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.
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.
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.
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)