Augmented reality glasses like Microsoft’s Hololens can float 3D images right in front of your eyes, creating the illusion that these pixels exist as objects in your real environment. But there’s just one catch: These glasses have to live on your face.
But a new concept called WatchThru—developed by Digital Media Lab (TZI), Google and Hasselt University—puts the possibilities of AR on your wrist.
In a paper featured on Prosthetic Knowledge, the research team describes a modifiedAndroidWear watch, to which they added a fold-out, semi-transparent display. The display can operate in a pure dual-screen mode, offering a more conventional second screen of content to a smartwatch, similar to a Nintendo DS. This would allow you to do things like video chat on one display while seeing links or buttons on the other.
However, the more exciting development is the screen's "peek-through" mode. By holding the WatchThru in view, the transparent screen offers 3D augmented content.
What can you do with such a display? Well, while the normal smartwatch screen might show you directions from an overhead map view like you'd see in Google Maps, the second screen can show you a 3D directional arrow which just casually points out where to go.
And if you’re willing to hold the WatchThru all the way up to your face, looking through it like a keyhole, it can be programmed to do things like highlight unseen aspects of the environment around you—for instance, a room's unseen light sockets or the schematics lurking behind the walls of an elevator. Basically, any AR application could be snuck into WatchThru.
The ergonomic benefits, of course, are questionable. And furthermore, the WatchThru currently requires external cameras to track both the watch and a user’s face to pull off this AR magic. (Technically speaking, having someone’s wrist screen move independently from their face makes the technology more complicated than what’s inside Hololens’s tracking suite—though in future versions, the researchers hope to build all that tracking into the watch itself).
And yet, there’s something intriguing about its Dick Tracy-ness, and something ingenious about how it considers just how much more useful something like a smartwatch could become with another 1.5-inches or so of smarter screen. Will the next Apple Watch resemble a WatchThru? Absolutely not. But it’s experiments like this that will eventually make wearable technology actually worth wearing.