Best Smart Glasses: Benefits, Challenges, and Drivers of AR, VR, MR, and XR
“Today’s clunky smart glasses will be replaced by smart contact lenses. We’ll command them by voice, blinking, or even thinking, to interact visually in 3-D with the Internet.” This was Michio Kaku speaking at ‘The Eminents’ Interview, predicting The Psychology of Scientific Advancement¹. Standing at the nascent stage of this technology, the forecast might seem far-fetched to some of us. But, as the Psychology Today article (wherein you would find the transcripts of the interview) mentions in the beginning, “We’re intrigued by scientific advancement and futures but also scared by them. It’s been said, only half-joking, that the only people who welcome change are wet babies.”
Smart Glass technology has been around for a very long time. A few players have tried and paid the early adopter tax. Even those who are still paddling, are in what you could call niche territories. The reason is simple yet complex. A lot many factors come into play. It’s not just about bringing the fantastical tech into reality, but also convincing the general public to trust it. The latter part is the tall order task which even the tech titans have had a hard time managing.
So, before we get to the list of best smart glasses and their benefits, let’s take a look at -
What do you mean by VR, AR, MR, XR, Spatial Computing meaning?
Virtual reality (VR) refers to a computer-generated simulation in which a person can interact within an artificial three-dimensional environment using electronic devices, such as special goggles with a screen or gloves fitted with sensors. In this simulated artificial environment, the user can have a realistic feeling experience.
Augmented reality is an interactive experience of a real-world environment where the objects that reside in the real world are enhanced by computer-generated perceptual information
Mixed reality is the merging of real and virtual worlds to produce new environments and visualizations, where physical and digital objects co-exist and interact in real time. Mixed reality does not exclusively take place in either the physical or virtual world, but is a hybrid of reality and virtual reality.
XR is an emerging umbrella term for all immersive technologies. The ones we already have today — augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR), and mixed reality (MR) plus those that are still to be created. All immersive technologies extend the reality we experience by either blending the virtual and “real” worlds or by creating a fully immersive experience.
Spatial Computing is an even broader term that encompasses XR and the associated technologies like Artificial Intelligence.
Use cases of Smart Glasses
Here are a few applications of VR, AR, MR, and extended reality:
- Entertainment: gaming (Pokémon Go in 2016), karaoke, concerts, exhibitions and sports events, etc.
- Education and Safe Training: remote expert assistance, mapping constellations, cooking recipes, etc.
- Travel and communication: present subtitles in real-time when you visit a foreign country, translate speech for deaf people, navigation arrows and direction signs while riding, and even something simple like finding your keys.
- Medical: doctors can display info about their patients like heartbeats, blood pressure, or even the 3d representation of the body; using smart glasses to boost vision for partially sighted people.
- Engineering and Architectural design
- Retail and Virtual shopping
Now as the tech matures, it is bound to open up new horizons of spatial computing. So, let’s keep an eye on these new avenues and scenarios.
Concerns with Smart Glasses
Since these are self-explanatory, here we have just named the key areas of concern associated with extended reality.
- Privacy risks
- A decline in social engagement
- Health problems
Anyway, we will be addressing them in detail in the following section.
Factors Involved in a Smart Glass Future
First and foremost, the efficiency and availability of the following hardware components matter:
- Visor/Display (what is its size, resolution, refresh rate, and latency? Application of foveated rendering)
- Processing power, memory configuration, and battery life (These extended realities draw a lot of data crunching and computing energy. So under the hood, the mixed reality machines carry something like Snapdragon XR2 SoC with support of multiple cameras, high-res video recording, 5G speeds, and stability, voice-based interaction.)
- Sensors like LIDAR with high-res deeper depth of field camera and ability to capture large points of data; Structured light or instantaneous ToF 3D image sensing and motion tracking (centimeter-level, preferably)
- Well-defined (3D) and very long, if not near-infinite range depth maps of the area where you’d run the mixed realities.
- HDMI or wireless interfaces which ensure lossless pass-through video
- Internet connectivity (WiFi or data speed and stability)
- Design: The tech should fit, then people shall wear it. Although that’s the basic requirement, the makers should also address light leakage, heat, wearing fatigue, motion sickness, the amount of real-world living space you’re willing to sacrifice, comfort, screen door effect, and accessibility of functions and toggles, the fashion, comfort and overall ease of use. The companies are also coming up with custom designs and use cases for specially-abled people. Even something like prescription glass rules differs among different countries, which also needs to be considered.
- Accessories like rechargeable batteries, cleaning kit, USB-A/HDMI cable extension, controllers, etc.
In the words of Bill Gates, “When you write a piece of software you assume a certain type of hardware. If you assume hardware that’s too powerful then you can’t sell many copies cause very few people to have that machine. If you assume hardware that’s too simple your product can’t do as much.”
We are still in the early stages of extended reality, so, software development is likely to take the first assumption.
