Smart Glasses – Are We Ready?

Spatial computing, once a preserve of science fiction, is slowly but surely creeping into real life and whilst there are a number of companies working on industrial applications of Augmented Reality (AR), with true use of a headset/ glasses there is not yet a convincing consumer solution to herald in the age of smart glasses.

Smart glasses, Lake Tahoe
AR adds a layer of digital information to the real world that we see, adding to the experience.

The promise of AR and of smart-glasses is to seamlessly overlay digital information onto the real world such that this information adds to the experience. There are myriad potential applications where such a capability might prove either useful or just entertaining. For example:

  • Video calls – speak with a person on Skype or FaceTime (other video chat applications available) as though they were literally standing/ sitting there in front of you, in realistic hologram form.

 

  • Educational experiences – visits to galleries, museums or even city tours would be so much more entertaining and interesting with the ability to see projections of artists, historical figures or scenes played out in front of our eyes as though they were happening live. A visit to a famous battle scene or, for example, StoneHenge would be a richer learning experience if the subjects of our learning were walking about around us. How much better would we relate to our history if we could see, with our own eyes, such histories played out on the current world? Would it lead to a greater sense of the important lessons of history and reduce the risks that we repeat the same errors, a concern that holds resonance at this specific time of political uncertainty in the world.

 

  • Navigation – whether it be in a car or walking about an unfamiliar city, staring at a screen has its obvious disadvantages. Contrast that with seeing clear directions mapped out onto the real world in front of our eyes, negating the need to take our focus off the real world. This will be further enhanced by the use of real-time translation, such that foreign road signs are automatically presented in their translated form.

 

  • Many others…..

 

What AR experiences are already available?

Most of us will have first heard of or experienced AR through social apps such as Snapchat, whose filters allow for some silly but otherwise fun effects to be added to live video, such as the addition of rabbit ears and a nose that respond and change in real-time with our faces. Others might have used an AR app to scan a physical marker in, say, a magazine and seen a digital object, such as a movie character, materialise on our screen but viewed as though they were there in the real world. Companies such as Blippar do the latter and have a thriving business in using AR for brand marketing.

 

Who is doing interesting things in AR?

There are a number of companies working on AR, whether it be via smart glasses or the screens with which we interact with daily, such as tablets and phones. As already mentioned, social media is likely to be one of the first experiences of true AR that many of us have and it isn’t just Snapchat playing a role. Facebook are also players in this market with their purchase, this year, of the AR start-up MSQRD, whose technology does much the same thing as Snapchat’s. The technology behind such whimsical entertainment is actually pretty exciting and you can learn more about it here.

Aside from marketing and social media/ entertainment, other major applications for AR are in both industry and education, with a few vet schools even dabbling with the technology.

 

Form Factor…. The Big Issue

As much as I am truly excited by the promise of AR to revolutionise how we interact with digital information, form factor is still, for me, THE biggest issue. Until we move beyond the bulky, cyborg-esque headsets, that feel akin to wearing a welders mask, to lightweight, stylish eyewear or, preferably, a completely off-body solution then wider adoption of this tech will be slow. At present, the most accessible and reliable method by which to engage with AR for the vast majority of us is via our phones and tablets. In other words, handheld screens with cameras attached.

Phones work in as much as they do some incredible things for us and work the same regardless of personal factors and are situationally flexible (i.e. they work much the same way regardless of whether you are at home, work or, perhaps, out and about in a sporting or outdoors setting). They also have the advantage of being discretely held on person if necessary, a feature that an expensive pair of smart-glasses clearly lacks. For example, in areas where openly advertising the fact you have a powerful – and valuable – computer on your person would be ill-advised, it is perfectly possible to keep a phone hidden and, perhaps, access necessary information via other, more discrete methods, such as a smart-watch. Obviously wearing a pair of smart glasses, especially in their current form, would create not only some degree of social stigma, as was seen with Google Glass, but also a personal risk from theft as one would effectively be advertising the fact that they were in possession of a very valuable piece of personal computing equipment.

