True AR smart specs have been a long time coming, and every company from Google, Facebook, Apple and beyond have stated their interest in the project.
It's nearly a decade since Google Glass landed on the scene, which whetted our appetite for putting technology on our faces. And in many ways, AR glasses are the purest form of wearable technology.
But Google Glass bit the dust – plagued by poor PR, privacy issues and an underwhelming experience. And since then AR has been a technology with plenty of promise, but close to zero delivery.
But will smartglasses with mini-computers onboard ever be so light, unobtrusive and wearable that we’d keep them on 24/7? And, importantly, would we want a face filled with apps anyway?
Main image: Snap Spectacles AR
What is augmented reality?
Augmented reality shows you digital information over the real world. Love hearts or stars over your face in Instagram Stories, a Weedle over your front garden in Pokémon Go, constellation maps over the night sky with Sky Guide, a KALLAX shelving unit over your living room in the IKEA Place app. Those are examples of AR you're probably using already, but work via your smartphone.
But many of the biggest tech companies in the world are investing vast amounts of time and money into new projects that could bring AR experiences from your phone screen to your face – think AR headsets, glasses or even contact lenses.
And the possibilities are endless.
They could add useful 3D information, like emails, directions, instructions or virtual holograms, into your visual field. So you wouldn’t need to look down at a screen or away from your loved ones. And you could control your futuristic glasses with simple taps, gestures or your voice. That’s the dream of augmented reality – or at least one of them.
AR devices: The state of play
You can find AR apps for all kinds of things – games, art, directions, learning, trying on clothes, choosing new furniture, and much, much more. But these all need your phone to work and there are few smartglasses that bring AR experiences right to your face.
First up, there are wearable, head-mounted devices, like the Varjo XR-3, which looks like a big, chunky VR headset; the Microsoft Hololens 2, which is a little lighter but still a headset nonetheless; and the Magic Leap One, which is slimmer again and more like chunky goggles. These all show you the real world but overlay 3D, virtual objects and holograms onto it.
This is sometimes called mixed reality. That might sound exactly like what augmented reality is, but there are some differences.
In mixed reality, virtual objects are ‘anchored’ to the real environment in some way, so you can interact with them as if they’re there. Imagine a virtual ball you could bounce off your real-life table. The headsets above offer varying degrees of augmented and mixed reality experiences.
Some of the current best mixed and augmented reality headsets, like the Magic Leap 1 and the Microsoft Hololens 2 (above) are too bulky for non-enterprise use. We need lightweight designs that are comfortable, affordable and socially acceptable for 24/7 wear.
There’s also true AR headwear that looks like a pair of glasses. Smartglasses include the Google Glass Explorer Edition or the Vuzix Blade or Vuzix M4000, Epson Moverio BT-300 (above) or Lenovo ThinkReality A3.
And there are sports-focused glasses, like the Solos cycling smartglasses and Everysight Raptor.
These tend to be less focused on bringing virtual objects into your real-world environment and more about overlaying images and essential information onto it, like notifications or workout data.
Some devices fit somewhere in the middle. They offer AR smarts and some virtual objects but are as light and slim as regular glasses, like the Nreal Light glasses, which is super lightweight and provides AR by tethering to your smartphone.
Leo Gebbie, a senior analyst in XR and wearables at technology market intelligence company CCS Insight, tells us that the Nreal Light glass is an early example of the type of AR wearable we might soon see from more prominent brands.
“This is a device which is exciting for technology enthusiasts as it teases what’s possible for the future, but with a price of around $600 it’s still too expensive for most people,” Gebbie says.
This is one of the main reasons the few AR headsets available to consumers aren’t super popular – they’re too expensive. Especially considering they’re an altogether new type of tech. Few people can take such a pricey gamble.
AR brands yet to break through
For years we’ve been hearing that AR built for all of us is right around the corner. It never felt more real than when Google X (now just X) brought out Google Glass in 2013. These look like a regular pair of glasses, but a small screen is projected onto your vision, so you can essentially read notifications, check the weather and use other simple apps. It also has a camera, so you can take photos and record video.
Google Glass faced a lot of problems, including privacy and safety concerns. And although Google’s smart specs are still used in logistics, they never became a mainstream success. In 2020 Google bought North – a highly promising AR glasses start-up, but there's been no indication to what that could yield.
Fast-forward to 2021 and many of the major tech brands, including Apple and Facebook, are (allegedly) working on AR hardware projects at different levels of secrecy and development.
Apple is rumoured to be working on two devices right now. The first could be announced soon and combines VR and AR in a design that could look similar to the Oculus Quest. The second will be solely an AR device, which is expected much later and will have a form factor like Google Glass.
Facebook has been open about its AR plans – smart specs called Project Aria – for some time, which is no surprise given the brand owns VR company Oculus.
Snap has also announced its first AR Spectacles, however, those remain a reference platform for developers to create AR apps – and won't go on sale to the public for now.
Niantic, the creators of Pokémon Go, are already masters in AR and could bring their knowledge to a pair of AR specs.