At the core, the role of the software is to create/simulate a believable and interactable user interface. This covers everything from realistic lighting, shadows, occlusion to fast motion tracking, depth sensing, and reconstruction of a real-world model. Only then, there will be an immersive user experience. Now the types of software include:
- Backend things like Software Development Kits (Apple ARKit, Google ARCore, Steam OpenVR, Placenote SDKs) which are like a base on which the devs design, build and test the mixed reality experiences; Game engines, Content Management, and Collaborative tools.
- Selection of end-user apps and these could be both consumer and commercial-centric.
- The platform of preference depends on the above two points.
- AI smartness in way of content recognition, translation, object-segmentation, and contextual-aware depth estimation. This would require ginormous datasets to train the AI (neural networks).
Data and Social Contract
Now as mentioned already, the development, application, service, and of course the business of extended reality would involve a deluge of data. And wherever such large data pools are present, there would be several stakeholders. Primarily, there will be companies with money on their mind and general users with privacy on their minds. After all, it’s the latter whose data is collected and cultivated. So, companies have to tiptoe around safeguarding the data, but also meet their bottom line requirements.
Then there is the implicit social contract wherein the companies have to mitigate social anxiety and stigmas towards new technologies, especially one that’s literally on your face. They have to brand these gears and gizmos as utilitarian, cool, and evoke some form of trust towards them. Well, people must believe these thingies are here to make life better, and even in the nascent stage, they must be perceived within the realm of possibilities.
Needless to say any form of tech would remain elusive to the general public as long as they are expensive. The same holds in the case of the price of the extended reality wares.
Popular Smart Glasses: Past, Present, and Future
Although there has been a bevy of products over the years, here we will be touching upon just the popular ones that marked a major milestone in the smart glass/headset progression. And what’s better than —
Google Glass (AR)
Google was a pioneer in the smart glass market. Back in 2013, the company was selling a vision of wireless ubiquitous computers to select customers who were called “Glass Explorers”. This Google Glass had a display/projector, a 720p camera, and a touchpad. When you look through that display, what you see is equivalent to a 25-inch screen from an 8ft distance. The panel was only 640×360 pixels in resolution. The glass didn’t have a built-in network, so it would rely on the smartphone’s internet via WiFi or Bluetooth tethering. On the phone, you’d have the MyGlass app for every control and function. You could interact using the touchpad by the side frame for navigation. Or command using Ok Google followed by keywords. Then there was a camera button on the top of the frame to click pictures or videos. But you could do this with a simple wink.
For the aforementioned recording method, Glass got a creepy reputation. For instance, Simpsons termed it as “Oogle Goggles”. Elsewhere, Glass wearers were called Glassholes and it was considered socially inappropriate and thus banned at certain public places. There were even guidelines to avoid being a glasshole. Not to mention the data concerns. Some called it a $1500 privilege or novelty, while others referred to it as an Android phone without apps.
Well, Google discontinued the consumer plans for the Glass in 2015 and from explorer, it was transitioned to an enterprise product. Currently, Google sells the Google Glass Enterprise Edition 2² for its commercial customers.
Now, Google is known to announce a bunch of moonshot products that either reaches the consumer in some shape or form or have an unfortunate end at the graveyard³. The Google Glass was radical for its time and did generate a lot of buzz around smart glasses. But Google didn’t manage to make money out of Glass, let alone make it household hardware. Still and all it paved a way for the rest to follow, even years later. And with its 2020 acquisition of North, an AR glass startup, Google has projected “an ambient computing future”.
Microsoft HoloLens 2 (MR)
Microsoft’s HoloLens is a competitor to the above one as it’s an enterprise-only product. The Mixed Reality headset was launched at Mobile World Congress, 2019.
The HoloLens 2⁴ sports a 2K-equivalent display with a holographic density of 47 pixels per degree, and a 52-degree diagonal FoV. It features real-time eye tracking in 6 degrees (using Azure Kinect and eye-tracking sensor). There is also an 8MP camera on the front.
At the core, there is Qualcomm Snapdragon 850 CPU coupled with an HPU (Holographic Processing Unit) 2.0. Other goodies in the mix are a 5-ch spatial speaker system, and a USB-C charging socket.
Now, even though the tech is cutting edge, but the device garnered a lot of press attention due to Microsoft’s million-dollar deal to sell the HoloLens 2 to the U.S. Army. As of April 2021, the contract is estimated to value around $21.88 billion over 10 years and the army has apparently moved the headset from prototype to production. That should give you a rough idea of the demand for these kinds of tech.
Facebook Oculus Quest (VR)
It’s been half a decade since Facebook acquired VR company Oculus. This was around the same time that Google Glass was making rounds in the media and pop culture. So, Zuckerberg had to make a move, and years later Facebook has created a technological moat for itself.
In 2018, Facebook rebranded Oculus Research as Facebook Reality Labs. But, its current flagship product, Quest 2 still carries the Oculus surname. As for specs, it has got a 90Hz LCD screen with 1832 x 1920 pixel resolution for each eye. The display is part of a headgear that comes with a strap and an interpupillary adjustment system. The controller is AA batteries driven. The internal ingredients include a Snapdragon XR2 chipset, paired with 6GB of RAM, and 64/256GB of storage.