What of the issues pertaining to eyesight? I, personally, need corrective lenses, whether they be in the form of contacts, which I personally can’t stand wearing for very long and that do little to really improve my eyesight anyway, or spectacles. What solutions do smart-glasses have in store for users such as me in the future? Will I be forced to have to wear contacts whenever I want to wear and thus use my smart glasses? Or will I need to make an additional investment to install corrective/ prescription lenses, instantly increasing the overall cost of adoption and complexity of the product, and making it more of a tricky proposition to resell the device when it comes to upgrading. I wouldn’t be able to easily share/ lend my device to others unless they too shared my prescription, unless they automatically contained technology that corrected for the current user’s eyesight – maybe that’s the key?!

Then there are situational factors governing ease of use. I can currently use, or otherwise carry, my phone in virtually all circumstances. The design and form of the technology gives it this feature. At work it can remain in my pocket and be accessed should I need to quickly use the camera, or search an ebook or perform an information search online, whilst during exercise, such as on my bike, I can easily carry it using a sports-pouch and enjoy music and other services, such as GPS tracking and metrics apps like Strava. Paired with a smart-watch I can also interact directly with the device, accessing key performance data, all in a comfortable manner that the device is designed to be able to cope easily with. Smart-glasses, on the other hand, do not seem to be as flexible. For example, I doubt that I would want to wear the same style of smart glasses at work, interacting with clients and colleagues, and with the constant risk of getting blood etc on them, as I would whilst training, when the need is for eyewear that is sporty, aerodynamic, lightweight, sweat-resistant and aesthetically totally different to other situations. Personally, I even keep different styles of sunglasses depending on the situation in which they are worn. My everyday, casual pair are totally different to my sports/ training/ racing pair. Would I need to have several different pairs of smart glasses to achieve the same result? I only have a single smartphone and can use that in all of the settings mentioned.

Then there is the issue of social stigma and resistance to smart ‘facial-wear.’ Nerds get why people would want to wear a computer on their face – I am one of them. But as Google Glass, when it was first released, demonstrated, the wider public are generally suspicious of and occasionally outright hostile to the idea. Is it simply that wearers of such devices look alien and so instantly stand out as different? Is it the fact that people know such devices include cameras and so fear the perceived invasion of personal privacy that comes with being surveiled, even though we all carry smartphones with incredibly powerful, high resolution cameras that capture content constantly and may well be recorded multiple times per day by other users without our even being aware? In fact, unless you live in a rural area then it is highly probable that you are already being constantly recorded such is the pervasive nature of CCTV. And yet we’re collectively fine with this whilst being instantly suspicious of a person openly wearing a recording device in the form of smart eyewear.

This will need to change before smart glasses become universally accepted as ‘normal.’ A really interesting historical point was made at this year’s AWE (Augmented World Expo) by one of the speakers who talked about how prior to the First World War, wristwatches were generally considered to be pieces of womens’ jewellery and men typically carried a pocket watch. Any gentleman thus wearing a wristwatch would have been stigmatised. That was until the war when, due to the practical constraints of the battlefield, having a timepiece easily accessible, lightweight and handsfree was a big advantage. As a result officers sported wristwatches and continued to do so upon returning from active duty. The comical comment was the suggestion that no-one in their right mind would have ridiculed a tough soldier for wearing a piece of jewellery and so before long tastes changed and the idea of wearing a wristwatch became the accepted norm that we know today. Will the adoption of smart eyewear follow the same path? Who will it be that leads the way in changing public opinion? Will it once again be soldiers, after perhaps first experiencing smart-glasses in the military, or sports-stars perhaps? Regardless of who it is that ultimately leads to a change in opinion there first needs to be a compelling reason for why smart glasses are a preferable option over sticking with the good old smartphone and it is this that I cannot quite yet see.

If No Smart Glasses, Then What?

If smart-glasses, in the typical spectacle form, are not the answer then what could the future of AR look like? To answer this it is worth considering our experience of AR in two different contexts.

