Augmented Reality glasses are at least 20 years away
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.
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