Smartglasses and AR are considered the next big breakthrough for wearables that will filter into our daily lives. Putting useful connected features in front of our eyes is a challenge that both startups and the big tech have stepped up try and make a reality.
The concept was thrust into the spotlight with Google Glass, and while Glass now lives on in the workplace, it spectacularly failed to break into the mainstream.
Essential reading: Best audio glasses and sunglasses to buy
If rumours are to believed, Apple is working on smartglasses, Meta (formerly known as Facebook) has already confirmed its plans for AR specs that have augmented reality at the heart, merging virtual and physical worlds overlaying data on the world around you.
There's also Google, who bought smartglasses hopeful North, which was working on the second generation of its promising North Focals ‚Äď and has now been absorbed into the Google hardware team. It also seems that Microsoft with the help of Qualcomm want in on the action too.
- We were promised AR smartglasses: the state of play
- Facebook's AR glasses push: Project Aria explained
What are AR smartglasses?
When we talk about AR or augmented reality smartglasses, we are focusing on eyewear that has the technology on board to merge what you see in the real world with virtual information, usually overlaid on one of the glasses lenses.
That could be recreating the kind of screens and features you'd find on your smartphone like navigation for maps or flashing up notifications.
Smartglasses you can buy right now
Best AR smartglasses: Vuzix Blade Upgraded
Buy now: Vuzix.com | $799.99
The Vuzix Blade Upgraded replaces North Focals as our top pick as the latter is no longer available to buy.
The Blade uses waveguide technology to project a full color HD display over the right lens. They are the first pair of really useful commercial AR glasses that actually actually look like a pair of glasses They're not Oakleys or Ray-Bans, but they don't scream "Look at me, I'm technology" like some other smartglasses.
The best way to describe them is that they're a lot like the first generation of smartwatches. They're a good first step at getting a lot of advanced tech in a decent package ‚Äď but there's still work to do.
The new upgraded version sticks to largely the same design but now adds in an 8-megapixel camera, speakers and Vuzix's voice control support.
When we first got to try the standard version out, the Vuzix app store wasn't exactly brimming with apps. We got to try out things like music control, a camera, an image viewer and some games. Since then, some high profile names have turned up. There's now Netflix, Zoom, Amazon Alexa and even support for DJI drones.
The display is really good and even photos look crisp and vibrant. There's also 4GB of storage to fill up with what you want. As for battery life, we were able to get around three to four hours.
The Blade AR is one of the best moves toward mainstream AR glasses we've seen yet. The best bit? Vuzix has worked to lower the price down to well below $1,000/¬£1,000, just like it said it would.
The Blade has recently been joined by the Vuzix Shield, which are specs also firmly aimed at enterprise with micro LED projectors, wireless connectivity with smartphone and the ability to control by sound and voice. The Blade though remains the pair that are a little easier (and affordable) to get hold of.
Wareable verdict: Vuzix Blade review
Ray-Ban Stories (Meta)
Buy now: Ray-ban.com | Price: $299/¬£299
There's no AR here ‚Äď it's a mix of what we've seen on Snap's Spectacles, and a host of audio sunglasses that have surfaced over the last few years. Zuckerberg has said that the Ray-Ban partnership is destined to yield AR specs in the future, as part of Project Aria.
The Ray-Ban Stories pack in 5-megapixel cameras, which are activated by a button that sits on the side of the frame. A single tap records up to 30 seconds of video, while a tap and hold will snap a picture. There's also hand-free controls letting you make use of onboard microphones to say, 'Hey, Facebook, take a video' if you don't want to reach up to your specs.
All of that tech is being wrapped up in some familiar Ray-Ban frames, which include the iconic Wayfarer, and should only add 5g over a non-smart pair of Ray-Ban Wayfarer glasses. There's 20 style variations, and they also support prescription lenses.
There's also additional Round and Meteor frames available too.
Amazon Echo Frames 2nd Gen
Buy now: Amazon | From $249.99
The Echo Frames are Amazon‚Äôs Alexa-on-your-face play, and put the voice assistant into a regular pair of specs.