Fixed Position Interface

As we have already discussed, AR is already experienced by many of us via traditional screens, with the augmented content over-layed onto the real world as long as we view it through the screen itself. As such, any context in which a transparent surface is involved lends itself to AR. Obvious case examples include driving, with our view of the world outside of the car/ transport medium being through such a transparent ‘screen.’ Companies such as BMW have already explored this idea, for example with the Head-Up Display that shows important journey and vehicle information ‘on the windscreen’ such that the driver need not take their eyes off the road in front of them to still benefit from such data. Navigation information is another very obvious application for this concept, with drivers ‘seeing’ the route mapped out on the road and surrounding world without having to divert their gaze away from the road and towards a separate screen. Imagine how much less likely it would be to miss that rapidly approaching highway slip-road if you could ‘see it’ in advance by a change in colour of the road in front of your very eyes. Once we truly herald the arrival of fully-autonomous driving then the very same vehicle ‘screens’ that previously kept us informed of important driving information will give themselves over to becoming entertainment or productivity screens.

Other settings in which screens (as in what we currently think of as windows or transparent barriers) are currently employed and which promise to provide AR interfaces in the future include places such as zoos, museums, shop windows, or even our very own home windows. Basically anywhere that a transparent ‘screen’ could be found.

Mobile Interface

Until we somehow come up with a reliable, safe method by which to wirelessly beam AR directly into our brains, currently the most obvious alternative to smart-glasses is the smart contact lens. There are groups working on such stuff of science fiction as this very thing, with Samsung having patented a design for the same, although the power and processing would come from a tethered smart-phone, making it more of a smart screen than anything. I have already voiced my own personal objections to contact lenses and cannot see how adding hardware, however small, to them is going to overcome their obvious shortcomings. Assuming for a moment that the visual effect is staggeringly compelling, with beautifully rendered digital content seamlessly added to the world as if it was always there, designers are going to need to solve the following problems before we all don contact lenses:

  • comfort – many people either find them out and out uncomfortable or can only really stand wearing them for short periods of time.

 

  • ocular health – in some professions, especially medical, ophthalmologists recommend daily disposable lenses as, on balance, they are a more hygienic option when compared to longer term-use products. Will smart contact-lenses be cheap enough, and will it be socially and environmentally acceptable or sustainable even, to dispose of our high-tech lenses each day? What of the potential health issues associated with having a heat-generating, signal transmitting/ receiving device actually in contact with our eyes? Do we know what, if any, health risks that might present?

 

  • cost – whilst not especially cheap, I do not get too upset when I have to sacrifice a pair or two of contact lenses in any single day, either because some debris makes it way onto the lenses and renders them uncomfortable or my eyes just need a break. I would be less quick or willing to whip them out, however, if they had cost me a significant sum to purchase, and if I were forced to then I’d be resentful of having to have done so.

 

  • tethering – whilst not a major issue, having to keep a smart-phone in close proximity for such lenses to work as desired does somewhat dilute some of the real magic and potential of a truly untethered AR experience.

 

Smart glasses

Whilst the future is one in which Augmented Reality is definitely going to be HUGE, with companies such as Meta, Magic Leap and Microsoft (with the Hololens) creating some truly incredible technology and experiences that defy conventional belief and result in childish grins from anyone who tries them, there are still some significant and fundamental obstacles to overcome. Form factor is, I believe, one of the key issues that pioneers of this technology are yet to crack but when a compelling solution is found then, well, get strapped in and prepare for a technological shift the likes of which come around but once in a generation!

For more information on Smart Glasses, take a look at the AR Glasses Buyers Guide (www.ARglassesbuyersguide.com)

Eastern Exploits

What do you do when you find you have an unexpected week off work? There are a hundred and one ways that I could have easily occupied the time in Dubai and yet I also feared that I would probably fail to truly maximise the time and so turned my thoughts towards doing some exploring. But where?

Since arriving in the Middle East, a perfect jumping off point for the Far East, all of my trips have basically taken me back West, something that I have realised on numerous occasions feels like a missed opportunity. So, my thoughts headed east and specifically to both Singapore and Hong Kong, where I am fortunate enough to have friends in both cities. For a short period I did consider playing out the true jet-set image by taking in both during the same trip, especially as I was keen to visit INSEAD’s campus in Singapore, but concluded that the schedule would be too crammed and the additional time spent in transit a poor use of a limited number of hours that could be better directed to actually exploring and relaxing. Given that I had visited Singapore once before, albeit many years ago, and had never been to Hong Kong I opted for the latter and so booked the flights. Decision made.

