Will Smartglasses Replace Smartphones?

Augmented World Expo speakers say the age of AR is almost here

9 June 2016

Last week I was one of the 4,000 people from 48 countries who attended the Augmented World Expo, the largest event dedicated to augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR). This year’s expo was held on 1 and 2 June in Santa Clara, Calif. A dizzying array of smartglasses, VR headsets, and wearables were on display. Industry leaders spoke about the current state and the future of the burgeoning fields.

The message from many speakers was clear: It’s only a matter of time before people trade in their smartphones for smartglasses.

Smartglasses, which project images and information in the wearer’s line of vision, are primarily being explored right now for industrial use. For example, Daqri, an AR company in Los Angeles, demonstrated its Smart Helmet, which is designed to help workers fix and maintain pipes, valves, and other components by projecting blueprints and instructions onto the machinery in front of them.

But the general consensus at this year’s AWE is that consumers will begin buying smartglasses for everyday use, including turn-by-turn directions, restaurant reviews, social media, gaming, and more. During his keynote address, IEEE Member Ori Inbar, founder and CEO of AugmentedReality.org, made a bold prediction: Smartglasses will be ubiquitous by 2031.

THE NEW NORMAL

Smartglasses might seem like just another technological distraction, but if a person has ever bumped into you because she was staring at her phone instead of looking where she was going, the glasses might be the solution. The devices will let wearers keep their heads up and seamlessly interact with their environment—at least that’s the hope.

Worried about constant notifications popping up in your line of vision? Smartglasses might be able to use machine learning to pick up on that. They’ll figure out when not to send you information, according to Dan Eisenhardt, general manager of Intel’s New Devices group. In his keynote address, Eisenhardt said smartglasses will learn, for example, not to interrupt you when you’re meeting with your boss.

As for skeptics who think smartglasses will never catch on, Eisenhardt reminded attendees that a century ago, men would not wear wristwatches, which were considered women’s jewelry. That is until World War I, when pocket watches were too cumbersome for soldiers to carry. By the late 1920s, pocket watches were obsolete and the wristwatch was considered an essential accessory for the modern man.

NOT A FASHION STATEMENT

Smartglasses’ graphics and apps are getting more impressive, but they’re still bulky and not very stylish. I chatted with a developer at Osterhout Design Group, an AR business in San Francisco, while waiting in line to try on the company’s R-7 smartglasses. Primarily marketed toward manufacturing and medical industries, the R-7s cost US $2,750. The glasses won Best in Show as voted by AWE attendees. It’s difficult to design one-size-fits-all glasses, the developer conceded, adding that the device’s battery often heats up when it has been on for several hours, causing discomfort.

Epson presented its Moverio BT-300 smartglasses, scheduled to hit the market this year. The glasses use a Si-OLED (silicon organic light-emitting diode) system that gives projected words and shapes a crisp, dark tone, helping users to differentiate the projected images from actual objects in front of them. The BT-300 glasses weigh 60 grams, 30 percent lighter than the BT-200s. The BT-300s are equipped with a 5-megapixel front-facing camera and run faster than their predecessor thanks to an Intel Atom 5 1.44-gigahertz Quad core chip.

The BT-300s are available for preorder and cost about $799—not much more than the price of a new iPhone or high-end tablet. The company said in its product-launch announcement at AWE that the glasses are not a fashion statement, but that they’re ready for the mass market.

Smartglasses are getting more sophisticated and more affordable. Consumers will have to decide if and when they are willing to wear their technology on their faces.

Would you trade in your smartphone for smartglasses if they could offer similar capabilities?

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