It’s still early days, but startups are paving the way for the future of mixed reality.
An alternate reality is preparing to leapfrog the need for total immersion VR. It promises to enhance what we see in the real world, instead of shutting us off from it. Rather than transporting us to another reality, it will deliver information, entertainment and new experiences within the context of our daily lives.
More than five years on from Google Glass, augmented reality is re-emerging rapidly. Snap Spectacles are offering fun and quirky experiences at an affordable price, startups like North and Vuzix are focusing on bringing non-invasive information to more fashionable prescription glasses.
Magic Leap and Microsoft are building those bleeding edge ‘wow’ experiences; promising seamless blends of the real and unreal, but at a prohibitive cost.
Apple’s rumoured incursion into the sector, news that Facebook is teaming up with Ray-Ban on smartglasses and the advent of 5G connectivity, could be about to kick AR and mixed reality into the stratosphere. But it’s far from a sure thing.
AR still faces many of the same challenges that stifled VR adoption. The need to wear something on your face remains. In many cases the headsets are bulky and uncomfortable and do not lend themselves to all-day wear.
So what’s it going to take for AR smartglasses to hit the mainstream? How do we get to that point when vital information is delivered to the eyeline, when most people’s phones barely leave their pockets? We spoke to some major players already attracting a loyal customer base to find that out.
“You must start with great glasses”
North is not a technology company, it’s an eyewear company. In the opinion of CEO Stephen Lake, the key to AR adoption is a great pair of glasses. The prescription or non-prescription North Focals – which bring minimalistic smartphone notifications into the field of view and Alexa voice controls – are precisely that.
“We’ve really focused on what it takes to get to a great pair of glasses you can use and wear all day, every day,” Lake told Wareable. “It must look great, it must feel great, it must reflect my style choices. These are all things we take for granted in the traditional eyewear category.”
“The most important element is being able to bring the device out of the living room, which you can’t with a large, bulky headset.”
The makers of the Vuzix Blade smartglasses are on the same wavelength. The company makes $799 AR sunglasses with a small heads-up display in the right eye, a touch sensitive panel for navigation and Alexa voice controls built in. Its CEO Paul Travers says the wider adoption of AR is “all about making sexy glasses.”
“I’m convinced in the long run that watching whales jump out of gymnasium floors will be a big deal [referring to Magic Leap’s most iconic AR image], but not with the devices available currently because they’re too heavy and bulky," said Travers.
“Vuzix is making lightweight, truly wearable devices that maybe have less function, but they have functions that are highly usable today.”
Vuzix is currently working towards 2nd and 3rd generation devices that would shrink the computing components and enable the frames to emulate a pair of high-end Oakley or Ray-Ban sunglasses, while building on the overall quality of the experience.
If the glasses are to look great on the beach or in the boardroom and can be worn comfortably all day, there must be trade-offs. It means sacrificing those Magic Leap and HoloLens style experiences that have people most excited about AR. “Others are throwing the kitchen sink at it and we don’t see the use cases yet,” says Paul Travers of Vuzix.
North’s Lake added, “It’s not this immersive augmented reality experience that transports you. To us it’s about seamless access to information in a way that puts what you’re doing in the real world first. The technology is an invisible helping hand – there when you need it, gone when you don’t. It stops you being zoned out from the world and it’s a powerful promise.”
Vuzix is operating under a similar pillar. but also enables wearers to use the Blade as an additional screen, opening up applications like Yelp, News, Instagram, language translation, Amazon Prime and Netflix. The latter pair are proving a popular use cases among early Vuzix adopters, especially for those in bed who don’t want to disturb their partners.
The camera conundrum
Google Glass brought excitement, as it showed-off those POV rollercoaster experiences, then trepidation, upon greater consideration of a head-mounted camera. Those in the AR sector must tread carefully here. North has avoided doing so completely, meaning Focals will be limited in terms of providing true AR that’s capable of interacting with the real world around it.
Vuzix, on the other hand, has a camera that underpins its AR experiences. It believes there’s much greater acceptance of head-mounted cameras in 2019 and says the wider AR industry has learned lessons from Google’s initially pushy implementation.
“For us the camera was always going to be a part of it. You need it to make AR applications work,” says Paul Travers. “The difference between Google and us is Google put that camera right out front and shoved it into people’s face. It almost looked like the guy [wearing Glass] was a voyeur.”
The company’s director of business development, Matt Margolis, chimes in: “In the last five years, think of how much bigger live streaming has become. Having that ability to capture the information and data from your point of view and not a handheld device? That’s a big deal.”
Snap, Facebook, and others, obviously, would agree.