Its strange that in spite of living in an age of ample online sources of information, including video footage and Google Maps data, my imagined ideas of the place and what I actually experienced in person were so different. I took an overnight flight, relishing in my luck at having an entire row of seats to myself thus affording me some – but not enough – sleep as I headed east and landed at Hong Kong’s airport, perched at the far end of Lantau Island, a 30 minute metro ride from the city itself, and built upon reclaimed land, a technology that has revolutionised and transformed Hong Kong over the years. With a return airport express ticket in hand, facilitated by the incredibly helpful attendant who I swear spoke better English than I do, I boarded the train all the while amazed at just how few people there were. Anywhere. I told myself that I must have simply arrived at a bizarrely early hour and that the city was yet to wake as I had been expecting to grapple with throngs of people from the moment I arrived.

SPCA Hong KongIt was especially overcast and cloudy as I arrived and the first glimpses of Hong Kong were dark, dreary views of construction over the bay, and nondescript high rises as we approached Kowloon. Views of the famous skyline itself would have to wait as we went from Kowloon station to Hong Kong station, my final stop and from where I was advised to grab a cab for the short journey to Wan Chai and the SPCA, my home for the week and where my friend Matt, a fellow vet, and his girlfriend, Thea, lived. The first thing that struck me was actually how relatively small, geographically speaking, Hong Kong truly is. The island of Hong Kong, and the city that everyone knows, starts at the edge of Hong Kong bay, approximately 1km narrower now than it once was on account of the degree of reclamation that has taken place, and quickly climbs steeply to hills covered in lush vegetation before sweeping down to the opposite coast, where small coves, bays and exclusive settlements like Stanley are situated. The fact that Hong Kong is one of the most densely populated places on the planet is thus down to the engineering miracle that is the high-rise, with impossibly tall buildings clinging to slopes that would make some ski resorts giddy. Just how some of them were built amazes me!

In spite of grand plans to grab the day by the horns and make the most of my time in the city, I confess that my “quick nap” turned into an all-day snore-fest and it was the early evening, once Matt had returned from work, that I emerged bleary eyed and ready to sample some of the local cuisine. Food plays a big role in Hong Kong and it is delicious, with a classically local dim sum joint being our destination, after a couple of cheeky beers in one of the many bars. Matt had advised me to pick up a pre-paid 4G SIM card for my phone and a quick stop at one of the small street-side vendors saw me instantly connected to the network and thus able to function as any digital citizen of the city.

Wan Chai, Hong KongDetermined to make up for the loss of the previous day, although I clearly needed the sleep, I got up relatively early the next day, starting out with a run that saw me weave through the neighbourhood of Wan Chai, through and around Victoria Park, a short distance from the apartment, around Happy Valley, the famous racetrack, and back along the waterfront, stopping off for some delicious BBQ pork buns for breakfast Hong Kong style. Feeling somewhat reenergised and taking the advice of Thea, I packed up a few things in a daypack, hailed a cab and headed up to Parkview and the start of a hiking trail known as the Wilson Trail, and specifically a section of it that took in the Twins, two peaks that ultimately brought me down to Stanley on the other side of the island. It was a very overcast day and as we climbed into Parkview, we entered an eery world that felt almost dreamlike such was the effect of being up in the clouds. The hike initially involved a steep ascent of multiple stone steps before winding along a narrow hilltop track that saw me above the cloudline and, as such, without the views that I knew would have been spectacular. I did have sounds though, with various birdsong intermingling with the distant clang of construction, growing louder as I approached Repulse Bay, the source of the building din. Being in China I could not help imagine that the bangs, grumbles and clatters were in fact a giant dragon, hidden from view by the cloak of cloud that kept its presence secret.

