Someday augmented reality will become a mainstream feature of ordinary eyeglasses and sunglasses for everyday, general-purpose consumer use. But that day is many years in the future.
Reading the news, it’s easy to conclude that consumer smart glasses are on the brink of becoming available.
Apple is famously toiling away on future iGlasses, or whatever it will call them. A recently published “continuation patent” (which is a patent that the company wants the Patent Office to keep examining to change the scope of the original patent) describes what Apple calls “data glasses” capable of integrating virtual content with the real world, including for StreetView-style turn-by-turn directions and other location-based applications.
The patent office recently published several new smart glasses patents for Apple. One reveals new technology Apple is working on for holographic display of objects in glasses.
Facebook’s “Reality Labs” has been working on augmented reality glasses for a few years. A patent filed this week by Facebook describes a “cartilage conduction audio system for eyewear devices” that would project sound into the ear without blocking ambient sounds.
And Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was spotted this month visiting the headquarters of Luxottica, which is a global eyeglass giant known to be interested in partnering with smart glasses makers.
These projects by Apple and Facebook won’t ship as consumer products for many years. The technology simply isn’t ready.
In the meantime, smart glasses are growing in adoption and importance for all kinds of businesses uses, and for five reasons. Smart glasses are powerful for business but a non-starter for consumers because smart glasses …
1. Are socially unacceptable
When smart glasses look just like ordinary prescription glasses and sunglasses, without conspicuously thick frames or awkward protrusions, consumers will be happy to buy and wear them.
For the next several years, however, glasses with sensors, electronics and batteries that can power cameras and screens will look ugly, bulky and oversized.
Take the poster child for smart glasses, the now-venerable Google Glass.
Google introduced last week an updated version of its smartglass product, called Google Glass Enterprise Edition 2. This is the third version of Glass — the first of which was the experimental “Explorer” version introduced by invitation only six years ago, and the second was the first Enterprise edition of the product.
The new Glass has an 820mAh battery (up from 570mAh) to power the Android 8.0 Oreo running on the Qualcomm Snapdragon XR1 processing platform (with a quad-core 1.7Ghz CPU). This processing power is necessary, according to Google, to power computer vision and advanced machine-learning capabilities. The headset has 3GB of RAM and 32GB of storage.
Google claims the new Glass can charge in 17 minutes.
The camera is upgraded to 8 megapixels, but the display is still 640 x 360.
Three beam-forming microphones isolate speech for voice commands.
A multitouch gesture touchpad on the right side of the headset provides touch controls.
A built-in accelerometer and gyroscope inform software of the angle and motion of the wearer’s head.
Safety glass lenses and new water and dust resistance make Glass suitable for factory or shop work. Alternatively, they can be fitted with prescription lenses.
Google Glass has limited capabilities out of the box. It’s intended to be purchased in large numbers and customized with purpose-built functionality by the company that buys them. Google says the price is $999, but the actual cost depends on quantity purchased, plus services chosen, such as software customization, customer support and training.
Dozens of companies exist to provide end-to-end Google Glass solutions for businesses.
Google Glass is suitable for doctors, factory workers, delivery people and others. But it’s not suitable for normal wear in polite company. Glass is, and will remain, a work tool that just doesn’t look right for everyday wear out and about in the world.
And the same goes for all other products introduced to date — they’re acceptable for professional use, but not consumer wear.
2. Solve business problems but not consumer problems
Google’s Explorer program was launched so that Google could become educated about how various kinds of people might use Google Glass. It turns out that almost all the usage involves simply taking pictures with the camera. Picture-taking is not something consumers really need help with.
But manufacturing and warehousing are a different story. Glass is currently deployed at scale (440 Google Glass units) by Deutsche Post DHL Group in its warehouses.
Boeing and Airbus use Glass and their own AR applications for manufacturing airplanes and warehouse work.
These and other companies need their employees to both reference massive amounts of information and communicate with one another, while keeping both hands free. So Glass and other smart glasses solve these real-world business and enterprise problems.
A company called North this week unveiled the ability to use its Focals smart glasses with Google Fit, which gives fitness data in the headset, a clear consumer application. (Most of the functionality for North’s glasses offer smartwatch-like notifications from a smartphone.)
But North also announced support for Google Slides in its North Focals smart glasses. You can use the integration by downloading a special “Focals Connect” Chrome extension, then loading Slides into the browser. Your speaker notes appear to you in the glasses’ screen, invisible to your audience. A control ring on the glasses enable you to move forward and backward through your presentation.
These glasses probably wouldn’t be ideal for normal business or sales presentation. They’re too bulky (and therefore distracting) and create a psychological distance between speaker and audience.
However, presentation notes in smart glasses is a great application for training, which enterprises do constantly.
It’s also true that integrating AI will greatly boost the utility of smart glasses for enterprises. An Israeli company called Plataine created a Google Glass app that uses image recognition AI and Google’s own Dialogflow to create a Glass-specific virtual assistant. The app can recognize objects and display instructions or other information based on what it recognizes.
The same goes for medicine. A teaching hospital at Harvard Medical School called Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center is using Google Glass. Doctors get important information about patients in emergency situations, and claim that in more than one instance lives were saved when glass delivered information about drug allergies in time to prevent injection.
3. Often need tethering
Google Glass is too underpowered for some enterprise applications. So many new enterprise and business products have to be tethered to a computer that’s more powerful than puny ones that can be comfortably attached to the wearer’s head.
Earlier this month, Epson announced new smart glasses designed for business users called Moverio BT-30C, which are scheduled to ship next month. The glasses connect to either an Android smartphone or a Windows PC via USB-C. They remain tethered during use.
The glasses require an app, and the app’s display appears to float in midair. It can place up to three screens in space, and you move from one screen to the next by turning your head. Turn to the left and see a video; turn to the right and see your notes.
The functionality is potentially great. But no consumer is going to walk around with glasses that have to be tethered to a phone or laptop.
4. Don’t have all-day battery life
Screens and cameras and the electronics that power reasonably good smart glasses need batteries that are either too big or too weak. Smart glasses need to double as prescription glasses, and consumers won’t accept glasses that don’t last a full day.
Business applications, however, need to last only for a workday.
5. Are too expensive
Google Glass’s price came down a little, but it’s still more expensive than an average smartphone. When enterprises such as Boeing buy them by the hundreds and use them for complex manufacturing, the cost is justified. But the gadget-happy public won’t pay more than $300 or $400 for what is essentially a wearable smartphone accessory.
Google Glass is often lumped into the same category as Microsoft’s Hololens or Magic Leap’s One glasses. In fact, these products exist in an entirely different space. Their displays are far higher in resolution and enable visual objects to appear to interact with physical objects (for example, showing animations that appear to be resting on a physical table).
With Glass, a small rectangular display hovers in space without any connection to the physical world, and the placement of that display depends entirely on the orientation and position of the wearer’s head.
So while Google Glass and other devices in the same class will be going online at scale in enterprises over the next three years or so, the Hololens or Magic Leap class devices are more than five years out for significant penetration into enterprises. And more than 10 years way for consumers.
So while the technology press generally believes that consumer smart glasses are a year or two away from general consumer adoption, the reality is that this timeline applies only to enterprise applications. The consumer toys everyone wants are five to ten years into the future.