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Augmented Reality glasses are at least 20 years away

Submitted by on Wednesday, 18 August 201022 Comments

I get asked the question about augmented reality glasses from time to time. The question is when will we see them? Of course you can pick up a pair of augmented reality glasses from companies like Vuzix who provide systems that connect to your home PC and act as a webcam, enabling you to view content, but that not what people are asking about. When people ask me the ‘how far away’ question, they are asking about standalone augmented reality glasses that will enable us to interact with our surroundings and get real-time contextual information. i.e the Iron Man HUD view of the world.

My answer is it will take up to 20 years before augmented reality glasses are part of our every day lives. I’m not saying that companies are not working on producing mainstream glasses for release in the short term, I’m sure in the next five years we’ll start to see standalone units being made available, but like most technologies, augmented reality hardware will need to evolve into something that becomes part of our every day lives.

In the short term, augmented reality OEMs could build a glasses system that uses Bluetooth to communicate with a mobile device such as a phone. Since phones are already equipped with GPS, network connectivity, and a CPU this will free up the processing enabling early augmented reality glasses just to be the eyes. For the long term however, there are a number of challenges that hardware manufactures will need to overcome. Some are obvious, some not so obvious:

Battery life: When we get to the stage where we rely on augmented reality glasses as part of our daily lives, battery life is going to be key. No one is going to want to have to charge their glasses up three times a day. Always on, always connected and always charged up will be essential.

Connectivity: In the future, everywhere and everything will have context that will need to be downloaded to your glasses. Long term 3G, even 4G is going to be too slow to deliver information as any kind of delay will impact the usefulness of a device. My eyes work in real time, if I look at a Starbucks I want immediate contextual information delivered, anything less than instantaneous will be too late to be relevant.  Consider that 4G technology supports x uses in a given cell, in a populated area where you have thousands of users all making calls, and using AR glasses that are constantly connected and retrieving data, the delay could be significant.

Vision:  The heart of any augmented reality glasses system is going to be the glasses that provide the augmented vision of our surroundings. In thinking of such a system you are probably thinking of walking down the street during the day, but what happens if it’s a really sunny day, will the screen tint to provide me with sunglasses functionality? React to light glass exists and is widely used but the technology takes a few minutes to adjust. We’ll need technology that is able to instantly adjust, adapting to both daytime and night time situations. We won’t want to carry around daytime and night time pairs.

Services: For any augmented reality glasses system to succeed, it will need to provide users with access to a wide range of services. Any company thinking about developing augmented reality glasses should take note. If you are thinking about releasing augmented reality glasses, even in the short term, then you had better start thinking about your developer community. You will need launch services and the developer community to embrace your technology. I would go as far as saying that the success of your developer community will make or break your product.

Accuracy: GPS accuracy sucks. Point your favourite augmented reality browser at a landmark and the information bubble won’t pin point your target exactly. I have seen the accuracy vary by as much as 150 meters which is not particularly useful in locating objects. The new Galileo satellite system will improve accuracy to around 1 meter, but ultimately you’ll want any augmented reality glasses system to display information on top of the target, not around, not nearby but pin pointed.

Style: If you are going to be wearing augmented reality glasses as part of your daily life then they’ll have to look good. They also have to cope with users who wear glasses all the time or just some of the time. Unless the hardware gets so cheap that it becomes normal for users to own several pairs, any system will need to automatically adjust for any users eye sight.

Intrusiveness: Face it, you can’t trust users not to use their phone while driving. Imaging for a second the potential chaos of driving while being bombarded with irrelevant or intrusive content. Does a user really need to know about that Starbucks when he is driving at 55 miles an hour? Therefore, there would need to be some kind of in built awareness that could automatically give users contextual information and adapt to changes in conditions accordingly.

Data: Any successful augmented reality glasses system would no doubt feature face recognition and user location data. Everyone around you could be identified by their information bubble, and like in Star Trek you’ll be able to location anyone and see their current location on a map. All that data has to be held somewhere, who will you trust to store it?
Standards: All systems will need to comply with a worldwide standard. If the future is a place where augmented reality glasses are prevalent, then we’ll need to have standards on how the data is exposed so any augmented reality glasses system, regardless of country can read and interact with the data.

None of these problems are beyond solving, but overcoming all these problems and getting consumer buy-in is why I think we are still around 20 years away before augmented reality glasses become part of our everyday lives.

In the future, everywhere and everything will have context that will need to be downloaded to your glasses.
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  • Tweets that mention Augmented Reality glasses are at least 20 years away | Augmented Planet -- said:

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  • rouli said:

    I completely agree.
    The question is – what should the AR community work on till the availability of AR glasses?

  • Augmented Reality glasses are at least 20 years away | Vodule said:

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  • weiphi said:

    It might only be 15 years :-)
    Seriously, I agree. Just watch any smartphone’s battery drain when GPS/location is used extensively and you know battery tech alone needs 5 years to be able to support real AR.