Stanley Beach, HK
An overcast, soggy Stanley Beach

I know that Hong Kong is a very humid, and thus wet, place but it seemed that I had elected to head out during a particularly wet week, although Dubai didn’t fare too much better as it turned out. As such, in addition to getting soggy via the humidity and exertion required on the hike, I also found myself caught in a thunderstorm. All told, I arrived in Stanley feeling as though I had walked there via a hot, steamy shower! My initial plan had been to do a training swim in the sea off Stanley’s beach but given the rather grey day, the fact that I was actually pretty tired and keen to return to Hong Kong itself in order to make the races and the fact that I had read all about the sharks that do populate the waters around the area, I opted to keep my soggy feet on dry land.

Stanley_HK

Refuelled and souvenir in hand, I hopped on one of the minibuses heading back into the city and enjoyed views of Clearwater Bay, Repulse Bay and Ocean Park, a theme park nestled up on a headland opposite Repulse Bay, before we drove through the Aberdeen Tunnel and emerged back into Hong Kong proper. A swift turnaround back at the apartment and it was off out again, this time with brolly in hand, to grab some dinner and check out the races, a hugely popular activity on Wednesday night in Hong Kong.

Happy Valley, view from hotel
Packed with Wednesday night punters. $100M is bet here each week!

The Happy Valley racecourse sits in, well, a valley and was actually named somewhat tongue in cheek on account of the fact that when it was first settled, the marshy environment, and the legions of mosquitoes that came with it, meant that many of the settlers died, with the area being turned over to numerous cemeteries, gravestones visible as they climb the slopes like dull, grey, geometric creepers. Once inside the racetrack, the mood was one of a much more jovial nature, with throngs of racegoers all enjoying the food, booze and music on show, in addition to waging a fortune on the outcome of the various races being run that night. Apparently more than $100M is bet each week alone, if the book I read is to be believed. A staggering amount of money that makes the Jockey Club one of the biggest contributors to the city coffers out of anyone. I, for one, am not that keen on betting and so after watching one race, I headed out and toward a nearby hotel where I was certain I would be rewarded with a stunning elevated view of the entire course, in addition to it being dry. Randomly, during the walk from the track I passed Vernon Troy, of Austin Powers’ Mini Me fame, out for an evening with his friends. Dubai, it seems, is not the only place for random celeb-spotting.

Thursday was spent closer to home, and took Matt and I over the bay via one of the very many ferries that zip around the harbour to Kowloon, with the New Territories and China beyond. We checked out Chungking Mansions, a labyrinthine multi-level building of stalls, restaurants and many other services alike, before taking in the Hong Kong skyline from the harbour. Much like in Dubai, construction is everywhere in Hong Kong, with the city constantly growing and changing. The energy is one of high velocity growth and optimism and feels so at odds with what I experienced during my brief visit back to the UK.

Mid Levels escalator, Hong Kong
The closest thing there is to a Stairway to Heaven… the Mid Levels Escalator. Commuting ease in physical form.

Returning to Downtown via the incredibly efficient metro, we headed up to Lan Kwai Fong, the (in)famous bar and restaurant region of the city, where Matt suggested an awesome Brazilian grill for lunch. More walking, including checking out the awesome Mid-levels escalator – yes, Hong Kong actually has an escalator that goes up the hill! That is just THE BEST! With Hong Kong being so dense it is actually pretty straightforward to explore much of it quite quickly and with this sense of curiosity I headed off independently for the Peak tram and to see whether the views would be kind enough to come out and play. They did and they were worth it!

Hong Kong, The Peak
The view from The Peak is one of the highlights of a trip to Hong Kong

The tram that takes visitors from Downtown up the incredibly steep slopes to the Peak, and the 360-degree viewing platform, was well worth the ticket price, with the clouds thankfully clearing for my visit and permitting spectacular views over the city, the bay, Kowloon and beyond. Any visit to Hong Kong simply has to include this on the itinerary and once I had exhausted my inner photographer I took advantage of my 4G to Skype the folks back home and share the experience and view with them. A great day of touristy fun all told and topped off with a fantastic Chinese meal with my hosts and a variety of their friends at a Wan Chai restaurant.

