The future of reality: Next-Gen AR smartglasses make Google Glass look quaint

“What we’re making now, these next-generation smartglasses, look 100 percent like a pair of regular glasses,” said Paul Travers, the chief executive at augmented reality smartglasses company Vuzix. “The difference is that you get a head-up display like you might in a high-end car or a fighter pilot’s cockpit.”

Three years ago, at CES 2018, Rochester, New York-based Vuzix showed off its Vuzix Blade, a pair of Alexa-touting augmented reality (AR) glasses that featured a tiny (but not quite as tiny as it could be) LED projector in the temple that was able to project the image of a computer interface into your field of view. Now, after hunkering down in the lab, it’s back with its new product: A next-gen set of smartglasses it claims is its best yet.

Shipping later this year, the Vuzix NGSG (“Next-Generation Smart Glasses”) promise to combine smartphone and smartwatch capabilities in a pair of glasses boasting a see-through 3D display powered by one of the smallest micro-LED display engines in existence. As a result, you won’t look like a total dork wearing them, Travers swears.

Alan Kay, the pioneering Xerox PARC computer scientist, once labeled the original Apple Macintosh the first personal computer worthy of criticism. If Vuzix has done its job, the CES 2021 debut of Vuzix NGSG could be the first set of smartglasses worth getting truly excited about.

Paradigm shifter

Travers was studying electrical and computer engineering in the early 1980s when the personal computer was starting to cement itself as a “must-have” technology.

“The year I left was the first year they required every incoming freshman to own [one],” he told Digital Trends. “It was part of the tuition fees. I was fortunate enough to be one of the guys that was handing them out to incoming freshmen. Because of that, they let me get a really good price on one, and that’s when I bought my first real PC.”

In the years since, Travers has seen no shortage of what the physicist and philosopher Thomas Kuhn would term “paradigm shifts” in technology, game-changing revolutions that altered the face of tech (and life as we know it) in myriad seismic ways: Home computers in the ’80s. The internet in the ’90s. Smartphones in the 2000s.

Vuzix

AR and smart glasses, he is convinced, is going to be as big as any of these. “I think it’s going to completely change the paradigm of the phone,” he said. “It’ll reach a point in time where you won’t use your phone. It’ll all just be in the glasses. It’s going to be that profound of a change.”

Travers would say that, of course. Every entrepreneur wants to believe — has to believe — that the field they’re working in is the Next Big Thing. It’s a dream of self-belief that justifies the 80-hour work weeks, finely tuned to razzle-dazzle investors into signing over big checks to keep things moving along. (Vuzix has raised $63.4 million to date.)

But Travers is no newcomer to this field. His relationship with AR isn’t some first-flushes-of-romance honeymoon period. Far from it, in fact. “We’ve been in this business since ’93, ’94,” he noted.

Before Travers started Vuzix, his previous company, Forte, built a virtual reality head-up display called the VFX1 Headgear, complete with head-tracking tech, stereoscopic 3D, and 263 x 230 pixel LCD displays. It came out in 1995. Some of that technology, and a good handful of the patents, wound their way into Vuzix, which itself got started in 1997, making it a veritable village elder in the AR community.

Much of its history has been spent focused on the military. It started working in this domain around 2000, smartly realizing the fact that the military had plenty of funding, ready-made use cases for hands-free contextual AR, and none of the fashion gripes that make consumer-facing wearables a challenge.

In early 2014, it worked with Six15 Technologies, makers of ruggedized military head-up displays, to bake its technology into special AR goggles for the Navy. While Vuzix NGSG is firmly focused on the consumer and enterprise markets, it’s still building on innovations the company developed for its military clients.

“When the U.S. military asked us if we can make Oakley’s-style [AR] sunglasses, they said half the U.S. military will buy these when you can do that,” Travers recalled. “That’s the tech Vuzix has been working on.”

The specs’ specs

In terms of hardware, the Vuzix NGSG boasts binocular (meaning for both eyes) micro-LED projectors. At a single micron in size, Vuzix claims these have one of the highest density pixel arrays around. The advanced micro-LED proffers both extremely bright images with excellent contrast and low power demands, meaning you should get a good day’s usage out of them.

It also features noise-canceling microphones for phone calls and voice commands, plus speakers integrated into the glasses’ temples.

The onboard processor communicates wirelessly with your phone, as well as a built-in LTE cellular option. Control is done via voice or by tapping on the touch-sensitive arms. (Travers alluded to a future “advanced gesture control” setup, conjuring images of Minority Report-style spatial computing, but declined to give any details of when this may arrive.)