    AR glasses will probably be enterprise tech first, consumer tech long time after that.

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  • Thomas Wrobel said:

    Bandwidth is irrelevant, as data can be cached well in advance.
    Also 3D and POI text, unlike video streams, takes very little bandwidth.

    We certainly dont need worldwide 4G connections for AR to be very usefull or usable without delays.
    We just need space on the device for caching, which isnt a big issue at all. Your unlikely to be traveling vaste distances with glass’s on your face the whole time.
    Much more likely you will be using them about town. A few KM’s easily cacheable.
    You’d only need realtime updating of messages just posted, and not the whole thing. You could probably get away with 56k speeds :P

    “Data: Any successful augmented reality glasses system would no doubt feature face recognition and user location data. Everyone around you could be identified by their information bubble, and like in Star Trek you’ll be able to location anyone and see their current location on a map. All that data has to be held somewhere, who will you trust to store it?”

    No, it does not.
    A federated system could have data hosted on the servers of your choice, and accessed like email…shared with only who you choose.
    We do NOT need one company holding it all, and even if we did (sadly) we are happy to hand it over. (See; the success of Facebook)

    In either case, its a minor software issue. Not a “20 years away thing”

    As for the others, they are things that will improve over time, but not stopping glass’s being made within 5 years and being very successfull.

    Remember how mobile phones were when they were first launched? Didnt stop them catching on.
    For that mater, look at the internet. We dont need full HD resolution HDR models streamed to our eyeballs for AR to be usefull.

    Glass’s will come fast and be successful just as soon as theres a few good use-case’s and the price is cheap enough.

  • Thomas Wrobel said:

    “We’ll need technology that is able to instantly adjust, adapting to both daytime and night time situations. ”

    You mean like Liquid Crystal Displays?
    Polarized glass + liquid crystal + turn current on/off. Shouldn’t be hard.

  • Seth Mattox said:

    I agree with Thomas, 20 years seems a bit too long of an estimate. Most devices are on the cusp of having real usability. 24 hour use is not a requirement as much as it would be a hindrance. Complete connectivity is of course the eventual goal however to be useful a few hours of battery life will do. Most ‘work’ is done inside where charging locations are plenty and could extend the usability.

    I picture the initial uses for HMD’s, and AR in general, will be as a monitor replacement. With 3D TV’s catching on quickly and the debate over a standardized format and glasses type is being discussed, it would be important to note that the whole physical TV is an unnecessary part of the equation. An HMD with a wall positioned marker could do the same thing at a much lower cost. Similarly with desktop use, many professionals run with multiple monitor setups. With a basic HMD there would no longer be a need to buy multiple monitors. A single HMD could create as many displays as you’d like. Each of these relatively low tech uses are inside near connection points for both battery and data access, both wireless and physically connected. The same headsets could then work on wireless/3G/4G while running between locations for brief periods of a few hours or more. Well within current battery limits. I use my iPhone in much the same way everyday. Anyone whose taken apart their smart phone knows that most of the space inside is filled with battery and screen. With a quick redesign an HMD is well within reason.

    I believe it will be low tech, high usability options like this that will help bring AR systems into the main stream in the near future.

  • lester (author) said:

    Hi guys

    Thanks for your replies, it seems that the community is split and many of you feel that we’ll have AR glasses sooner rather than later. Ken Blakeslee who is an industry expert working in this area contacted me, as a result I am planning a follow up article.

    I’m still edging towards 20 years for AR glasses to be a common as today’s mobile phones, but we’ll see if Ken has the power to change my mind.

  • Will said:

    For a site that professes to be all about augmented reality; you don’t seem to be that in touch with your technology news. 20 years away for AR glasses? Bit long don’t you think? Don’t forget, take a look at what has changed in the last 20 years… in 1990, mobile phones barely existed, now look where we are.

    I can’t help but think you’ve not really done your research on this; especially when you read things like this: I mean, if AR glasses like that (which looks like a nice, smooth, compact and stylish design) are already being tested and made-to-order, I can imagine we’ll be seeing these in mainstream shops within 18 months.

  • lester (author) said:


    As I mentioned in the article, we’ll see augmented reality glasses appearing on the market sooner rather than later. I was aiming more at augmented reality glasses becoming mainstream devices that are part of our every day lives.

    Should a pair of glasses appear in the next 18 months I’ll be at the front of the queue of early adopters, but I don’t see them being so indispensable that a few months later everyone in my family will be wearing them.

    AR glasses will need to evolve, overcoming many technical hurdles before becoming something that everyone needs and as common as mobile phones.

  • Dario de Judicibus said:

    Well, in my opinion augmented reality is just half the job. It allows to superimpose virtual and real world but you really operate only on the virtual one. The other half is controlling real objects from virtual world. Both halves generate what I call Total Reality. You can see some example in this article.

  • Rasmus D. Jensen said:

    There’s a big step from having the basic display technology running and to integrating it with graphical engines, data systems, and user friendly scenarios – which the article sums up pretty nicely.

