I recently read a post in the Business Insider that The End of the Smart Phone Era is Coming detailing the coming smart glass technology from Google and Microsoft. They got a fact and the trend a little wrong (Microsoft isn’t even a player in this game yet), but the idea is sound. Smart glasses, in whatever form will eventually eliminate bulky smart phones as a primary window into our personal communication world, and we’re looking to use it in location-based storytelling.
So what did they miss? Well, first off you can’t buy Google Glass, not as a developer nor in any other form (as of this writing). If you were at the Google I/O conference in summer 2012 you had the possiblity of pre-ordering a developer set, but there hasn’t been much news since then. The best write up I’ve found is on Tech Radar. In technology terms, Google Glass isn’t anything revolutionary and for me the real players in this area are Vuzix and Explore Engage. Samsung may make a play, much like Epson has started to do with the Moverio glasses, and I guess Apple will play catch up at some point.
Who is Vuzix? They’re the company which makes Head Mounted Displays (HMDs), the grandparent of the current smart glass children as well as augmented reality and video eyeware. They’ve already developed a pair of see-through smart glasses (STAR 1200), and you can sign up today to be part of their developer program to get a pair of the M100 (similar to the Google Glass from factor). Explore Engage is another smart glass company, and are running a crowdfunding campaign on Pozible.com right now to fund production and release of their see-through smart glass design AR2020, which actually looks like a pair of…glasses.
Lost In Reality signed up for the developer program at Vuzix, who have planned to release their developer and SDK in early 2013. The M100 looks like an over-sized Bluetooth ear piece and extends a display in front of your eye like the Google Glass design. Their SDK + M100 set will only set you back $999.00, while Google wanted $1500.00 to pre-order. The thing is, the Google Glass and M100 designs are just the “interim” device. The real goal is a see-through set of glasses, which is what Vuzix and Explore Engage have coming next. Where is Google on see-through technology? Nowhere as far as I can tell (but I’m sure their R&D folks have been working with these as well), but I can imagine Apple or Google trying to buy one of the companies eventually.
Now, smart glasses won’t kick the phones off the radar overnight. For one, the current glasses are not really powerful enough to act as stand-alone devices to replace all the smart phone capabilities (and why should they?). With Bluetooth and Wi-Fi connection, The M100 can connect to cloud apps or to iOS/Andoird devices. The M100 has an internal processor and an can run Android, but will need a smart phone to do heavy computing for other applications. The added value the M100 brings is not just a little screen in front of your eye, but also allows head tracking and GPS so applications can work with user head orientation. Check out this infographic on the emerging technology roadmap from Zenni Optical.
The Epson Moverio BT-100 glasses are also Android devices, and need a smart phone connection to do anything interesting beyond playing movies. And Google Glass? They will most likely need to talk through your smart phone as well. This is the other big thing the Business Insider didn’t tell you. It’s not the death of smart phones if you need one to run most of the apps on Google Glass you originally bought for your HTC Desire X (that was going to be a joke but HTC really did drop the “X” in a product name).
So, if see-through smart glasses are the future, why is Google showing this Glass version with just a small screen along with Vuzix and the M100? Well, check out the AR2020 crowdfunding project, they’re asking for $3500.00 for a pair of see-through Clear-Vu glasses with a display by Optinvent (plus you get SDK access). The true see-through smart glass technology is just too expensive for the consumer market at this point. First, people need to adopt smart glasses into their lives, and then it will be feasible to release the see-through version after mass production can be ramped up.
To be truely useful, smart glasses will need to stand on their own, without needing to buy yourself a smart phone as well. This is seen as well in the Epson glasses, which are basically for personal movie watching. They cost a lot but aren’t uselful for most AR applications unless you hack a connection to your smart phone to fly your AR Drone around. Of course, they weren’t designed as AR eyeware. So why should we keep an eye on Samsung? Because they’re one of the world leaders in display technology. Even if they don’t release their own branded version of smart glasses, chances are see-through display technolgy may come from them. Oh, but what about Microsoft? Yeah, what about them? They’ve filed a few patents, but they are not a hardware company (no, the limited release of the Surface doesn’t change that view), so I only see smart glass lawsuits coming from the Redmond address.
We are about to witness the gradual rise of smart glasses in the consumer market, but not the death of their phone-form siblings.