The big rush to release all sorts of products - and even mere announcements - in the field of Augmented Reality - can only mean one thing: Christmas is fast approaching. All the big companies, and many of the little ones, want to stake their claims to a share of this rich and fertile market. The trouble is, not many of them actually have a product.
A little backpedaling is necessary here. Many years ago - decades in fact - there was a headset that consisted of a small display that sat a couple of inches from one-eye and created a virtual image of a screen in front of one eye. The screen was monochrome (red specifically) and the image was produced by red LEDs that scanned up and down very rapidly. The product was never really a success, whether because of the price or because it was monochrome.
But now as augmented reality slowly but steadily hits the market, it looks like a case of plus ce change, plus la meme chose. Accordingly, in this review and comparison, we take a look at some of the new crop of augmented reality products and offer our recommendations.
The AR Glasses
Funded by a Kickstarter campaign, the Vufine+ is a wearable display that connects to your glasses, or the plain glass pair that comes with the display, if you don’t wear glasses. It creates a 720p virtual screen 4 inches across, about 12 inches from your eye, either in your principal line of sight or just below it. Okay, 4 inches might seem small, but it is no different to all but the biggest mobile phone displays and at about the same distance or less.
It can be connected via a micro-to full HDMI cable to a smartphone, computer, camera or drone. The unit is basically a Liquid Crystal on Silicon (LCOS) projector that projects the image onto your eye. It has three degrees of freedom: up-down, tilt, left-right.
The unit comes with a magnetic docking station, so that it can be attached to the glasses when needed and put in your pocket when you don’t, without having to remove the glasses or fiddle with them extensively. It also comes with a standard (non-magnetic) docking station and a carrying case. Best of all, it comes in both left-handed and right handed configurations (or rather left eye and right eye) and is available in the US and Britain. And because we are coming up to Christmas, it can be gift wrapped.
There are three viewing modes: Standard (for unaltered 16:9 viewing), Fit (for 33% increased landscape viewing in 4:3) and Zoom (for 77% increased portrait viewing in 4:3). The stated runtime from the internal battery is 90 minutes, which we found to be about right. We would have hoped for longer as it is a small device, but that of course also limits the room for batteries. However, while the makers claim that the resolution is clear enough for both video and text, we found that it fell considerably short in the text department. It is just too small and at this resolution can’t be read.
While it can in theory attach to any glasses, if the glasses frame is light (or loose fitting) it can pull down on one side, so you might have to use a counterweight. You can also purchase a separate hat or head mount, if you prefer this to mounting the unit on glasses.
In practical usage, this unit is extremely versatile. You can use it as an alternative smartphone screen to protect your privacy when viewing sensitive (or embarrassing) content. You can use it as an alternative screen for close-up or macro photography, when you need to get the camera into an awkward position but are unable - or unwilling - to squeeze your head and torso into that awkward position.
Perhaps the most obvious and enjoyable usage is when flying a drone. Instead of merely watching the drone, you can see where what the drone’s camera sees. If you try this through a mobile phone or laptop, you face the dilemma of whether to look up at the drone or down at the screen. It is very hard to do both simultaneously. But with the Vufine+ it’s a breeze! You just look up at the drone with both eyes and see what the drone’s camera sees on the virtual display through one eye, just below your main line of sight.
You can also use it as a virtual cinema. Although it may not be fully immersive, there are times and circumstances when you need to be aware of your surroundings, but still want to enjoy a private viewing of a movie. This is the ideal solution. And unlike viewing the movie on your smartphone, you do not have to worry about the issue of aching arms from holding the phone out in front of you.
Another obvious use, is for working on-the-go. It is lighter than a laptop or even a tablet. Now of course, you still need to input data, whether it be on a keyboard, screen keyboard or phone. But by using the Vufine as the screen, you can keep the phone or tablet on your lap and enter data, without having to stare at the phone or tablet screen. Of course, it would be nice if you could type your input on a virtual keyboard in mid-air - and also nice if the unit was cordless - but you can’t have everything. Not yet, anyway.
