The point of an emerging tech is that it needs to, at some point, hit the next plateau. The emphasis on when is less of a timeframe and more of a destination. Glancing at the significant trends (read emerging tech) from the past few Consumer Electronics Shows in Las Vegas, a few of the technologies have graduated, and a few are still waiting to grow.
Augmented reality is one of those ready to move to the next step.
The trend has been underscored by the popularity of virtual reality, something that is often grouped alongside AR despite the pretty stark contrasts. For starters, VR is very reliant on powerful computers as it is forming an entire ecosystem around content. AR, on the other hand, can be quickly overlaid and used against surfaces to create three-dimensional content.
Interestingly, the market saw VR hit a 'hurry-up-and-wait' situation as companies scrambled to be trailblazers of a contentless market. It seemed that Oculus, Vive, and a swarm of followers were all looking to revolutionize a deserted land. One on hand it feels very poetic that it makes its strides in Vegas, a mecca of success built in a literal desert, but ultimately it feels like a betrayal for early adopters.
Conversely, AR has had a boon of one-hit-wonders that have proven lasting power in the market. Games and applications like Google's AR stickers, Pokemon Go, and Snapchat have all reinforced that AR has a lot of potential considering how widely available both the hardware and software has become.
And at CES this year, our editors saw that trend continue, only now they have begun to undercut $3,000 competitors and, to some degree, outperform them as well.
Vuzix Blade Builds on Prosumer Market
Introduced as a prototype last year, Vuzix has come a long way with their Blade prosumer AR glasses. The company touts the lenses as the first AR smart glasses to feature “waveguide optics” that allow for hands-free mobile computing and connectivity. Essentially, that means the user doesn’t need to be tethered to a smartphone to access some of the functionality of the Blade smart glasses.
The real selling point of these $1,000-ish smart glasses (due out around the second quarter of 2018) is their design. Simply put, they’re the closest thing to an actual pair of glasses that I’ve come across in the past few years of covering this space—says the guy who said the same thing a day earlier... They have a very slight bulk to them, around the areas of the support band that house the internal batteries and touchpad. Really, they look like a typical pair of thick-banded Oakleys. And they’re super-freaking light—I’m talking, like, ounces light. Strapping a pair of these on was super comfortable and very familiar, as far as wearing sunglasses goes. Additionally, the lenses will be able to be swapped out to allow for prescription lenses to be used.
The display, which appears in the right eye frame, isn’t too obtrusive and can be moved up or down the lens to get out of the user’s direct line of sight. The digital information came through crisp and resembled a heads-up display that you might find on a car’s windshield. The system runs on an Android platform, but it will be compatible with both Android and iOS devices through a connected app.
Other tech built into the glasses includes Amazon Alexa integration, an 8-megapixel camera that can capture video in 1080p, a Quad Core ARM CPU, haptic vibration alerts, microSD expansion, head motion tracking, and a noise-canceling mic, among many other features. Limited battery information was available, but during a demo, I was simply told “several hours.” Developer kits are currently out in the wild, so it will be interesting to see what types of apps and use cases they can come up with.
The price tag, for now, might be hard to swallow for the average consumer. But a quick look at the rest of the AR market and you’ll quickly learn that $1,000 actually comes across as quite reasonable in this space. And the Vuzix Blade may be the closest thing to a stylish pair of AR glasses that exists on the market right now, so I consider that to be a steal.
Chinese Market (Expedectly) Bridging the Gap
On the other side of the pond, the Chinese market is rumbling as well. And that shouldn't come as a surprise as more significant technology is coming from smaller manufacturers, not just the Huawei, Xiamoi, and South Korea's Samsung's of the Asian market.
In particular, Realmax was showcasing their immersion AR technology prototype, dubbed Realmax Qian, that had a head-scratching 100.8-degree-FOV to compliment their otherwise bulletproof software. Much like the Vuzix, REALMAX runs totally independent of high-end software, is wireless, and will look a little more subtle come launch in Q3 this year.
Developed in China, REALMAX is also bringing a suite of custom developer tools that allow content creation using their in-house software. While most of the project was unconfirmed and feeling very beta, the price point will end up feeling like a high-end smartphone instead of a high-end gaming rig. And that's important as the software works pretty well but it's hard coughing up $3,000 and expecting a technology to sell well.
And for now, there is not much more to be said about these two pairs of glasses, and the many more pockmarked around the CES floor. The main takeaway is that AR has become more than a niche corner of the tech market and the price war will create a lot of value for retailers as consumer adoption increases.