Unlike Google Glass, they‚Äôre not AR so you don't see anything, but play Alexa feedback via four directional speakers built into each stem. You can talk to Alexa ‚Äď for controlling your smart home, getting notifications, making calls and listening to music ‚Äď without the people around you hearing the responses.
You can get eyewear professionals to get a set of prescription lenses (or sunglasses) so the Frames can replace your existing pair of specs. What's more, in 2021 Amazon has updated the range to include blue light filtering and polarized options.
The glasses themselves are made from carbon fibre and titanium, which should make them a lightweight pair of glasses to wear. They're also rated IPX4 for fending off sweat and water and splash-resistant.
And the glasses have been upgraded since the first generation, which was invite-only. The All-new Echo Frames (as Amazon calls them) can adjust the volume of content and feedback based on the ambient environment.
Battery life has also been upped by 40%. That means roughly about 60 minutes of music, 30 minutes of phone calls and 120 incoming notifications over a 14-hour period. And an auto-off feature that will turn off which the frames when placed upside down for three seconds.
Snap Spectacles AR (4th gen)
Launched: 2021 | Price: Not for general sale
The Snap Spectacles AR are a different beast to what's gone before, and sees Snap jump from smartglasses to AR specs for the first time.
The Snap Spectacles aren't going on sale to general customers and are being offered to developers and Snap creators to figure out what they can best be used for.
Lenovo ThinkReality A3
Buy now: lenovo.com | Price: $1,499.99
These Lenovo smart specs were unveiled in January 2021 and are made to be on the faces of people at work, whether that's in a lab or in a shop.
When connected to a Motorola smartphone, the chunky-looking A3 glasses project stereoscopic 1080p resolution displays and can offer support for working or viewing up to 5 virtual displays. That's all powered by Qualcomm's Snapdragon XR1 platform to deliver that augmented experience.
The frames on the glasses can be modified to make them better suited to working environments where you need a more robust design and it also finds room for an 8-megapixel RGB camera for shooting video. There's a pair of fish-eye cameras to offer 6DOF (six degrees of freedom tracking), which means it can track head movement and rotation. It also offers room-scale tracking here too.
If you want a pair for enterprise purposes, you're going to have to spend a sizeable $1,500 to get them on your face.
Microsoft HoloLens 2
Buy now: microsoft.com | From $3,500/¬£3,349
Microsoft's holographic, augmented reality wearable is more headset than glasses, but it's arguably the one that stirred the most excitement about a bright AR future.
Into its second generation, Microsoft has switched its focus the work place, pairing the visor with large high definition lenses that use a projection system to create multi-dimensional full-color images at up to 2k resolution with low latency.
Field of view is now 43 x 29 degrees, which is an improvement on the original HoloLens, offering an immersive experience similar to what's offered by the Magic Leap 1 (below).
It's also packed with advanced sensors, like ambient light and four environment sensing cameras, which can figure out what you're doing and what environment you're in. All of that information is processed by the second generation version of its custom HPU (holographic processing unit), mapping everything out in real time and with 6DoF tracking to offer precision room scale tracking.
There's also microphones and cameras to capture video and audio and the tech onboard to track hands and eyes to make offer a fully immersive experience. Microsoft also includes its Mixed Reality Capture feature to take images that capture both augmented and physical worlds in view. Like the first, it's fit to run for 2-3 hours off a single charge.
Over the years Microsoft has showcased a host of different use cases for its high-specced AR headset and we wait to see if it has any intentions to make this one for the masses. Right now, it's one that's fully made for work life.
Magic Leap 1
Buy now: magicleap.com | From $2,291/¬£2,000
The startup raised big investor bucks, pulled in high profile investors and after finally launching its Magic Leap 1 AR goggles back in 2018, it's also followed Microsoft in making this one for the enterprise space right now. There is a Magic Leap 2, but it's the Leap 1 that's easier to get hold of.
At the heart of the Android-based set up is something Magic Leap calls Lightfield technology. Similar to what Google Glass and Microsoft HoloLens uses, the Leap One glasses can overlay digital 3D graphics onto your view of the real world via a headset with transparent lenses.
