All the talk of Apple entering the AR market has refueled our appetite for smartglasses.
Could we finally be about to realize the dream of connected eyewear?
Much of the discourse seems to assume that the category is ready for prime time, but with limited tradeshows and access to the latest AR tech since the pandemic, we were keen to get our eyes on the latest models.
With time on our hands at MWC 2023, we stalked the halls to try as many face-worn wearables as we could find.
Here’s what we found.
Oppo Air Glass 2
Our journey got off to a promising start, with the Oppo Air Glass 2 on display in a room at the back of the Oppo stand.
In terms of design, it doesn’t get much better. They look like a proper pair of specs – slightly too big and heavy – but they could certainly pass for normal eyewear.
The demo setup was reading from an autocue, with a script loaded from a paired smartphone.
Green text hovered in the middle distance, and it was controlled by swiping on the left-hand arm of the Air Glass 2, which worked fairly well.
All too quickly the familiar feelings of using AR flooded back from the early days of Google Glass.
The viewing area felt far away and focusing took a bit of a knack.
Having a poor-quality square of text in your peripheral vision isn’t the augmented reality dream we signed up for.
So while the form factor impressed, there wasn’t much to get excited about the promise of AR here – at least from the public demo on show.
A win for the form-factor – less so for how this could affect our lives quite yet.
Lenovo ThinkReality A3
Next up we wandered past the Lenovo stand, and caught a glimpse of two smartglasses on display.
The first was the Lenovo ThinkReality T1, a screen mirroring pair of viewer specs.
They’re less chunky than most smartglasses, but still pretty heavy on the bridge of the nose – and they also were wired to a smartphone.
The viewable area was oddly stuck in one place. So the only visual we could see was the smartphone’s home screen that appeared glued to the floor. It clearly wasn't working properly.
But the second demo was more of a glimpse into an AR future.
The Lenovo ThinkReality A3 runs on Qualcomm’s Snapdragon XR1 platform, which is capable of delivering VR-type visuals, as well as AR and mixed reality.
It was wired into a PC, and we were able to navigate around a 3D render, using a controller on the desk to twist, zoom, and pan.
If it added 3D hand tracking into this experience, we’d have a real AR experience on our hands.
Obviously, this was a wired experience, connected to a powerful workstation. However, we could still see – or at least could be vaguely aware of – much of the world around us. If someone was to walk up to your desk while we were using this at work, you'd be aware. But it's hardly a fully augmented mesh of the real and virual worlds, as you can see from the photo.
In terms of the build, it was extremely heavy on the bridge of the nose, and not something well-suited to long periods of wear.
So there was promise in the application, even if the hardware wasn't quite something we'd use at home.
Qualcomm Snapdragon XR2
While the ThinkReality A3 runs on Snapdragon XR1, Qualcomm announced the XR2 back in 2021.
MWC 2023 saw new Xiaomi specs run on XR2, and there were also models from Goertek on show at the Qualcomm stand.
The Xiaomi glasses were behind glass only – an odd way to show off a visual experience.
But perhaps they suffered the same fate as the Goertek XR2-based smartglasses, which a Qualcomm demonstrator explained had fallen victim to the chaotic 5GHz Wi-Fi channel on the show floor and wasn’t available to be tested.
The XR2 models weren’t hugely different from the XR1 in terms of build.
This is why Qualcomm has moved to launch its AR1/2 platform, which reduces weight by eschewing some of the processing power necessary for all those whizzy mixed reality visuals.
It shows the issues that AR experiences have in the real world. And until technologies such as Wi-Fi 7 are mainstream, it will limit what smartglasses can do.
Away from the world of AR we also tried a number of smart viewers – smartglasses that promise to bring a 120-inch display in front of your eyes.
They're designed to enable you to watch content from your phone and PC as if you're in the cinema – at least that's the idea.
We tried the Huawei Vision Glass and ZTE nubia NeoVision Glass – both relatively slimline eyewear that’s tethered to a smartphone.
That’s especially true for the ZTE, which only weighs 79g, and packs in Micro-OLED screens chucking out 3500 PPI to each eye
Perhaps our expectation of watching an immersive screen akin to being at the front of the cinema was too high.
Both of these were like watching a 7-inch smartphone held at an uncomfortable distance.
You also need to get the focus just so, or you have that VR feeling of being slightly out of focus at all times. If we closed one eye, the Huawei visuals were excellent. But far from the same as a 120-inch telly.
So what did we learn?
So what did we learn from spending three hours putting on sweaty smart glasses that had previously been worn by hundreds of people?
First, that true, untethered AR is still far, far short of an experience that will bring them to the consumer market.
All of these devices are still prototypes and reference designs, to show off the capabilities we have today, and get developers working on the next series of use cases.
But if they've proved one thing, it's simply how far we still have to go.
Tethered experiences, for use in enterprise settings, with big, heavy specs can be impressive. And perhaps this is where Apple will go over the next few years with its so-called Reality Pro headset.
So while the promise of AR still lives on undiminished – the date for it landing on our faces seems ever-further away.
How we test