Metaio’s augmented reality chip will be super-useful… just not in phones

On Thursday, Metaio, the Germany-based augmented reality (AR) company, announced a deal with ST-Ericsson(s eric) which will see the latter integrate a specialized AR processor into the next generation of its mobile chipsets.

This will be the first dedicated chip of its kind to see commercial deployment, and it should have a big impact on the power consumption of AR applications, which are today generally a big battery-suck due to their intensive use of graphics and, increasingly, 3D rendering. As Metaio CEO Peter Meier put it in the statement:

“The AREngine will do for augmented reality what the GPU did years ago for the gaming industry. This is a great leap in the AR space, and we strongly believe that the AR Engine working with ST-Ericsson platforms will help realize the augmented city — the idea of a completely connected environment powered by augmented reality and made possible with next-gen, optimized mobile platforms.”

Here’s the video the companies put out. Notice the emphasis on the use of the AREngine chip in smartphones:

That emphasis on handsets is understandable because ST-Ericsson’s business today is largely in smartphone chipsets – it is surely no coincidence that ST-Ericsson is supposedly going to be supplying its NovaThor chipsets to Nokia(s nok), which takes great pride in the CityLens AR app that runs on its Lumia(s msft) handsets.

However, while AREngine may make use of such apps slightly more attractive on smartphones, I don’t think power consumption is the main reason why people don’t walk around constantly holding their phone at arm’s length in front of them. Here are three far more likely reasons: it looks absurd, it’s dangerous, and it represents poor ergonomics.

That’s not to say AR is useless – far from it; it’s occasionally handy today and I believe there are many cool applications lying on the other side of a tipping point we’ve not yet reached. It’s just that, with smartphones, AR makes the most sense in short bursts, like when you actively need to establish the direction in which you should next walk. And power’s less of an issue there.

Where the AREngine processor would be superbly useful is in smart glasses, of the Google Glass(s goog) ilk. These devices will be the real tipping point for AR – they remove the absurdity, danger and poor ergonomics of physically and consciously holding something out in front of you as you walk.

And as such wearables get redesigned to make their users look less like tools, their sleeker, skinnier new look will mean less battery space. Combine that with the fact that such devices will need to constantly display AR data, and Metaio and ST-Ericsson’s technology becomes a no-brainer.