products together, get out some rudimentary user testing, and actually prove to them that there’s real value potential for these products.”

Philips is counting on Glass integration to do things in the future like: allow surgeons to access a pre-surgery safety checklist; give doctors the ability to view the patient in the recovery room after surgery; conduct live, first-person point-of-view videoconferences with other surgeons or medical personnel; record surgeries from a first-person point-of-view for training purposes.

“Google Glass is just a piece of hardware at the end of the day. So what we’re working on right now is how to give formatted information in realtime to those doctors that are administering treatment.” Says Carney, “that’s that whole point. Making it easier for non-digital natives to start to get into this space.”

About the author

Leah Hunter has spent her career exploring the intersection of technology, culture, and design. She writes about the human side of tech for Fast Company, O'Reilly Radar, Business Punk, and mentors tech companies.