As smartphones gain in capabilities and more and more of the planet becomes tethered to our pocket sized computers, there continues to be a lot of buzz about what’s next.
Wearable tech has been discussed for years already – fitness trackers from Jawbone and Fitbit, smartwatches from Apple, Samsung, and just about everybody else (e.g. Louis Vuitton), and of course the much hyped and controversial Google Glass. None of these products have yet revolutionized the world of tech and one could argue wearables have passed their prime now in 2017.
Glasses in particular have gotten a bad rep due to the adverse public reaction to Google Glass. Snap took a swing at the glasses form factor a few years later in late 2016 with the introduction of the $129 “toy” Spectacles sunglasses. The Spectacles look like a standard pair of hipster sunglasses, but have the ability to capture HD video and sound as well as connect via bluetooth and WiFi. While the Spectacles launched with plenty of hype, they have since dulled in popularity and sales.
I believe much of the wearables we’ve seen have been experiments as companies tinker with what could be possible, while all trying to cash in on the next mega tech trend.
I’m hardly a Snapchat user, but the Spectacles intrigued me with their promise of capturing spontaneous moments easily and instantly. While the Spectacles have not been widely embraced, after using them for some months now, I believe they offer us a glimpse of the future of wearable tech.
Glasses Enable Wonderful New Experiences
As far as cameras go, I already own a GoPro, DSLR, and of course I have the camera in my iPhone with me at all times. All of these work great in certain situations, but the Spectacles enabled me to capture all new experiences that alternative cameras can’t do.
Glasses Are Hands Free And Have First Person Perspective
When watching a video from a first person point of view, it recreates the experience of being there and experiencing the moment as it was. A video from a phone is not hands free and we inherently take ourselves out of the moment while we’re concentrating on filming the moment.
Video and photos help us capture and relive our most cherished moments and a first person perspective adds a powerful dimension in placing us back in that exact moment. GoPro cameras have been famously used for first person perspectives but there’s a major gap with GoPro style cameras which the Spectacles wonderfully address..
Glasses Are Natural To Wear And Always Ready
A GoPro needs to be mounted, which makes it suitable for action sports or other activities where it makes sense to have a camera strapped to your head, chest, wherever. However, in everyday situations it’s neither practical nor socially savvy to walk around with a GoPro strapped on. While we always have our phones with cameras with us, the act of taking out the phone, turning on the camera, and actually recording is often too cumbersome or impractical to do.
The Spectacles address these shortcomings wonderfully by looking and functioning like a regular pair of sunglasses. Even if I have no intention of recording any videos, I can wear the Spectacles around easily as sunglasses where they’re always ready to capture anything. Since they look like sunglasses, there’s no social stigma in wearing them in everyday situations. This ability to have video recording available in a spontaneous and natural way enables me to capture moments I never could have before.
So the glasses form factor paired with video can be a powerful combination. At the same time, tech companies are busy working to apply AI to process video and images.
So as we get more and more accustomed to capturing video all around us, and the tech companies get better and better at processing the data, we usher in a tech trend which I think is where smart glasses (or contact lenses!) will really take off.
Augmented Reality Is A Game Changer
Snap, Facebook, Apple, and others have been talking a lot about augmented reality – the ability to superimpose computer generated images to what we see in the real world. In 2017 we’re seeing this with both Snap and Facebook’s camera filters that enable people to add fun objects to their photos or transform themselves with virtual add-ons.
Some of the really cool ideas for augmented reality include superimposing information to what we’re seeing, such as seeing instant information on the Golden Gate Bridge as you’re looking at it, and adding virtual objects to what we’re seeing, such as art installations on everyday objects or games that add imagery to what we already see.
Today, augmented reality works through the camera on smartphones. What gets really exciting is when we’ll be able to have augmented reality within our normal vision and not through a smartphone screen. This is where glasses come in.
A pair of smartglasses in the future would have a camera to not only capture moments, but to also process the visual information in order to superimpose images and information right in our field of vision.
Imagine touring a new city and seeing instant information about the sights overlaid in front of you, or details about the cool restaurant you’re eyeing. Or snowboarding down a mountain with trail information on where to go laid out, hands free, and in real time. Mark Zuckerberg, at Facebook’s F8 conference, highlights some even wilder possibilities – what if we were able to pull up a virtual “TV” within our field of vision and watch a movie on the spot as if it was a big screen TV?
