I recently tried a pair of prototype smart glasses from Avegant that gave me a glimpse of a future where we may be able to watch videos, get directions, see notifications and more, all through a pair of traditional-looking shades.
These sorts of glasses may be the next big thing as companies like Facebook, Snap, Amazon, Microsoft, Apple and others look beyond phones.
I’ve worn Google Glass, the Microsoft Hololens, Snap’s Spectacles and, most recently, Facebook’s Ray-Ban Stories glasses. But those all have shortcomings. They’re either too big and bulky to wear everywhere (Hololens), don’t yet display anything on the lenses (Facebook) or look silly (Spectacles, Hololens, Google Glass.)
Big Tech companies will need smart glasses to look normal if they’re to have any chance at success. So they’re desperately looking for a display component that is small and can be manufactured and shipped in the next year or two, Avegant CEO Edward Tang told CNBC.
Avegant doesn’t make smart glasses, but it put together a prototype pair to demonstrate the capabilities of a new LED augmented-reality light engine that the company unveiled to the public this fall. And I was impressed.
Here’s what you need to know.
The problem with current ‘smart’ glasses
A lot of companies are building smart glasses, but they’re all taking different approaches. It’s sort of a mess. Here’s a quick recap:
- Microsoft’s $3,500 Hololens and the $2,295 Magic Leap 1 are the most advanced but they’re bulky and more akin to goggles.
- Amazon offers the $249.99 Echo Frames, but they just let you talk to Alexa and you don’t see any augmented reality visuals through the lenses.
- Facebook’s $299 Ray-Ban Stories glasses can be used to take photos and videos but little else. The latest version of Snap’s Spectacles offers some AR visuals, but it isn’t fashionable and is only available to social media creators.
- Google repurposed its $999 Glass device for enterprise customers after it was dismissed by the public due to privacy concerns.
- Apple is also reportedly working on its own glasses, but it’s still unclear when they’ll be unveiled let alone released to the public.
Avegant thinks it has a solution that might help companies build a product regular people will want to buy.
Its new light engine, which is thinner than a pencil and weighs as much as a large paper clip, fits within the hinge and temple of eyeglasses where it can show high-definition visuals to the wearer. The light engine could enable some companies that don’t have huge in-house hardware engineering teams to build glasses that are as stylish and small as a pair of Ray-Bans but offer the visual capabilities dreamed up in science fiction films like “Terminator.”
A glimpse at the future
I demoed the light engine in October when Tang handed me the prototype glasses his team built. They were thin and looked like any normal pair of glasses except that they were tethered to a smartphone by a cable. The prototype is intended to demonstrate just how small a hardware manufacturer can make a pair of glasses using Avegant’s light engine.
“We’re getting our stuff ready to have the smallest manufacturable display for these customers,” Tang said.
I put the glasses on. A translucent blue square came on at the center of my field of view, showing a display that was overlaid on top of what I was seeing in real life. Then the demo started.
The glasses began to cycle through different visuals. The small translucent screen showed me the weather, a stock chart and a text message conversation. I was looking in the direction of Tang and could see him, but the visuals also appeared on top of him in crystal clarity. It was true augmented reality.
The highlight of the demo was when the glasses began to play a video. It was a snippet of a soccer match from this summer’s Euro 2020 tournament. I saw the green grass, the vast crowd and the players passing the ball to one another before the forward blasted a goal into the back of the net. The game looked as good and as big as it would if I was watching at home on my living room TV or sitting with friends at a sports bar.
The Avegant light engine offers a 30-degree field of view and appeared like a rectangle in the middle of my line of sight.
I handed the pair of glasses back to Tang, who put them on and began watching the demo. I could hardly tell he was watching anything, though I noticed a subtle hint of blue light on the lens. It appeared as if he was daydreaming.
But there are still drawbacks. Manufacturers who use the Avegant light engine will have to determine how much battery life they want their smart glasses to have. The more battery life, the bulkier the glasses will be. Likewise, a 30-degree field of view is on a par with the first Hololens, but it’s a smaller window than Microsoft’s Hololens 2.
Components like Avegant’s may help some tech companies develop smart glasses people will want to wear. But it’s still early days and skeptics don’t think we’ll have normal-looking smart glasses anytime soon.
“The long-term vision here is to get rid of your phone in your hand, and you’ll wear your phone on your face,” Kevin Irwin, chief investment officer at Knollwood Investment, said. Irwin is an investor in Avegant.
Avegant isn’t yet mass-producing its light engine. It envisions a business model in which it will sell the component to companies that can build it into their smart glasses.
Larger companies may not even need Avegan’ts technology, explained Karl Guttag, an expert on augmented reality display devices.
“Facebook and Apple are ground-up companies — they’ve got phenomenal, huge teams working on this stuff,” Guttag said. “They don’t need an Avegant, if you get my drift, whereas a Snap might because they’re not really in this. They’d be looking to get a component.”
Guttag also has his doubts about smart glasses replacing smartphones anytime in the near future, which would limit Avegant’s prospects.
“The expectation that these things are going to be like Ray-Bans is off the chart far away,” Guttag said. “Now something like what Avegant’s engine does could get you something that is moderately stylish. It’s going to be a little bigger and bulkier but not all the way there.”