AR has the ability to overlay and merge the virtual and physical worlds around us. Google was among the first companies to try a portable concept, but their Google Glass failed to break into the mainstream. However, a new array of devices based on revolutionary technologies are now generating a renewed interest.
The revenue for the AR market forecast is expected to hit $70-$75 billion by 2023, with units believed to exceed two and a half billion by then. It’s estimated that around 88% of mid-size companies are already using AR in some capacity, and the adoption of smart glasses is expected to grow.
Smart glasses mean much more than eyewear with a camera. They offer countless possibilities such as tracking fitness and activities, activating smart assistants, and listening to audio — in the case of Facebook, in a way never experienced before. They have also been successfully used in healthcare, operations, and the military.
See-through optics have been proven to increase accuracy and efficiency when following instructions. Many medical students and doctors use AR-enabled devices for training or to refer to images from MRI or CT-scans during treatment.
The US military has also experimented with AR to access GPS, show virtual maps, virtual reticles, and thermal images. The F-35 fighter jet, for example, has a helmet that allows a pilot to see through the plane itself and provides information about any object in its field of view.
The combination of accuracy and human influence make smart glasses the perfect companion for both work and daily life.
AR Glasses Available Today
About 90% of US consumers are aware of virtual reality (VR), but at the moment only 65% have heard of AR. However, this number is growing as cheaper and better devices reach the retail market.
Some brands that already offer smart glasses include Vuzix, Microsoft, and Epson.
The Vuzix Blade glasses use waveguide technology to project a full-color HD display on a lens. They can play music, include an 8-megapixel camera, 4GB of storage, an image viewer, some games, and the apps Netflix, Zoom, and Amazon Alexa. Consumers can acquire the glasses for around $600.
The Microsoft Hololens 2 is probably the most sophisticated pair of smart glasses available to date. They have transparent lenses, an HD camera, sensors, and microphones, allowing users to interact with 3D and holograms. The device is used for training, assembly lines, remote collaboration, and logistics. Because of their enhanced capabilities, they cost $3,500.
The Epson Moverio BT-300 glasses are powered by an Intel Atom quad-core processor, have a 720p HD resolution OLED display, and a 5-megapixel camera. They include apps like Sky Map and AR Flight simulator and can connect through Bluetooth, WiFi, and Miracast. Their price range is around $699.
In the last months, however, news has reached consumers about a new generation of revolutionary devices: Facebook’s and Apple’s smart glasses.
Facebook’s AR Glasses
Facebook’s new sophisticated patent is more than a pair of display-less AR glasses. It’s also a hearing aid that promises “perceptual superpowers.”
The technology would allow users to enhance certain sounds and dim background noise. This would be achieved through multiple microphones that capture sounds, while the glasses register where the users’ head and eye movements go in order to figure out what they want to hear. Thanks to their “Audio Presence” feature, the audio would sound realistic rather than coming from the device.
The advances in audio enhancement are not new. In 2017, Facebook’s audio research team shipped spatialized audio, which is used today in their Oculus Quest and Rift Platform.
Although Facebook’s AR glasses aren’t specifically developed for the hard of hearing, they can put everyone on par. Considering that hearing loss often drives people away from social situations, the glasses could do much more than provide visually interesting AR.
The company’s spatialized audio mimics the directions sound come from in real life, which is usually affected by the environment, objects around us, and even the shape of our ears, making them realistic and believable.
Apple’s AR Glasses
Apple’s upcoming AR device has recently passed the prototyping stage and moved into trial production. It’s unclear whether the AR headset will launch before the glasses, but they are both expected to be made available in 2022 and 2023.
Apple has reportedly been working with Foxconn on semi-transparent lenses since 2018. Around the same time, Apple purchased Akonia Holographics, a company specializing in projecting liquid crystal images on silicon displays. The lenses are composed of multiple, extremely thin layers made of different synthetic materials and use polarization to create stereoscopic images.
The lenses entered the engineering validation stage in May, and the tests began to test their suitability for mass production. To reduce defects, they have to be manufactured in dust-free zones known as clean rooms.
Apple Glass is probably going to be a sort of companion for the smartphone. However, multiple reports suggest that Apple will also create a specialized operating system (OS) called GlassOS and a fully separate App Store for the headset.
A New Generation of Devices
Traditional AR glasses require a lot of physical space to fit high-quality displays with good contrast ratios, wider color gamut, and a higher resolution. That’s why they tend to be bulky or not as precise.
The patents Facebook and Apple have filed describe methods that seem to succeed at making smart glasses much thinner without compromising display performance.
While Microsoft is focusing its efforts on audio enhancements, Apple might be making theirs in an optical vision correction system. Their smart glasses could eliminate the need for prescription lenses or contacts. Another patent refers to users having a “touch” option that could project controls onto objects when the user places their fingers on them.
Both devices bring to the table something never seen before. Facebook’s glasses can amplify and dampen background noise, achieving incredible high-quality virtual sound. On the other hand, Apple’s model could address vision issues such as astigmatism, farsightedness, and nearsightedness.
Apple’s smart glasses are expected to cost around $500 at launch. That’s much cheaper than the Hololens 2, and the reason is that the glasses won’t have an onboard computer and will instead use the iPhone. Less is known about Facebook’s project, but the fact that the company has chosen to reveal its progress suggests these AR glasses might be close to reaching the market.
With both devices promising revolutionary image quality, whether a customer chooses one over the other might come down to personal preference.
The expected date of release for the smart glasses is within the next three years.
About the Author
Yisela Alvarez Trentini is an Anthropologist + User Experience / Human-Computer Interaction Designer with an interest in emerging technologies, social robotics, and VR/AR.