Augmented reality glasses teem with promise — and pitfalls


To judge from a frenzy of recent stories, augmented reality glasses will be the must-have gadget of the 2012 holiday season. Google started this avalanche of hype, of course, when it posted an update of its initiative on Google Plus, soliciting input from would-be buyers. Oakley this week said it is working on a similar project that would target the company’s familiar consumer base of athletes. Game developer Valve Software may be talking with Apple about developing AR glasses for the gaming set, and a company called Vergence Labs plans to bring a $300 set of glasses to market by year-end. And as Wired pointed out last week, there are at least a half-dozen glasses that feature some sort of integrated display (like AR) on the market today.

Augmented reality holds tremendous potential, as this video from Google illustrates. The clip portrays Google’s high-tech specs delivering online information such as the weather, calendar and messaging before the user’s eyes and enables him to find a friend and set reminders simply with his voice, eliminating the need for another device. And the potential for AR glasses expands far beyond consumer applications to a broad range of enterprise-type uses, from healthcare to transportation to law enforcement to military.

A long way to go

But even Google’s video portrays uses and features that simply aren’t possible today. For instance, the glasses are shown giving step-by-step directions to the user who is already inside a bookstore, but GPS is woefully inadequate indoors, where satellite connections are often inaccessible. Next-generation GPS satellites are currently being developed that will improve the accuracy of pinpointing users – especially indoors – but those satellites won’t be in orbit for two more years. And while Google and OpenStreetMaps have made great strides in building digital maps for outdoor navigation, the work of building indoor maps – you know, the kind of thing that would make the Google video possible – has only just begun.

Google’s video also shows its AR technology working interoperably with other apps and services: It alerts the user that a certain subway stop is out of commission before he even begins descending the stairs in one scene. And any mass-market offering would have to support mainstream apps like Facebook, Foursquare and Twitter to enable users to check in, communicate with others and share photos and videos. That kind of functionality will require the building of new ecosystems of apps that are optimized for eyewear but can work with smartphone and tablet apps. That new category of apps will take years to build, which is why the first successful AR glasses will likely be paired with other mobile gadgets via Bluetooth rather than be stand-alone gadgets. And they will need to leverage a variety of existing apps to enjoy mainstream success – so they’ll need to work with popular existing operating systems like Android or iOS.

Logistical concerns

And those challenges may be far simpler to overcome than the sheer logistic hurdles of delivering Web-based information literally in front of a user’s eyes. Developers will have to figure out how to present that information without interfering with vision, and users must be able to easily customize their displays and turn the information feed on and off. Because the problems with texting and driving could pale compared to what we’ll see with AR glasses designed to be worn at all times.

Just as Apple’s iPad got a huge boost from a massive community of iOS developers eager to build for the new gadget, AR glasses targeted at mainstream users should leverage popular (and powerful) mobile platforms that are already in place. But many other factors must be addressed before AR glasses become anything but an expensive novelty for techies. This is a space that app developers, publishers and manufacturers should all be paying close attention to. But it’s also a space that isn’t going to come of age in the near future.

Question of the week

When will augmented reality glasses become must-have gadgets for mainstream consumers?

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