As Explorer's Virtual Worlds Technology Map describes, virtual worlds are slowly but surely breaking free from the tethers of desktop and laptop computing. Augmented reality is beginning to enable virtual worlds to merge with the real world—placing digital characters and objects in real locations for people to discover. Our entire daily reality may one day be augmented by displays that render a digital overlay that informs, entertains, and enables us to communicate with one another in new ways. Today, augmented reality is typically only available via smartphone and tablet applications that provide small "windows" into augmented-reality worlds. Various styles of video eyewear promise a more immersive and convenient experience, but such technologies are far from consumer friendly—and their prices are far from affordable. Perhaps these circumstances could change via a major R&D investment by Google.
Google publicly disclosed Project Glass in April this year. Project Glass is a program to develop a head-mounted display that integrates with an Android smartphone for applications such as augmented reality, hands-free calling and messaging, and photo and video sharing. The Project Glass prototype device has some resemblance to a pair of lensless eyeglasses with a small display near the upper portion of the right eye. As of this writing, Google has not released screenshots and has not specified whether the display is clear or opaque. A Project Glass promotional video from Google presents a simulation of digital content appearing in free space, superimposed on natural vision. Google has announced little or no specific information about actual performance, and no official information about the device's release date or price exists.
In addition to having a near-eye display, the device has a camera, microphone, motion sensor, and speaker (for example, to read out emails). According to a New York Times report from February of this year, the units will use a number of existing Google services, including Google Latitude for location sharing, Google Goggles for visual search and object recognition, and Google Maps for navigation.
On 25 April 2012, Project Glass creator Sebastian Thrun (also the creator of Google Street View) appeared on the US TV Show Charlie Rose wearing the prototype device. With a nod of his head, Thrun used the device to take a photo and upload it to social-networking website Google+. Interestingly, Thrun said that although the device has augmented-realty-related uses, its other use cases currently look more promising. In particular, Thrun mentioned hands-free email and the capability to share someone's field of view.
Despite Thrun's comment, the Project Glass video simulates a number of augmented-reality applications. For example, the video depicts someone looking at the sky to call up weather information, software identifying a subway station and providing travel information, and someone using augmented-reality turn-by-turn navigation to provide walking routes.
Officially, Project Glass is an experimental research-and-development project with no set price or release date. During February of this year, various media reports indicated that a Project Glass product will be available by the end of 2012, but according to an article in the April 2012 issue of Wired magazine, "Google indicates that this is extremely unlikely." Note also that although Google's promotional video simulates high-quality graphics that are superimposed against a broad field of view, images of people wearing the eyewear (including images of Google founder Sergey Brin) show a display that does not cover the eye.
Impact on the Eyeglass-Display Market
Head-mounted displays for augmented reality (or other applications) are nothing new and predate smartphones, tablets, and other current platforms for augmented reality. Typically, head-mounted displays for augmented reality are expensive and serve industrial and military markets. For example, Motorola Solutions and Kopin Corporation plan to release Golden-i, a head-mounted PC for enterprise customers, later in 2012 (a current version of the product costs $2500). Use cases include helping a security guard find a lost child and aiding in maintenance and repair tasks.
Google is not the only company to aim toward selling head-mounted displays to consumers:
- In March 2012, Epson released a $699 wearable see-through display (Moverio BT-100) that presents a stereoscopic-3D image in the center of a user's field of vision. The $699 price is probably too high to attract very many casual users interested in entertainment and likely is acceptable only to enthusiasts and developers of workplace applications. The device ships with a track-pad controller that runs Google's Android operating system (OS).
- Brother's AirScouter is currently available to Japanese customers for preorder and costs about $2500. The unit projects an image directly onto the retina of one eye and requires a conventional computer instead of a smartphone or handheld controller.
- In February 2012, NEC and Vuzix announced a partnership to develop a concept demo of cloud-connected augmented-reality glasses. Like Google's Project Glass device, these glasses use internet-based services to provide the user with augmented-reality information.
