For the past two years - probably longer - AR has been a lot of talk, little walk. No one doubts the potential is there, but it's going to require a lot of patience. In 2019, Vuzix is hoping to move the needle with its first pair of AR glasses ready for consumer use, the Vuzix Blade, which is now ready to land on people's faces.
Vuzix has been toying with “realities” for a long time, starting on virtual reality in 1997 then shifting its attention to AR in 2010. The company has been mostly focused on the enterprise market since then, but in 2019 it’s broadening out to the early adopters and “prosumers”.
Essential reading: Augmented reality explained
The Blade glasses cost $1,000, so even though they're cheaper than Microsoft's HoloLens and significantly less pricey than the Magic Leap One, it’s a lot of money to ask from the average consumer. But it is perhaps low enough to appeal to the AR enthusiasts that Vuzix has in mind.
Are the Blade glasses ready for the prime time? I’ve been wearing a pair for the past couple of weeks to find out.
The first thing to mention is clarify is that although the Vuzix Blade glasses offer what is, by definition, augmented reality, it’s not the same augmented reality as headsets like Magic Leap's. Rather than "mixing" the digital into the real world, Vuzix’s version of AR is more of the world-overlaying “assisted reality” found in Google Glass. Those two words tend to elicit resentment (and a few sniggers), but I’ll say this: the Blade already has a better shot at mainstream success than Glass ever did. I really hope I don't eat those words.
On one of the lenses is a small, color display giving you notifications, displaying driving directions, recording video, and all manner of other things. Vuzix has designed a display that you can see past without being too much of a distraction (it also goes to sleep after a few seconds of no activity), but it’s vibrant and sharp enough to easily focus on even in bright conditions. You can also shift its position up and down - to wherever it’s most comfortable, or least distracting.
Now, I know what you’re probably already thinking: “Do you honestly expect me to wear those and not feel stupid?” No, I don't, and I hear you: the Vuzix Blade does not look stylish, nor subtle. These glasses are chunky and will draw the eyes of passers-by; they make their presence known.
We don’t want to get the cart too far in front of the horse in terms of expectations
Vuzix is already working on a next-gen design that’s significantly svelter (I got a peek, but I wasn't allowed to take pictures), and it's a shame the Blade doesn't look that good right now.
It’s difficult to forget they’re there when you’re wearing them, and the frames have an annoying edge to them just above the ears, which sometimes hurts after prolonged use.
Getting to grips with the AR
Some examples of the Vuzix Blade apps
Let’s talk more about the AR here. As I’ve been granted early access, I haven’t been able to test a lot of the features, which Vuzix has previewed. Some of these will be shown off at CES, others will come later in 2019.
These aren’t designed to be immersive; it’s a HUD more so than HoloLens
I have been able to try out a handful of the base apps that come with the glasses, including a camera, image viewer, music controllers, and some games.
The display is set to portrait mode, and you can’t change the size. “These aren’t designed to be immersive; it’s a HUD more so than HoloLens,” Vuzix CEO Paul Travers told me. “If it’s filled with stuff, it’s in your way.” That’s true, but it would be nice to have it larger for certain apps, and Travers says this is something Vuzix is considering for select applications.
Everything on the Blade is controlled using the touch panel on the right frame. One tap to select; two fingers to return to the main menu; a swipe of the finger to move left or right. Those are the basic controls, and they work pretty responsively.
A lot of the third-party apps aren't yet working, but I was able to try a beta of the Alexa app, which had a lot of delay, and worse still made me open the app to use it - I couldn’t just shout “Alexa” whenever I pleased and have it appear. Vuzix says the app is still evolving and should be smoother when it’s ready.
Google Assistant is also coming and will be on show at CES, while Vuzix says it’s working to get some streaming services onto the glasses. I can’t foresee myself ever using these for watching TV, but it would be a perfect excuse to pump that field of view.
The smartphone companion app
Vuzix also showed me a demo of how Yelp integration might one day work, where I could head outside, look at a bar or restaurant and see if it's somewhere I should go or avoid at all costs. This is something Bose is doing with its AR Frame smartglasses, which use GPS and accelerometer data to "see" - although that experience is entirely audio-based.
On the Blade you've got an 8MP camera that shoots video, as well as microphones for hands-free calls, and support for a limited amount of notifications - messages, calendar, maps, FaceTime and a few others. Vuzix has added some cookie-cutter responses for replying from the glasses, but it will also be adding custom responses at a later date. And speaking of that camera, the Blade comes with 16GB of internal storage and the capacity for up to 64GB more using the microSD slot on the glasses.
Battery life is another major sticking point with AR, and as with most things, your mileage will vary depending on usage. On days I’ve been testing it I’ve found myself getting somewhere around three, four hours with a lot of use, but it’s going to be less than that if you’re using the camera to record a lot of footage, say. For "light" users, Vuzix reckons you can get a few days, but that means the display is going to be off for most of that. If you’re watching video, expect the battery to be flat within two hours.
Are those numbers good? It’s hard to say with so few similar products to benchmark the Blade against. I also think most people who buy this early will be those who want to use it more intensively, but Vuzix says it has a collar battery add-on coming soon. I dread to think how that will “enhance” the look of anyone wearing the Blade, but at least they’ll get more juice?
Some final thoughts
Vuzix recently put out a video called 'A day in the life with Vuzix Blade AR Smart Glasses', which shows someone putting on the Blade in the morning and heading out for a day in which he uses the glasses to get directions, read Yelp reviews, track his workout, call an Uber, and take videos of his friends. This is Vuzix's vision for how you'll use its glasses, but I'm not convinced we're there yet.
If anything, the Blade reminds me of some of the early smartwatches. I mean that mostly in terms of the design - but this will be vital for getting AR glasses onto people's faces, in the same way that ugly smartwatches struggled to gain traction. Intel proved you could make well designed AR glasses with its unreleased Vaunt specs (RIP), and that's where Vuzix needs to get to.
Where the Blade is well ahead of those early wearables is in the software, which is already has more utility and applications. Vuzix is working with a lot of major partners right now, with ambitions to get apps from Yelp, Strava, Uber and more onboard (some of which are already working with Vuzix), while Paul Travers says the company has around 400 developers signing up each month. It's encouraging stuff.
Vuzix acknowledges that this is all still early. ”We don’t want to get the cart too far in front of the horse in terms of consumer expectations," says Travers. "Today a consumer expects something absolutely polished.”
Come mid-2019 I think the Blade could be the first pair of really useful consumer AR glasses - but to really go mainstream, they'll need to look a lot better too.