    I don’t know about those 20 years – but I just saw this:

  • DarkWinterNights said:

    I hear your arguments, but I think your timeframe is a miss, at least the more pessimistic one.

    4G speeds of 100 mbps moving (1 gbps would basically be what you’d see on foot) I think are more than easily sufficient to process the information most of these systems would use.

    Devices are already getting smaller and smaller – the typical CMOS halves in size yearly (I believe), and devices that fit in our pockets now already do similar things.

    As far as fashionability goes, it’s my suspicion they’ll basically be akin to present day glasses (maybe with an elaborate bezel, like Oaklies) – companies like Hyundai are already pushing glass which doubles as a display; the functionality isn’t limitted to their cars and boardroom applications. Intrusiveness is basically covered here also.

    Vision is actually a problem we’ve already got at least partially solved – self tinting glasses are available in the market.

    Battery life is at the point where we already see more than a day’s worth of battery life out of a device – smart design standards bring the requirement on battery down further, as even present day tablets/slates are starting to indicate.

    Data storage isn’t much of an issue either – a micro SD card can have a typical capacity of 32 GB (which I only mention to illustrate existing sizing potential) – cloud storage is already a reality, and many companies (for example Asus) offer automatic storage for some of their devices. This isn’t really all that different from what we’d end up doing on our cell phones.

    As for standards, most of the framework this will come to rely on is basically covered in what’s going on in a typical Smart Phone or Slate (or any computer with a mobile internet stick). Sure, they’ll continue to build on it, but that’s not really going to matter for first generation devices.

    The services it would have to offer is what it’s predecessor would, the Smart Phone/Slate.

    Interfacing is really the element that will have to change; for this device to function stand alone (which isn’t really a requirement to begin with), it will need a means to interface with the user, and verbal commands aren’t really the optimal means of doing so. There are a number of tracking solutions available, but they don’t really offer the precision that you’d hope for from just a finger interface, but they’re getting there. That’s really the question mark a lot of vendors will have to approach differently.

    Given a development cycle is typically a year, it’s really just a matter of which players will jump on the market – it’s my opinion a rudimentary model of a pretty sophisticated system like this is possible now (unperfected, but name a piece of technology that is) – it’s more of an economics problem than an engineering one though, as how high is the demand for such a thing really at the moment?

  • Toastyr said:

    Interesting commentary. A bit late but a few more thoughts.

    I’d also agree that 20 years is excessive, but also agree that the biggest hurdle is gaining public acceptance. Realistically the technology is nearly there for a moderately priced complete AR package, what is missing is the software interface and design.

    Personally I’ve assembled a bare bones backpack AR rig for under 1k. It included a basic win7 netbook ($500), VGA 1024×768 resolution glasses ($350), Hi Res webcam ($100), a hand held trackball and a flexible keyboard.

    The biggest issue I’ve encountered is the glasses. They are adequate, but they are a 640×480 screen scaled up to 1024×768. This makes text a little difficult to read. Also, no easy optical adjustment system makes them a bit blurry.

    Otherwise, the system works extremely well. The netbook has no problem processing fiduciary markers for games and basic 3D CG imagery, and the trackball is great for accessing normal programs while in AR. (The flexible keyboard is unwieldy but usable.)

    With a standard 3g capable phone for mobile internet connection, it becomes trivial to access any web enabled nav software, as well as any information via a normal web browser.

    Currently there are a number of issues facing the developement of AR technology:

    Glasses/Video resolution. The currently mid-priced glasses are only 640×480 resolution, which is usable but not great. Much like computer monitors, higher resolution means better detail.

    Interface design: The interface that allows easy interaction with a virtual environment has not been implemented. In short, this is about as big a leap in design philosophy as from a text based OS to a GUI. Now we will be working with a fully interactive 3D environment, likely with completely new kinds of interface hardware/software.

    Market Penetration: Prices are coming down, however any system that isn’t easy to obtain will never reach wide spread usage. (Duh right?) Many technologies that could have been rapidly adopted are impeded by high costs versus usefulness.

    Content Creation: A great way to attract users is to make it easy for anyone to make new content. More people creating content means more likely to have useful content to attract more users.

    In my opinion, a marketable AR system is very close, what it lacks is adequate design into a mobile computer interface, and some moderate improvements in VR Glasses tech.

    After that, it comes down to making it something that everyone wants. The Iphone/Droid/Game Console marketting strategies seem to be a good pattern to follow.

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  • EdShift said:

    Augmented reality is maybe 2 years away by my reckoning, You don’t have a company like google investing in all the supporting technologies and OPENLY developing their solution if its not about to pop.
    Look at HP’s recent acquisition of Autonomy (Owners of Aurasma) for 6.7 Billion (or 12 billion depending on who you believe)

    If the BIG tech companies are restructuring around the technology it’s gonna be big and soon…
    Can’t wait.
    Luv and peace.

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