Following the commercial success of Facebook’s Oculus virtual reality headset, companies are now racing to develop the first augmented reality (AR) glasses for the consumer market.
Augmented reality has been commonplace in consumer technology for some time, especially popular in Instagram and Snapchat filters on smartphones.
However, some companies are now aiming for the sci-fi take on Tony Stark’s fictional Iron Man sunglasses.
Several products are already on the market that blend your computer screen with reality.
Rather than placing you in the third dimension, like a VR headset, AR overlays the real world with user interface and other graphics on clear lenses, while sensing and filming the world around you.
Until now, AR headsets in the UK have been aimed at enterprise use, with relatively high prices and dated designs.
Meta became the first company in the UK to launch a pair of glasses with on-board cameras when it teamed up with Ray-Ban last year, which was aimed at a mainstream retail market.
Wearers can listen to music and take photos and videos with a pair of Ray-Ban Stories, which are automatically shared to your smartphone.
Stories are primarily for content creation and do not display anything on the wearer’s glasses.
EE partners with Nreal for AR glasses
This week, however, a company called Nreal, in conjunction with mobile operator EE, launched a pair of AR glasses designed for content consumption.
The headset, which connects to your Android smartphone via a USBC cable, projects your phone’s display onto a 201″ screen on your lenses, wherever you are in the world.
Wearers can either mirror their phone’s screen directly onto the glasses or use an operating system that allows the user to open and resize multiple windows at once, just like on a computer.
The user can choose to view the display on clear lenses or apply a plastic blackout screen to create a more cinematic experience.
The glasses work much the same as a TV screen or second monitor, except you carry your TV in a discreet carrying case in your backpack.
The Nreal Air glasses also make it possible to play iMAX-sized video games on the go.
When connected to EE’s popular super-fast 5G network, using Xbox’s cloud game streaming or PlayStation’s Remote Play app, the wearer can play their console anywhere they can get a signal. .
A new chapter for consumers
The Air headset marks a new chapter in consumer entertainment.
It costs £399 (less than half of its retail-oriented counterparts), and EE expects there will be no manufacturing or shipping delays in its rollout.
Danny Marshall, Head of Device Partnerships at EE, told Sky News: “[Nreal] are actually very selective about which markets you can buy their products from which will allow them to concentrate supply…what we need to do fairly quickly is understand the demand – that’s more of a challenge than availability of components.”
He pointed out that many people still don’t know it’s augmented reality that powers their Instagram filter, and the company doesn’t know how long it will take for wider adoption of wearable technology.
The next technological step will therefore be for companies to marry the cameras of Ray-Ban Stories with the 1080p screen of Nreal.
“If you look globally, most of the technology exists…augmented information displays are already available, it’s more about customer adoption.
“Most of the technology is there, just to make it smaller, lighter, easier to carry – the battery is the other big one, the rest is there.”
Meta tests AR glasses in London
And Meta tends to agree.
Meta said it has started testing its own augmented reality glasses in London, which will capture video and audio, as well as eye movement tracking.
Speaking to Sky News, Jason Rubin, VP of Metaverse Content at Meta, explained the benefits Facebook developers are seeing in AR.
“Augmented reality is ideal when you’re in real life doing things – so I could have augmented reality walking down the street because I can see cars and other people and at the same time get some information like I hang up my phone today but much more efficiently.
“The perfect device would do both [AR and VR] and would just go full immersion or let it go depending on what makes sense at any given time – and Mark Zuckerberg recently showed that happening inside Cambria.”
Although Meta claims that this particular model is not a prototype and will never be released, the technology does exist.
It’s only a matter of time before it can be miniaturized and produced on a large scale and at a price that people will buy into.
Real life is ‘number one’
Surprisingly, Mr. Rubin went on to say that he “prefers to be in a room with [his manager] in real life, it’s number one. If I can’t be in a room with him, I’d rather be in a virtual space with him in VR.”
He told Sky News that Meta employees are still working on a hybrid basis and will likely continue that way.
“I know the whole company is going to be insanely happy that we’re getting back together…we’re all wondering what the long-term stabilization point of all of this will be.”
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Despite advances in VR and AR technology, Rubin says he doesn’t think immersive glasses will be the only way to access the metaverse:
“I think over time augmented reality will become an increasingly important part of our lives…but I think there will be a lot of times where we’re not in immersive realities and we want to use a 2D screen… so screens are going to exist for a long time, maybe forever.
What’s clear is that Smart Wear doesn’t stop at the Fitbit or the Apple Watch.
The race for our faces is on.