What it is: Vuzix plans to sell augmented reality glasses for $999.
Augmented reality lets you overlay cartoon items over reality when seen through a camera lens such as an iPhone. The popular Pokemon GO game let you hunt for Pokemon characters and see them on the sidewalk or grass right in front of your eyes.
While such uses for augmented reality can be entertaining, it misses the true potential of augmented reality. First, holding up a device such as a smartphone or tablet to view augmented reality can be fine for occasional use, but it’s not practical for constant use. That’s why smart glasses are custom designed for exploiting augmented reality.
The huge problem with smart glasses and augmented reality is that companies are promoting a product without demonstrating a clear use for what problems it solves or what capabilities it gives users.
Think back to the early hype about virtual reality headsets where people could strap a device to their face and immerse themselves in another world. This offered entertainment value, but no practical, compelling need for long-term use. Besides playing games, why would someone want to spend hundreds of dollars for a VR headset? Not surprisingly, sales of VR headsets never took off.
Now a company called Vuzix is offering smart glasses that offer augmented reality for $999. The huge problem is that the company isn’t defining what their smart glasses are good for. Instead, they’re showing what their smart glasses can do, such as display an image on the lens for users to see.
That essentially mimics holding up a smartphone screen to your face, but is that a compelling need? Especially at the steep price of $999?
The answer is simple. No. Few people will want smart glasses that cost so much and offer minimal advantages over holding a smartphone to your face. Even worse, wearing smart glasses will be extremely distracting for drivers if they can view screen images on their smart glasses lenses.
Google Glass was an early pioneer of smart glasses, and it flopped because it failed to offer a compelling advantage for using one. Before selling a product, companies must show what advantages their product offers that people can’t do easily (or at all) using current technology.
When Apple first introduced the Macintosh, they also demonstrated MacPaint and MacWrite. MacPaint showed how to draw on a computer, which was impossible with MS-DOS programs. MacWrite showed how to use fonts in a word processor document, which was also impossible with MS-DOS word processors. Just those two demonstrations alone showed the compelling and obvious advantages of the Macintosh over MS-DOS PCs.
With so many companies like Vuzix rushing smart glasses to market, they’re all destined to flop like early VR headsets because they’re totally missing the point of showing compelling use for their product. Yet with smart glasses, the advantage is right in front of their eyes.
Think of the millions of people who wear eyeglasses to correct their vision. They need to replace their glasses periodically as their vision changes, which means tossing out perfectly good eyeglasses and buying newer ones.
If someone has trouble seeing up close and far away, they may wear clumsy bifocals with two different lenses, which is another clumsy solution.
The real purpose of smart glasses and augmented reality is to replace prescription lenses with computational photography technology. With smartphone cameras, they don’t have the size that physical cameras can use to capture more light, so they must compensate for this through computational photography that takes what little light a tiny lens can capture and enhances the image using algorithms. That’s exactly the same technology that smart glasses can use.
Forget about displaying your smart screen image on the lens of smart glasses. That’s distracting and unnecessary. Add computational photography with smart glasses and you essentially have a pair of smart glasses where users can adjust the strength of the lenses through a computer.
Unlike the silly demonstrations of smart glasses displaying an iPhone screen on the lens (and distracting the wearer, especially when driving), smart glasses that simply improve the user’s vision will offer immediate advantages to millions of people.
No longer will they need to buy new glasses. Instead, they can simply adjust their smart glass lenses through computational photography, allowing them to save money buying new eyeglasses.
For people who don’t need glasses, smart glasses can offer enhanced vision such as night vision to aid in driving or walking around in the dark. Smart glasses need to enhance and improve vision, not distract vision with smartphone screen images displayed on the lens.
Until smart glasses makers realize the real benefit of smart glasses and augmented reality lies with enhanced vision, they’ll waste time and money promoting pointless technologies that have no compelling or practical use. Displaying the screen of your smartphone on your smart glasses lens might be a technological challenge and marvel, but it serves zero practical use.
Rather than promote technical features, companies need to promote problems their technology solves. Augmented reality and smart glasses really solves the problem of limited vision for both people with eye problems and those without eye problems.
Everyone can use night vision to aid in driving or walking around in the dark. Few people want or need to see their iPhone screen displayed on a lens right in front of their eyes.
The future of smart glasses and augmented reality lies with enhanced vision. Until companies see that obvious fact, they’ll risk following the VR headset companies into promoting different technologies with no practical application or need behind them. Then they’ll fail just like Google Glass.