Following the commercial success of Facebook’s Oculus virtual reality headset, companies are now in a race to develop the first consumer market-aimed augmented reality (AR) glasses.
AR has been commonplace in consumer tech for some time, particularly popular in Instagram and Snapchat filters on smartphones.
However, some companies are now aiming toward the sci-fi vision of Tony Stark’s fictional Iron Man sunglasses.
Several products are already on the market that blends your computer screen with reality.
Rather than placing you inside the third dimension, like a VR headset, AR overlays the real world with a user interface and other graphics on clear lenses, while also sensing and filming the world around you.
Until now AR headsets in the UK have been aimed at enterprise use, with relatively high price points and unfashionable designs.
Meta became the first company in the UK to release a pair of glasses with onboard cameras when it teamed up with Ray-Ban last year, which was aimed at a consumer retail market.
Wearers can listen to music and take pictures and videos with a pair of Ray-Ban Stories, which are shared automatically to your smartphone.
The Stories are primarily designed for content creation and do not display anything on the wearer’s lenses.
EE partners with Nreal for AR glasses
This week, however, a company called Nreal, in conjunction with mobile phone carrier EE, have released a pair of AR glasses designed for content consumption.
The headset, which connects to your android smartphone via a USBC cable, casts your phone’s display to a 201″ screen on your lenses, wherever you are in the world.
Wearers can either mirror their phone screen straight onto the glasses or use an operating system which enables the user to open and resize multiple windows at once, exactly like on a computer.
The user can choose to view the display on transparent lenses or apply a plastic blackout screen to create a more cinematic experience.
The glasses function in much the same way as a television screen or a second monitor would, except you’re carrying your TV in an unobtrusive carry case in your rucksack.
The Nreal Air glasses also allow for iMAX-sized video gaming on the move.
When connected to EE’s much-touted superfast 5G network, using Xbox’s cloud game streaming, or PlayStation’s Remote Play app, the wearer can play their console anywhere they can get a signal.
A new chapter for consumers
The Air headset marks a new chapter in consumer entertainment.
It costs £399 (less than half of its commercially-aimed counterparts), and EE expect there to be no manufacturing or shipping delays in its rollout.
Danny Marshall, head of device partnerships at EE, told Sky News: “[Nreal] are actually being very selective about the markets you can buy their products from, so that will make sure they can focus the supply… what we quite quickly need to do is understand the demand – that’s more of a challenge than component availability.”
He pointed out that many people still do not actually know it is AR powering their Instagram filter, and that the company doesn’t know how long wider adoption of the wearable technology will take.
The next technological step, then, will be for companies to marry up the Ray-Ban Stories’ cameras with Nreal’s 1080p display.
“If you look broadly, most of the technology exists… augmented information displays are already available, it’s more about the customer adoption.
“Most of the technology is there, just about making it smaller, lighter, easier to wear – battery is the other big one, the rest of it all exists.”
Meta trialling AR glasses in London
And Meta tends to agree.
Meta have announced they have started trialling their own augmented reality glasses in London, which will capture video and audio, as well tracking eye movements.
Speaking to Sky News, Jason Rubin, vice president of Metaverse Content at Meta, explained what benefits developers at Facebook see in AR.
“Augmented reality is great for when you’re in real life doing things – so I might have augmented reality on walking down the street because I can see cars and other people and at the same time get information just like I get off my phone today but in a much more effective way.
“The perfect device would do both [AR and VR] and would simply switch to full immersion or let things through depending on what makes sense at any given time – and Mark Zuckerberg recently showed that happening inside Cambria.”
Though Meta says this particular model is not a prototype and will never make it to market, the technology exists.
It is now just a matter of time until it can be miniaturised and produced at scale and at a price point, people will buy into.
Real life is ‘number one’
Surprisingly, Mr Rubin went on to say that he’d “rather be in a room with [his manager] in real life, that’s number one. If I can’t be in a room with him, I’d rather be in a virtual space with him in VR”.
He told Sky News that Meta employees are still working on a hybrid basis and are likely to continue that way.
“I know the whole company is going to be wildly happy that we’re going to get back together… we all wonder what the long-term settling point of all this is going to be.”
Despite leaps in VR and AR technology, Mr Rubin says he doesn’t think immersive eyewear will be the only way we will access the Metaverse:
“I think over time, augmented reality will become a bigger and bigger part of our lives… but I think there are going to be a lot of times when we’re not in immersive realities and we’re going to want to use a 2D screen… so screens are going to be around for a long time. Maybe forever.”
What is clear is that smart wear is not stopping at the Fitbit or Apple Watch.
The race for our faces is on.