Innovation Monitor: The Past, Present, and Future of AR Glasses
Welcome to this week’s Innovation Monitor.
The pursuit of ocular augmented reality in the form of smart glasses, contact lenses, or even implants has been ongoing for about a decade. And last week, Snap announced its retro-slick, fourth generation pair of AR glasses Spectacles, and a developer kit for creators to experiment.
Smart glasses just may be the next way we embed technology into our moment-to-moment life. Instead of staring down at our phones and screens, they integrate into our field of vision and offer new hybrid immersive experiences.
But the idea isn’t all that new. In fact, we’ve been imagining hands-free HUDs (heads up displays) in fiction for decades, from Rainbows End to Star Trek to Black Mirror. Even over a century ago in 1901, the novel The Master Key featured a type of electric glasses called “Character Markers”:
“It consists of this pair of spectacles. While you wear them every one you meet will be marked upon the forehead with a letter indicating his or her character. The good will bear the letter ‘G,’ the evil the letter ‘E.’ The wise will be marked with a ‘W’ and the foolish with an ‘F.’”
For all the slick glasses coming our way this decade, let’s not forget the lessons of past failures — many of our readers will recall, Google Glass made the initial big splash in the early 2010s, and quickly floundered. And Seiko’s TV wrist watch, which debuted in the early 80s, the Xybernaut Poma Wearable PC, and, of course… the Power Glove.
This week, we explore what we learned from the Google Glass experiment, Apple’s AR Glasses, and the promise of Snap’s Spectacles. We’ll also look at smart contact lenses, which might become available sooner than we thought. Finally, in This Week in Business History, we’ll answer the age-old question of how to pronounce GIF.
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Erica Matsumoto Google Glass
Innovation is a process — despite repeated hype and failure cycles we keep pursuing it. Google Glass, as Wired noted in 2018, wasn’t as much a failure as a vehicle for raising some crucial concerns around smart glasses tech. It was, in a way, worth pursuing so early.
“Google Glass is a story about human beings setting boundaries and pushing back against surveillance — a tale of how a giant company’s crappy product allowed us to envision a better future.”
Hype propelled Glass to the stratosphere — Time named it one of its Best Inventions of the Year, Vogue had a 12-page story on it, presidents around the world tested them, as did “Oprah, Beyoncé, Jennifer Lawrence and Bill Murray,” according to the NY Times.
But the product was barely a prototype, and already had dissenters inside Google. Still, Sergey Brin pushed for a public release, flashy demos, and exclusivity. When tech reviewers finally got their hands on the $1,500 Explorer Edition, they weren’t very happy.
Concerns about ubiquitous surveillance — propelled by stories like the Seattle bar that banned Glass use and the Stop the Cyborgs group — quickly arose and raised important concerns amongst the public. Google eventually retired the project. Apple AR Glasses When last year’s iPad Pro debuted, one of its most important — and understated, at the time — features was LiDAR, commonly used in self-driving cars, and which uses “pulses of light to gauge distances and locations in a similar way to how radar uses radio signals.”
The depth-sensing turned out to be game-changing for AR applications. Wired speculated at the time that the feature may be a precursor to Apple’s smart glasses. As one developer noted:
“‘I fully expect each of Apple’s emerging AR technologies to be dry runs for whatever future headset they’re building,’ says developer Steven Troughton-Smith, one of the first to spot the headset bread crumbs in iOS 13.1. ‘While they have interesting uses on iPhone and iPad, they’ll really start to make sense when paired with stereo head-mounted AR.’”
Apple’s glasses may be shipping sooner than expected — possibly in 2022 (but likely later). The project — which has over 1,000 engineers and researchers working on it — is already in its “second phase of development” according to MacRumors. Snap Spectacles Up until now, the three generations of Snap Spectacles since 2016 weren’t really “smart” — basically shades with a camera attached. The fourth-generation Spectacles aren’t so much a product as an experiment for developers, but they are definitely AR glasses.
Though it looks like we might see some version of Apple’s tech in the next few years, Evan Spiegel has said that it would take a decade for AR glasses to go mainstream — Snap is well aware they’re shipping a barebones product not ready for widespread use.
The new Spectacles will be shipped to developers and creators working with Lens Studio. Here’s a brief overview of the hardware:
- They’re 134 grams, which is light in the (current) AR glasses space.
- They can reach 2,000 nits of brightness — meaning AR images will be clear even in sunlight.
- They have a 30-minute battery life and are powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon XR1 chip, according to a press release.
About a week ago Snap also agreed to acquire WaveOptics, the AR display supplier for the new Spectacles, for over $500M — Snap’s largest deal. Given Spiegel’s projected timeline and the size of the deal, it looks like Snap is betting on a bright future for AR glasses in the coming decades.
Mojo Vision Contact Lenses Beyond smart glasses, we might eventually see smart contact lenses. For over five years, Mojo Vision has been working on AR contact lenses, which are incredibly complex considering how many components you have to fit into a tiny space, not to mention making sure the technology can be integrated during the normal contact lens manufacturing process.
To accomplish the latter, the company signed a joint-development agreement with Menicon, Japan’s 70-year-old contact lens giant. The lens manufacturer says they cover all aspects of the contact lens business, such as “material development, lens designing, rigid gas permeable lens technology, manufacturing of lenses, and care solutions.”
NYC Media Lab & Bloomberg Present “Machines + Media 2021: Facing the Future”
NYC Media Lab & Bloomberg present the 5th annual gathering of technologists, media professionals, and academic thought leaders for “Machines + Media 2021: Facing the Future.”
With Big Tech under fire and innovation moving rapidly, we’re convening expert panelists to discuss how we can both embrace and manage the impact of technology on our increasingly essential media ecosystem. Livestreamed panel discussions include:
- The Future of Tech in NYC
- AI & Local News
- Surveillance, Tech, and Transparent & Fair AI Systems
- Living With Disinformation
The thought-provoking virtual event will be held on June 9th from 10am-3pm EDT. Register for free today! This Week in Business History
May 28th, 1987: CompuServe announces the creation of the GIF file format
CompuServe, the old-school social network, announced on their Picture Support Forum the new “Graphics Interchange Format”, or GIF, picture file format. Using 256 colors, the format would reduce file sizes to make images easier to transmit online.
….And the most important thing, while accepting a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Webby’s, Steve Wilhite, the leader of the CompuServe team that created the file format, made an emphatic statement (using a GIF, naturally) on the age-old riddle of how to pronounce GIF. It’s ‘jif’.