Model wears North "focals" display glasses
The field of virtual reality/augmented reality/mixed reality/extended reality has had no lack of hype; so much that when it didn't live up to the first wave, it disappeared for many. Last week I attended AWE, an AR/VR/MR/XR trade show, to see where things are sitting. I saw some things that continued in the trough of disillusionment, but others which suggested a climb out.
Facebook wasn't on the show floor, but they were there and giving talks. Their new Oculus Quest VR glasses are the hot buzz of the VR field right now. Instead of trying to make the highest spec glasses they could, Oculus Quest is stand-alone -- it needs no computer, not cable to a computer, no sensors around the room to define the space. This is the right choice for most consumer VR. People won't tolerate a long cable from their head to a high power computer unless they are fairly hard-core.
If you are hard-core, however, then a new generation of high-resolution glasses have arrived. The most impressive were those of Varjo which, at $6,000, had better be very good. Varjo places a rectangle in the center of the view which has nearly "retinal" resolution. The rest of the screen is not that shabby either. The things you focus your attention on are almost as sharp as real. You can see fine detail, read small print. The small rectangle can be noticed but it's fairly subtle. I felt much closer to being in a real place than I have felt before.
Today this device is for high end applications. In a few years, when this sort of resolution makes its way down into lower cost devices, we'll see a big shift. People may even start to feel they have really visited places (such as the great tourist sights of the world,) and in fact saw them in perfect light with no crowds and no effort. This is actually necessary, because the great sights of the world can't withstand the crush that will come when the whole world gets richer and wants to travel. I also expect big applications in real estate, and of course in gaming and entertainment.
You won't be subtle in the XTAL VR goggles with very wide field.
Another impressive headset came from VRgineers of Prague. Their headset was high resolution, though not quite as high as the Varjo. Instead, it offered a gradually reducing resolution due to optics, but a particularly wide field of view, which made for a very nice flight simulator experience. We'll want to see the marriage of this full field of view and the retinal resolution some day.
In the augmented/mixed reality space, the progress was less exciting. Most AR/MR headsets have a lot to be desired:
- They're clunky and look extremely geeky
- You can't see the eyes of the person wearing them when they are on, and sometimes not that well when they are off
- The image and the real world don't mix very well, particularly if the real world is bright
This creates a challenge for today's headsets. They are strongly purpose oriented. You don't use them until you have a specific AR/VR task to do. Then you put them on, do the task, and take them off. That works for specialized applications but doesn't take over the world.
The other exciting device as the conference was the North "Focals" glasses. These glasses are very close to being devices that could be worn all day by the average glasses wearer, going after the same goal that Google Glass had.
I was working on Google Chauffeur (Waymo) when Google Glass was began and sat with and occasionally helped the team. They worked very hard to make Glass extremely light and small, so light that you could forget you had it on. Unfortunately, nobody else ever forgot you had it on. People were not and are not ready to accept a glasses computer that obvious (and with a camera.)
The North is not entirely invisible. The PR photos shown above make it look a little better than it is, but only a little better. It's definitely a reasonable thing you could wear. Unless they are in exactly the right spot (off to your left side) people can't tell when it's projecting something to you.
North Focals with projector visible on left side.
Unlike Glass, the North's display shows up right in the center of your field of view. (Glass showed something up and too the right, and it was obvious when it was on and when you were looking at it. The North works by beaming a laser onto the lens and having it reflect into your eye. It does not use a waveguide to bring in an image from an LCOS display like Glass and most AR glasses. Their current cost is $599.
Glass was not AR or MR, and neither is North. It does not overlay on the world. It just gives you the same sort of things you might see on a smartwatch. They pop up briefly in your vision and vanish. You don't have to look away. They give you a special ring to use as a controller.
The way North's projection works, it has to be aimed very precisely, so the glasses have to be custom fit to your face. As such, it was not possible to judge how well it really works during a brief demo. I was able to see the image, but the slightest movement could make it blurry, distorted or doubled. They assure me that once it is tuned, this doesn't happen, but I am a bit doubtful -- my own glasses move on my head all the time. If they can make it work, they finally have something you could wear all day. Though of course you can use a smartwatch all day too, but you can uses these glasses without using your hands, and without anybody else knowing. (Google Glass found its more niche market in places where people needed their hands free, like medicine.)
All of these technologies bode good things to come as everything gets smaller, lighter and cheaper. As the usual progress of electronics and software happens, big things look ready to return, if we manage our expectations.