Images are displayed at 1280 x 960 resolution per eye with a 40 x 30 degree field of view helping you feel immersed in that augmented world. The AR eyewear also includes four built-in microphones to support spatial audio to blend sounds from virtual objects and real world objects.
The glasses attach to a computer attachment via a wire to a Lightpack that can be clipped to the back of your trousers or slipped into a pocket. Six external cameras are packed in to track your position and movement and a 6 DOF controller offers haptic feedback and the ability to track nine different hand gestures as well tracking finger movement.
There's currently Magic Leap 1, Developer Suite and Enterprise Suite options to pick it up in and unsurprisingly, it doesn't come cheap if you want to spend some time with the AR goggles we initially thought would signal a major breakthrough for consumer-friendly AR specs.
As mentioned, there is a Leap 2, which offers an improved 70-degree field of view, but that isn't on sale yet as the company secures regulatory approval for its next-gen goggles.
Buy now: engoeyewear.com | $397/¬£330
Engo might not be a household name in the tech space, but it's managed to build these sporty glasses for runners, cyclists and triathletes that are capable of projecting real-time stats onto an AMOLED micro displays planted into photochromic lenses.
That data comes through the ability to pair it up to device including Garmin watches, bike sensors like power meters and smartphones to project data in your eye line. That can include distance covered, speed, power and heart rate. You can also tinker with data screens to make sure you see the data you care about most when you're out running or riding.
There's gesture controls to let you change screens with a wave of the hand, a solid 12 hours of battery life and carry 100% UV protection to make sure your eyes are well guarded when you're training out in the glorious sunshine.
Smartglasses with different smart ideas
The kind of smartglasses we've spoken about above are very much about offering up displays in front of our eyes, but there is also the emergence of other connected specs that have different ideas. Some want to replace your camera or your fitness tracker. Here's the best of the bunch that are doing that right now.
Snap Spectacles 3
Buy now: Snapchat | $380/¬£330
While Snap has 4th Gen specs, it's much easier to get hold of its third generation pair, which features dual HD cameras and 3D AR features.
The Specs 3 come in two colors ‚Äď cobalt (black) and mineral (rose gold). There's also a charging case to keep the spectacles powered up in between your shooting.
Unlike previous glasses, there's dual HD cameras, allowing you to take advantage of 3D filters, effects and lenses for your footage and photos. These photos will sync automatically to your phone and you can also take 3D photos.
The cameras will record 3D footage at 60fps, with 4GB of onboard storage storing around 100 videos or 1,200 photos.
At just shy of $400, these are a pair of smart specs that do not come cheap.
Buy now: vueglasses.com | From $179
Vue's prescription glasses and sunglasses are the product of a $2m Kickstarter campaign that was aiming to ship the smart glasses by July 2017, but backers had to wait until 2019 to receive them. Now the connected specs are now available in glasses and sunglasses form.
There's no AR here. Instead, using bone conduction tech so you can use these instead of earphones, as well as a touch interface to control music and calls. They also handle notifications and the ability to track basic activity tracking.
Battery life is slated at 5 hours in continuous use and 3 days in standby mode with the option to buy a charging case that will also store the specs.
Vue's new Lite 2 version swaps the bone conduction for directional speakers and ditches the fitness tracking and customisable controls, but does come in cheaper and lighter than the standard Vue glasses.
You can read our Vue Lite 2 review (pictured above) to see how we got on with the more affordable pair of Vue's glasses.
Oppo Air Glass
Buy now: oppo.com | Around $790
The Oppo Air Glass is currently only available to buy in China and takes a different approach to bringing smarts to your eyes.
Unveiled by Oppo at the back end of 2021, Air Glass is an Ar device as opposed to an AR one, which stands for assisted reality as opposed to augmented reality.
The monocle-style setup fits to a set of frames and uses waveguide display technology along with what Oppo's calling a Spark Micro Projector, which packs an exceptionally bright Micro LED chip to deliver a 640 x 480 resolution image onto that waveguide display.
There's no details on a launch outside of China just yet, but we imagine Oppo will be gauging the appetite for its Ar eyewear before it considers rolling out elsewhere.