What he didn’t stay quiet about, however, are the potential uses for the Vuzix NGSG. By now, everyone knows the story with AR: It’s exciting technology that enhances real-world environments by way of computer-generated perceptual information. Your phone most likely has AR capabilities. The problem is that this also requires you to hold it up in front of you while, simultaneously, navigating through the real world. That’s not ideal.

AR glasses will, their creators assure us, be good for any of those scenarios in which you want that kind of interactivity in a hands-free setup. Mapping is an obvious example and would let you see directions and other helpful tags pop up on the buildings and streets around you like dynamic signage that’s written just for you.

“[Or imagine there’s] a doctor in [a remote part of the world], and he’s trying to perform an operation that he’s not done before, and he needs help to do that,” Travers said. “You think he’s gonna hold his phone up and point at the surface of the operating table, look at the back of it, and get help from a doctor in San Francisco? That just doesn’t work.”

History is littered with cool tech that, for whatever reason, just didn’t resonate enough to build up a critical mass of supporters.

Or how about filming your kids’ baseball game (there will be both camera and non-camera versions of Vuzix’s new smartglasses available in the near-future), but without wanting to miss the game by messing around with your phone? “This is going to bring people back into the real world, frankly,” Travers said.

Just then, Matt Margolis, Vuzix’s director of business development and strategic relationships, chimes in. “I have an open debate with my kids that, within five years, maybe a little bit longer than that, these will replace the television,” he said. “We’ll have our own personal TV screens that we [carry] around with us in the form of glasses.”

Building a killer app

In short, the possible applications are limitless. But hypothetical uses aren’t necessarily the same as real ones. History is littered with cool tech that, for whatever reason, just didn’t resonate enough to build up a critical mass of supporters. Popular products require early adopters to act as tastemakers. Tastemakers, meanwhile, will only evangelize for a product because they can see it doing cool — or, at least, useful — things for them.

The PC was undoubtedly a neat technology, but what really pushed it across the chasm was VisiCalc, a spreadsheet that gave regular people a reason to buy a PC. The iPhone was amazing, but what made it truly astonishing was when Apple, a year after its launch, decided to launch the App Store.

“I think the first step is making smartglasses so people don’t laugh at you, and you don’t feel like you just stepped off the Starship Enterprise.”

“We’ve already got 100 apps on our app store that work with our current products like the Blade,” Travers said. “You can do the weather, you can stream sports news and those kinds of things to the glasses today. But you’re right; it’s critical that we get the right content, the really compelling stuff. Like Pokémon GO for these glasses, right?”

With this in mind, Vuzix is launching developer tools that will make the process of creating apps — or porting across existing ones — as painless as possible.

“What’s kind of unique is that, if you want to port over an Android phone app to our glasses, it really doesn’t require a lot of extra work,” said Margolis. “There’s some [user interface], some [user experience] stuff, maybe some orientation and color bits that you need to fix. But to take an Android app today and bring that over to make it a smartglasses app, there’s not actually that much work required. From a developer standpoint, you’ve already built the bridge, why not add some more supports and a couple of other tweaks to make it enabled for our platform? It’s not like it’s a complete redo.”

Making them look great

Ultimately, though, what Travers thinks will make a product like Vuzix NGSG — and, more broadly, smartglasses in general — a success is making them something that people will be happy to be seen wearing in public. After all, smartglasses might appear invisible to the wearer, but to everyone else they’re going to be far more in your face (or, at least, on your face) than any other current gadget we walk around with. They need to look good.

“I think the first step … is making [smartglasses] so people don’t laugh at you, and you don’t feel like you just stepped off the Starship Enterprise,” Travers said. “They’ve gotta be truly something that, first and foremost, doesn’t make you feel dumb. Humans are very vain … So step one is to make them sexy. And I think Vuzix’s next-gen glasses are pretty darn close to sexy, man.”

The Vuzix NGSG glasses are currently scheduled for shipping before the end of 2021. No pricing has yet been announced, but the team said it is likely to be similar to what we currently pay for smartphones and smartwatches. And after that? How long will it be until smartglasses become a staple of our lives? Does Travers have an estimated timeline he’d like to pin his name to — such as, say, a decade from now?

“No, not 10 [years] at all,” he laughed. “The next three years are going to be amazing in terms of what you’ll see from smartglasses in the world. These glasses will have some pretty cool capabilities that will just make things work. You’ll see.”

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