Besides, Facebook is also working on a variety of other smart glass initiatives like Project Aria and Project Orion (with RayBan). It is also said to be working on electromyography (EMG)-based wristband. This neural interface reads the electric signals from your muscle and even the slightest of finger movements. It would be interesting to see this controller work in the real world.
FRL has played a major role in the development of the VR ecosystem which comprises apps and games. Some notable titles include Horizon game, Supernatural, FitXR, Beat Saber, Onward, and Raw Data.
All that said and done, the social media giant has an uphill task of clearing the public perception towards it since the 2016 election debacle. So, if you doubt their conviction, it’s good to give the FRL principles⁵ here.
Lastly, the brand is also conscious of commoditizing the tech. Facebook’s CTO, Mike Schroepfer says, “It felt like if we put a lot of time and energy behind it, we could accelerate this into something that could get wide adoption — because that’s the only way we would all be interested in it. If it was some super-niche high-end very expensive toy, it just wouldn’t fit with what Facebook was trying to do. So from the very beginning, it was, ‘Can we take this thing and turn it into something that everyone can have?’”
Now we have several other smart glasses or headsets from brands across the board that belong to either of these three categories. In the VR field, we have names like Sony PlayStation VR, Valve Index, and HTC Vive Pro 2. The AR contenders include Magic Leap’s headset, Vuzix Blade, Epson Moverio BT-300, and Snap Spectacles 3. Then there are some like Amazon Echo Frames, Lenovo Thinkreality A3, and Bose Frames which are dabbling in eyewear that is more normal-looking, so to speak with smarts and niche value propositions. We shouldn’t forget endeavors like Intel Vaunt and Sony SmartEyeGlass either.
There’s nothing much we know about Reliance’s Jio Glass except that it is a Mixed Reality solution.
And finally, we have the trillion-dollar tech titan, Apple.
Apple Glass: AR/VR/MR?
Even though Apple is known to be working on smart glasses for the last 7+ years, late Steve Jobs⁶ wasn’t a big proponent of smart glasses. But, now that these wares are considered the next paradigm in computing, the company has apparently ramped up its efforts. Its hardware chief Dan Riccio is also said to have been moved to the AR/VR efforts.
Apple has reportedly given the contract to Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Co. for manufacturing an AR glass with model no. N421 and an MR headset with model no. N301. The former would be lightweight and more advanced. But before that, the brand is likely to launch a pricey ($300 to $900) headset aimed at priming the market of both devs and users for the eventual mainstream AR glasses. People close to the matter reckon Apple might sell a limited stock, around one headset per day per retail store. Now although this sounds bizarre, the plan seems to be creating a niche product that would be used for further research and development, consumer education, and the rest of the necessary groundwork for the AR Glass. After all, it’s not just about the display, but how the user interacts with the AR environment.
Rest, as for specs, the rumors and leaks suggest the AR glasses sport micro OLED displays from Sony that are around 0.5-inch in size with 1280x960 pixels, fast response rate, rich contrast, a wide color coverage, high brightness, low reflectance, and drivers. Meanwhile, the MR headset will incorporate 8K displays for both eyes, with eye-tracking, and foveated rendering. Some reports also claim the usage of fans for heat dissipation inside the headset. And so to reduce the heft, Apple could use mesh fabric material on the chassis. And both products be likely powered by new chipsets, software (rOS, apps, and app-store), accessories (thimble controllers), custom prescription lenses, and Siri’s voice support.
As for their launch, the MR headset is expected in late 2021 or 2022, AR glasses in mid-2025, and eventually an AR contact lens by 2030–2040.
But again, it is not just about building the hardware, Apple, or for that matter, any other company stepping into spatial or wearable computing will have to secure the entire ecosystem around it. And that brings us to the closing note.
A Smart Vision of the Future
New designs are making headway in 2021, with models from Facebook, Vuzix, Lenovo, and others expected very soon. And as you’ve read already, an Apple offering should also be here sooner than you think.
Now, although the tech giants are putting the pedal to metal, market analysts predict mainstream interest would still take another five to ten years. Well, even some corporate heads share a similar view. For instance, while speaking at the 2019 TechCrunch Disrupt conference in San Francisco, Snap co-founder and CEO Evan Spiegel speculated it would be at least 10 years before consumers widely adopt smart glasses.
Needless to say, new players are likely to enter the space. We would be seeing more designs, more revisions and improvements and new horizons altogether. Meanwhile, the smart glassmakers, new and existing, should have a clear-cut product direction. Whatever benefits their products offer, and however niche they may be, the same should always outweigh the costs in their making.
Eventually, there’ll be smart glasses with congenial designs and enhanced audiovisual output. Now, like any other technology, whether these turn out to be avenues for escapism or enable better lives is to be seen. So, let’s wait and watch what the future of smart glasses focuses on.