In just one of many Las Vegas hotel suites where tech companies were offering journalists like me the opportunity to get early tests of prototype tech, I didn’t expect much. I sat down in a spare casino suite with Lumus, an Israel-based company announcing its 2D ‘Z-Lens’ glass architecture, for use by other companies making AR glasses. The company walked me through a demo of its old waveguide-based glasses, but then I tried on its newer, lighter glasses with its latest lens tech.
I watched a video of a 3D airship and a few scenes from Pixar’s Up. I will admit that I got bored pretty quick. The glasses were only there to demo screen quality. But as I sat through the rest of the demo, the reality of what I was seeing came into focus. The image quality on the 16:9 image was simply solid. I didn’t feel like I was supporting a massive bulk on my nose, either, like with most current head-mounted-display options. Of course, the image was being sent through a wired connection, rather than over Wi-Fi from a phone or other device. It took up 50 inches of effective screen space, but the company said anything pushing toward 80 inches might cause it to suffer a loss of frame rate (though it is possible).
David Goldman, Lumus’ VP of marketing, mentioned his company was in talks with some big tech companies, but he declined to say who they were. The important thing for Lumus is that its execs said they believe that, by the tail end of 2024, or more likely 2025, we’ll see major release of AR glasses. Of course, they’re there to market a product and build hype. But at CES 2023, all the disparate elements were there to construct a more capable, wearable AR glasses set. The field of view is now big enough to facilitate multiple UI structures. The systems are light enough that they can be concealed in what appears to be a regular pair of glasses, and the display quality is where it needs to be for the simple pleasure of watching a movie play out before your eyes, where nobody else can see it.
We’ve been down this road before. Google Glass was hot stuff back in 2013, but the device’s popularity brought on new questions of eye strain and privacy concerns (remember when “glasshole” was the common phrase for people secretly taking video on Glass?). The device was pretty much gone by 2015, but there’s been more attempts since then to bring it back. There was the Vuzix Blade back in 2018 that also used waveguide lenses, though it never caught on. Now those same kinds of lenses, improved, may be the course major glasses-makers take.
Meta, when it was still called Facebook, released its Ray-Ban camera-enabled sunglasses in 2021. They came pre-equipped with a microphone, speakers and twin cameras next to each eye, as well as touch sensor controls along the arms that worked as its controls. Those glasses saw relatively little adoption, but the touch controls are already being adopted in future AR tech.
TCL, which is most known for TVs and phones, also had their Chinese AR, XR, and VR team available at CES to display a few of their prototypes. This included the RayNeo X2 AR glasses, which used a full-color micro-LED display on a Qualcomm Snapdragon XR2 platform. Like the Facebook Glasses, it used touch sensor controls to flip between the various tabs, and if the full color display was somewhat lacking in quality, the device did make up for that with its quality camera and an early version of a real time dialogue translation feature. The translation only worked between English and Chinese, but the software did give me a quick and dirty interpretation of the team talking to me in their home language.
Similarly, XRAI Glass showed off their own tech, which could create real-time AR captions from speech, something Google promised at its last major keynote. These speech-to-text features could be a major selling point of AR glasses, since you wouldn’t have to turn away from a conversation to comprehend what’s being said. Walking around from booth to booth, I saw other companies like Graffity promising AR games with rather promising finger tracking, all without needing haptic gloves. Of course, the games on display did not make any good use of that tracking. Other glasses promised 3D movie experiences, though with only 45 inches of vision. All this is to say, there’s still room to grow.
Despite all these promising results, AR glasses probably won’t happen without any support from big tech. In this case, it might have a friend in Apple. Apple has seemed more bullish on AR than VR. CEO Tim Cook said during a University speech last year “if you look back at a point in time, you know, zoom out to the future and look back, you’ll wonder how you led your life without augmented reality.”
But is all that talk of transformative tech just more industry hype? We’ve been down this crooked path with the “metaverse” before. Will more folks be willing to walk around with non-prescription glasses, watching movies or reading texts?
Google Glass was lambasted over privacy concerns, but with companies like Apple and Google (again) trying to offer AR glasses to the masses, we have have to hash out the same arguments made over a decade ago. What remains is who will do it, and how they will answer the concerns left in the wake of similar device’s past failures. Have people really changed so much in eight years that they would be fine with more people walking around with hidden cameras on their faces? And privacy is just the tip of the iceberg. How do you keep people from being distracted with AR glasses while driving?
Tech companies have had nearly a decade since Google Glass to come up with clear answers, but knowing how often manufacturers consider “move fast and break things” as a mandate rather than a warning, we may need to dust off the old “glasshole” moniker before too long.