What Would Smart Glasses Look Like?
Unfortunately, we don’t have the technology today for a viable pair of augmented reality glasses. But you can sure bet that Snap, Facebook, Google, etc are working to make this happen.
There are a lot of roadblocks still to make the future smart glasses a reality. Based on my experience with the current Spectacles and previously with Google Glass here are at least some of what I think are requirements, which in part technology as it stands today cannot support:
Requirements for smart glasses:
Comfortable for extended periods of time
Once you start building in the necessary components and battery to make augmented glasses a reality, and have enough power to last a day, there’s high likelihood that they’ll become heavy and bulky enough to be uncomfortable for extended wear. My Spectacles today are comfortable enough to wear for a day, but I certainly do feel more fatigue than a lighter pair of regular sunglasses. On the other extreme, a VR headset today is arguably already too heavy and bulky to be worn for extended periods of time, and those are designed for stationary use indoors.
Any smartglasses of the future will have to be light and comfortable enough to wear for regular use.
Socially Acceptable Look and Interface
One of the biggest faults of Google Glass was they looked too futuristic for the time. The cyborg look plus the funny gestures and eye movements required alienated users from “regular” people around them. Glasses are a highly visible item and the technology should augment our lives, not be the focal point of our lives. A look and user interface that enables socially acceptable behavior will be required.
The Spectacles have had a better reception with their more conventional look and I think getting the right look will be a matter of slowly introducing a new look and interface, similar to how Tesla introduced the Model S with a fake grill and later removed it as people became accustomed to the look of the car.
Multiple Simple Methods of Interaction
Spectacles just have a single button input. Google Glass uses a swipe based trackpad, which enables much more control, but in my opinion added to the strangeness of the device, as people stared seemingly into space while swiping at their temples.
Voice can be a great simple method of interaction, as Google Glass does, but it was also often awkward as people spoke robotic commands to seemingly no one. Perhaps as virtual assistants such as Alexa become more natural and commonplace, voice commands will seem less strange.
My prediction would be a simple button interface on the glasses with more complex input via our smartphones. Over time, gesture recognition could be a reality.
Durable and Weatherproof
Glasses get bumped around a lot and can be expected to be exposed to various weather conditions. Building something dust and rain resistant would be high priority for me. The last thing I want is my glasses to stop working as I’m taking the trip of a lifetime through a dusty desert or misty waterfall.
Needs to Be Produced at a Price Which Can be Profitable
While this is fairly obvious, I think the fundamental technical needs of augmented reality glasses (e.g. a method to overlay graphics across our field of vision) as well as the requirements above can result in a fairly costly device. The question then becomes – will the market tolerate the price at which smart glasses must be sold at to be profitable?
I was happy to pay $129 for my Spectacles, but I certainly wouldn’t have paid $500, as $500 could’ve purchased a much higher quality video capture device. As it’s unknown what future smart glasses could actually do (and thus the value they bring), it’s difficult to predict what price smart glasses could command.
If assuming that at first smart glasses will complement our smartphones, I believe at the high end they cannot be priced more than what a smartphone costs. Where they fall from $100-1000 would be based on the features and market they’re targeted for.
A $1000 pair of smart glasses would be a high end device for enthusiasts or early adopters, while $200 would make them much more accessible to a mass market.
But Will Smart Glasses Flourish or Fizzle?
It’s becoming clear that AR has the capability to change the way we interact with our tech. What will be interesting is how and when we’ll have the tech to produce smart glasses that meet the requirements for consumers and at a price which makes sense for everyone involved.
Another aspect of smart glasses I’m curious about is the “zombie” effect we’ll have of people just seemingly staring into space as they watch and do things on their glasses (we already have plenty of “zombies” now when people stare at their smartphones).
Will this zombie effect be socially acceptable? Will it be safe? What if the augmented vision proves to be too distracting while giving us a false sense of being “in the moment” still?
On the other hand, when large “phablet” smartphones first came out, people mocked them for looking ridiculous. Now, carrying around a smartphone that is too big to fit into the pocket of a pair of jeans is commonplace.
My prediction is the value of instant point of view memory capture, as well as the mind bending possibilities of augmented reality will usher in some really cool tech in the near future.
So while today people still react in awe and curiosity to my video capture Spectacles, it’ll also be amusing when we’ll look back one day at just how “primitive” they were.