That Google is planning to release an eyeglass display for consumers is arguably an endorsement of the market that could benefit all players. Certainly, Google has the technology and marketing resources to push eyeglass displays into the mainstream if it chooses to. That said, Google (unlike most large companies) often brings experimental and half-finished products into the commercial market to test and develop them. Some of these products evolve into important Google products (for example, Street View), whereas others are cancelled because of low interest (Google Wave). The success of Project Glass is far from assured. Google apparently views Project Glass as an experiment. In February 2012, the New York Times reported that the device will have a price range of $250 to $600. Although that price range is low for augmented-reality eyewear, it is high for what is essentially a cell-phone accessory. Some signs of consumer skepticism are already evident. For example, several spoofs of Google's Project Glass demonstration video are already on YouTube and show the product displaying useless information and causing accidents.
Achieving Mainstream Adoption
What would it take for the Project Glass device (or any other consumer eyeglass display) to achieve mainstream consumer adoption? Success factors include the following:
- Low cost. Most likely, $250 to $600 is too high for mainstream consumers. Costs could perhaps come down if Google allows companies to compete to create hardware for the "Glass OS" or if manufacturers include eyewear displays in core smartphone designs (making the eyewear part of the package that operators subsidize with service plans).
- Attractive appearance. One market barrier is the potentially "geeky" appearance of users who are wearing eyeglass displays. This factor seems significant today, but one can imagine such concerns lessening in the future—eyeglass displays may even become a fashion accessory. People already wear Bluetooth earpieces and large headphones and walk around staring at handheld screens. Contact-lens displays are also a possibility but remain a long-term development. Researchers at the University of Washington in Seattle, Washington, developed a contact lens that can project images into the eye; however, the lack of a suitable power supply appears to be a serious barrier to commercialization.
- Being safe. One parody of Google's Project Glass video shows the eyewear user spilling coffee, having other mundane accidents, and eventually being run over by a car. Although some head-mounted-display proponents argue that using a well-designed heads-up display is safer than looking down at a small screen is, safety is a significant issue.
- Compelling applications. Probably the biggest adoption barrier of all for eyewear displays is the absence of compelling, must-have applications. The turn-by-turn pedestrian navigation in the Google Project Glass demonstration looks useful, but the function that enables a user to answer a call or take a photo by talking to the device seems less useful. Candidate applications include:
- Sports. Because sports enthusiasts are used to wearing special equipment (including sports sunglasses) and often seek data about their performance, route, and other factors, heads-up displays are plausible for this market. Indeed, start-up 4iiii Innovations markets a simple LED heads-up display to cyclists and runners who wish to see an indication of their progress toward achieving a set goal.
- Gaming. The success of portable game consoles and games on smartphones indicates that the market for gaming on the move is strong. Multiplayer games that place virtual characters and objects in real locations could be compelling and are an evolution of games like NBA: King of the Court.
- Social networking. As Google demonstrated, eyewear solutions may allow users interested in sharing their activities with others a greater degree of sharing than exists today.
- Elder care. Eyewear displays could provide the elderly with useful prompts. For example, a display could use face recognition to remind an elderly person who someone is, provide reminders about local walking routes, monitor medication intake, and provide augmented-reality instructions for preparing a meal.
I suspect that Project Glass will attract a small cult following but ultimately prove unsuccessful primarily because of a lack of compelling applications and perhaps partially because of performance issues with still-experimental hardware and software (for example, the camera Thrun demonstrated has a very low resolution). But Project Glass is unlikely to be Google's last word on augmented-reality eyewear, and the company will likely come back with additional products as technology improves. Other vendors like Epson, Vuzix, and Brother will also refine and update their eyewear-display products in the future. For these products to break into the mainstream, they may need to become application specific (for example, solely for sports, gaming, or elder care). Vendors serving these key markets may ultimately prove more significant to the commercialization of near-eye displays than are large generalists like Google.