We can also expect further innovation and more consumer-friendly devices from companies that already have AR wearables on the market, including Epson, Vuzix, Magic Leap and Microsoft.
What will we be using these new AR wearables of the future to do? Some applications are an obvious progression on what we already have, like further enterprise use, training, education and design. But what about the uses that’ll make strapping a wearable to our face worth it day in and day out?
Health and fitness
“Wearables as a whole have been driven by activity and fitness tracking use cases,” Mears tells us. “It remains a central pillar to the health and growth of the category.”
This would make sense. We know that AR already has a presence in some glasses designed for cycling and swimming, like Form’s goggles. They mainly present information on the screen, like your performance data, but we can expect much more from this space in the future.
“Sports consumers have a higher propensity to spend on new and innovative devices that may help them improve their sports performance, and so this vertical is an important proving ground for new devices,” Mears explains.
“Within five years, we expect to see productivity become an embedded mass-market use case,” says Mears.
Productivity can mean all kinds of things, but in the case of AR, it chiefly refers to making everyday activities – replying to emails, checking your calendar, keeping on top of your job list, finding your way from A to B – more effortless and more efficient.
This is where slimmer, spectacle-like AR wearables would be ideal because they’d be light enough to be worn throughout the day.
Imagine waking up and putting on a pair of AR glasses, which tell you the weather report, the news and update you on notifications while you get ready. You could even watch your favourite TV show as you brush your teeth.
This would be handy, but not all that different from just having a phone screen strapped to your face. Productivity uses that are more advanced, like putting on AR glasses that turn your dining room table into a huge interface to control your computer sound more science-fiction, but not out of the realms of reality.
This is where AR sounds less exciting but more functional and likely to make a difference in how we do all kinds of things.
A key component in turning smartglasses into a replacement for your phone or your computer is adding voice controls. This will be another way to control the wearable over touch or gestures.
“The AR glasses form factor is already being experimented with from an audio perspective,” says Mears. The Bose Frames are an excellent example of a high-end audio device with a glasses aesthetic. They’re not AR specs, but their technology could super-power a pair of AR glasses in the future.
In fact, audio smartglasses without an AR aspect, like the Alexa-powered Amazon Echo Frames pictured above, are already garnering success.
“The audible component of AR shouldn’t be overlooked,” Mears says. “Hearables that integrate a virtual assistant, such as Siri, Alexa or Google, with that VA being proactive rather than reactive (as it is today) could prove to be a notable inflexion point for the industry.”
AR in Enterprise
Price aside, many of these devices aren’t aimed at regular users, but are instead used within businesses.
Some companies use AR wearables to keep track of stock within a busy warehouse and follow detailed instructions about logistics on the go.
Enterprise uses for AR headsets were already proving popular, but social distancing measures throughout 2020 and beyond meant more and more businesses looked to augmented reality solutions to keep them up and running.
“AR devices from companies like RealWear, Vuzix and Microsoft provided invaluable support to businesses at challenging times, especially in scenarios like warehouse fulfilment and remote assistance,” Gebbie tells us. “For many businesses, AR was essential in keeping the lights on when Covid-19 was causing huge disruption to operations.”
Other business uses include training, providing people with a simulation of a real-world environment to learn and practice.
“Many of our enterprise clients, especially in construction and medical sectors, are embracing AR headset devices to provide hands-free enhanced vision for planning, design and patient care and training,” says Sam Watts, immersive partnerships director at immersive learning and development studio Make Real.
This is particularly useful in high-pressure situations that are difficult to replicate. AR has already been used on a small scale to train astronauts to prepare for a spacewalk and medical students to perform surgery.
AR is also beneficial for any industry that relies on planning and visualisation, this includes almost any type of design and conceptualisation needs. “We have a number of onsite AR tools, using Microsoft HoloLens, to visualise construction when the real world is just a cleared, muddy plot,” Watts tells us.
What can we realistically expect?
We might have to wait a while, but it certainly seems like the major tech brands will bring out more AR wearables within the next five years. Whether that’s bulky headsets or slim specs remains to be seen.
But there’s a lot to get right. AR platforms will need to be developed. Developers will need to be on board and familiar with the tech so they can create great experiences.
And there’s design. An AR wearable could have the best apps in the world within it, but if it looks rubbish and doesn’t feel comfortable for more than an hour – like most VR headsets these days – no one will wear it.
In Facebook’s blog post about its AR challenges, the team writes: “the AR interface will require a complete rethinking of how humans and computers interact.” That’s key. This isn’t about building a new device; it’s about creating an entirely new type of tech. This means there will be many considerations that are unique to AR, like how will we convince people they need a whole new kind of tech in their lives? How will ads be policed? And who decides what we see every day?
“Hopefully, there will be a strong enough ethics committee to ensure we aren’t using tools to augment out what we don’t want to see,” Watts says. “Or ensure we do not have our senses overloaded with too much additional information about the world around us in real-time.”
There are many challenges on the journey to make smartglasses and AR wearables a reality for all of us. But there are plenty of opportunities too. Especially with such vast amounts of time and money being invested into developing lightweight, practical and genuinely wearable devices. We’re excited to see what’s coming next.
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