“For us, what Glass helped do was provide mainstream awareness that this was going to exist at some point in the future,” Stephen Lake of North says. “Glass started a conversation and helped map out the boundaries and landmines. Now we and others have to think about the right consumer experiences.”
The arrival of Apple
The mass adoption of augmented reality technology could depend on how Apple’s awaited entry. Apple augmented reality glasses are in development. We know this from dozens of patent applications (Patently Apple does a great job at keeping track).
The ARKit developer tools and early apps suggests it is laying the groundwork for a hardware launch beyond using the cameras in iPhones to underpin powerful AR experiences.
Two years ago, Bloomberg’s well-connected Apple reporter Mark Gurman went as far as saying Apple was ramping up work on AR glasses to “succeed the iPhone.” He said Apple was aiming to have tech ready in 2019 and ship later. Well, later is almost here.Are the incumbents welcoming of Cupertino’s incursion?
“Hell yeah,” says Paul Travers of Vuzix.
“We would certainly welcome it,” his colleague Matt Margolis adds. “iOS has about 15% of the global market. So if Apple comes out with a pair of glasses, the other 85% of manufacturers will be looking for product.”
North CEO Stephen Lake wouldn’t be drawn on Apple’s rumoured incursion, but welcomes all companies that can build consumer awareness.
“I look at Tesla and the leadership position they took early in the electric car market. They’ve built a great brand and now the big auto makers have been able to come in with their own approaches in the category. There are a lot of parallels to what we’re doing.”
Getting sick of AR?
Augmented reality may have a clearer path to mainstream adoption than VR: for starters, the far lower instances of motion sickness when in augmented reality environments than their virtual counterparts. For some, VR was just a non-starter.
Although research is still limited, an Oxford University study in 2018 found: “Microsoft HoloLens causes across all participants only negligible symptoms of simulator sickness. Most consumers who use it will face no symptoms while only few experience minimal discomfort in the training environments we tested it in.”
Augmented Reality glasses in their current form do require continued shifting of focus in order to clarify the information in the heads-up display, but in the main, it’s a more tolerable experience for all.
However, that tolerance level may change if some of the more dystopian views of AR, such as Keiichi Matsuda’s HYPER-LAPSE concept, ever come to fruition. In this instance, the real world simply becomes wallpaper for the barrage of games, ads, messages, video calls, and so on. Could you imagine a greater turn off?
The web experience has been practically ruined by ads, GDPR, auto-playing media and such. What’s to stop this becoming how we experience AR too? Especially with the likes of Google and Facebook, whose business models depend on ads and user data. Much of it will depend greatly on goals of the smart glasses’ manufacturer.
“It’s a line that everyone’s going to have to walk. They’ll think about what’s important to them and what’s important to the consumer,” North’s Stephen Lake says. “We’re lucky because our only product is smart glasses. All we do all day is think about how to make an amazing experience for our users. We’re not coming at it with a legacy business model where we make money from advertising and selling our user’s data.”
The 5G factor
5G is about much more than faster and better-quality Netflix streams. Perhaps its true gift will be the way it reduces latency for cloud-based services. This is a big deal in augmented reality, as it means the information spied through the AR camera and its sensors can be processed with greater speed, meaning the flow of information returns to the device at a rate much closer to real time.
5G could even be a requirement for the best AR applications, according to ABI research.
Right now, incorporating 5G is a difficult call in a nascent market. Hardware needs would add too much bulk – but Vuzix does see 5G as a giant springboard for the sector.
“The carriers are looking for ways to showcase 5G connectivity. They look at our glasses as the perfect way to stay engaged in the digital and the real world,” says Margolis.
In South Korea, mobile operator LG Uplus is investing heavily in AR and VR experiences to encourage 5G subscriptions. Right now they’re phone-based experiences, but smart glasses are a natural extension.
Paul Travers adds: “In South Korea LG Uplus are doing such a good job with 5G and AR. People are taking AR selfies with their favourite players at stadiums and dancing with their favourite dancers.”
5G connectivity is just one of the reasons the future looks bright for 5G. The ever-improving nature of the wavelength technology, resulting in displays suitable for vivid AR experiences, isn’t something we’ve touched upon here, but it’s also important.
However, it seems the AR revolution must begin with subtle ways to make people’s lives better; much in the way that smartphones brought the computing power of a laptop to our pockets and made us truly mobile. Email on the go, for example.
Those exciting reality-defying experiences promised by Magic Leap and HoloLens will become accessible to all eventually. But it will take time, much like 4K HDR video wasn’t a reality on phones a few years ago. Now it’s taken for granted on mid-range phones.
In the meantime, the companies like North and Vuzix focusing on making comfortable, wearable eyeglasses, complemented by technology that makes a genuine improvement to everyday experiences, may have the best shot. Certainly until Apple comes along…