Ngong Ping, Giant BuddhaBy this stage I was getting into the tourist swing of things and so looked to check out one of the ‘Top Ten’ that a friend, Rosee, had suggested: the Giant Buddha. A relatively short metro trip back out west to the tip of Lantau island and the town just next to the airport saw me connect with the cable car that takes visitors up and over the hills to Ngong Ping, site of the Po Lin monastery and 34m high bronze Buddha that sits breathtakingly atop a hill. The more energised visitor has the option to trek up the lengthy trail, something I elected to pass on although would consider as an awesome training run one day if I ever return. The short stroll from the cable car station towards the Buddha and monastery took me through the somewhat touristy village, complete with shops selling various momentos, snacks and other paraphanalia, before passing through an impressive stone arch and onto a large, circular area, with the monastery to the left and, up a long flight of stone stairs, the Buddha himself.

Giant Buddha, Hong KongThe monastery was serenely peaceful, beautifully gilded, with incredibly intricate and ornate decorations adorning both the inside of the temples and the exteriors, and it was easy to find a sense of peace as I idly wandered around, with cows nonchalantly sidling past in search of a quiet patch to solemnly chew the cud and consider the tourists enthusiastically snapping away. I confess that I was one of those same tourists and all three cameras – Theta (360-degree), SLR and iPhone – were called upon to capture various aspects of the visit. Completely aware of the fact that I was playing the perfect tourist I slipped into one of the tea houses as I left, enjoying a delicious pot of jasmine tea and some almond cookies, before taking the chilly return cable-car back to the train and Hong Kong.

Wan Chai, Hong KongWith Matt and Thea off on holiday that day, I had arranged to catch up with some other Hong Kong based friends over the weekend, meeting them at a rooftop bar at the International Finance Centre mall, with views back out over the bay to Kowloon. Our initial destination that evening was to check out the Taste food event, one of which is held in Dubai each year and, I believe, other cities around the world. As much as the small amounts of food I got to taste were undeniably delicious, I did rather find the event overpriced, overhyped and despite spending a reasonable amount left feeling just as hungry as I did upon entering. It may have been this lack of complete saiety that saw the rest of the evening unfold as it did, with the four of us piling into a taxi for a trip over to Wan Chai and the start of an evening of drinking and clubbing, culminating in me being the last to spill out of our final nightspot and find my way back to the apartment only after initially having to correct course as I found myself walking uphill as opposed to down towards the bay! I was certainly grateful that Hong Kong is fundamentally easy to navigate at that point, otherwise I have no idea where I might have ended up.

It is a sad truth that there must be balance in the world and so it was that a heavy and lengthy night must be paid for with the loss of the following day. The sofa was my friend for pretty much the entirety of Saturday, feeling as devoid of energy and drive to move as I must have surely looked. Through the collective will of the group and facilitated via the steadily growing crescendo of Whats App pings, a plan to meet up for some food was actioned and another evening commenced, this time starting at a delicious BBQ restaurant in SoHo. Bellies full and heads a little less swirling our evening took in a couple of the bars in the Mid Levels area of the city, with one serving the saving grace of the evening, Espresso Martinis, that saw us all make it through to watching the Six Nations rugby match between England and Wales. Another great evening in a truly energetic city.

One of the last things I did in Hong Kong, at the advice of my friend James, was to get up nice and early, head over to Kowloon and enjoy breakfast at the Ritz-Carlton hotel’s dining room on the 103rd floor of the International Commerce Centre. The breakfast was standard high-end hotel fare but the real attraction was the view, this time back across the bay to take in the entirety of Hong Kong island itself. Beautiful! Busy! Burgeoning! From this vantage point it is possible to appreciate just how active the bay is, with boats of all shapes and sizes buzzing along, zipping across each others’ paths as they headed off on whatever business they were on, whether it be collecting and delivering cargo or ferrying passengers around the bay and city. Hong Kong truly is a spectacle and testament to the engineering expertise of humans as well as our drive to keep growing and changing. It is a city that I had preconceptions of but found myself surprised by, pleasantly so. It is one that I could imagine myself living in, despite the fact that the summer months are just as hot and muggy as any experienced in Dubai, and for anyone seeking an exciting city escape, but with the option to head out into nature as well, then Hong Kong is the place to go.

 

Hong Kong, Harbour 2016 from Chris Queen on Vimeo.