Vuzix M100 Smart Glasses (Grey)
Vuzix describes these Smart Glasses as “an Android-based wearable computer.” In addition to pre-installed apps, it features an integrated 5-megapixel camera (16:9 ratio) that can capture stills and 1080p video. It has Bluetooth 4.00 connectivity for pairing with other Android devices, 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi, 1GB or RAM and 4GB of flash storage - expandable to 32GB.
The M100 does not have its own phone connection. To use it as a phone you would have to pair it with an Android phone or iPhone. However, it is packed with pretty much everything else you can think of:
- Integrated 3-degree of freedom head tracker (gyro, accelerometer, magnetometer),
- 3 DOF gesture sensor (L/R, U/D, N/F)
- Ambient light sensor
- Proximity sensor
- WQVGA 24-bit color display (also 16:9 and 2000 Nits brightness) This looks like a 21-inch screen at 4 meters with a 42 pixels per degree.
- Noise cancelling microphone
- Voice recognition
- Ear speaker,
- 550 mAh rechargeable internal battery (> 6 hours hands free w/o display or 2 hours hands free with display, 1-hour hands free + display + camera + high CPU loading)
- External 3800 mAh rechargeable battery pack that attaches with an ultra-thin USB mini-B cable and increases battery life by up to 6.5 times.
These are impressive specs on paper. But how do they stack up in performance?
The answer is is that they work well once you figure them out, but getting everything to work just right can be tricky. Think of the first time you got a smart phone and had to learn how to use it. That’s how it is with this product. It’s a steep learning curve, unless you’re a natural techie. And it’s not cheap.
The real question then is how much added value you can get from a product like this? If the product was a complete standalone device, without the need for a phone, it would be great value for money. Instead it is merely a good product, for those who want to get the technology quickly, at a high price, before it goes from being the latest “must have” to a stale old “everyone has.”
Google Glasses XE V2
Although already on its second life - and still far from all it promised to be - Google Glass is still the gorilla in the room of augmented reality. Or maybe that should be the elephant. The package contains Google Glass itself, RX Frames, mono earbuds, extra nose pads, a USB cable, charger, extra nose pads, a soft carrying case, a hard carrying case, a screwdriver and instructions.
The augmented reality display looks like a 25-inch television, eight feet away. It has a 5MP camera that can shoot stills and 720p videos. It also has an audio bone conduction transducer. This sounds ultra-modern but in fact is like the old-fashioned “bone fone” from four decades ago. It basically just produces vibrations in the bones (usually of the head) that are then conductive to the auditory nerves.
Various forms of connectivity are available, including 802.11 WiFi (2.4 GHz) 12 GB usable memory synced with Google Cloud. Battery life is about a day in normal usage, but with intensive use of battery-draining activities (like video) it can easily be a lot less. The kit includes a charger and micro-USB cable.
It is available for both Android and iOS. For Android it requires version 4.0.3 (Ice Cream Sandwich) or higher and for iOS, it requires iOS7 or higher. (iOS 7 was first used in the iPhone 4 and iPad 2.)
The problem is that it is not clear where Google Glass is going and there are not too many apps that use it.
Optinvent ORA-2 Augmented Reality Smart Glasses Developer Kit
This is a developer’s kit rather than a final product. That means, there are limited apps and the price is high - although in practice no higher than the Vuzix. That statement actually has to be qualified. Limited apps, means limited dedicated apps. The ORA-2 is perfectly capable of running existing Android apps, just like any Android smartphone or tablet.
In terms of hardware, it comes with a powerful spec: front-facing 1080p 5 MP camera, 9-axis motion sensor (gyro inertial sensors, accelerometer and magnetometer), Bluetooth 4.0, WiFi, GPS, a trackpad (mouse and swipe).
The 16.9 display has a resolution of 33 pixels per degree and the brightness level maxes out at 3000 Nits. Based on retinal projection, it has a feature called Flip-vu which offers two configurations: Augmented Reality and Glance. In the Augmented Reality configuration, the mini-projector is fully horizontal and in the path of the eye when focused on the distance through the upper part of the glasses lens. In Glance mode, the projector is 20° below the horizontal and you have to look down at it.
The overall system packs a punch in other respects too, with a dual-core 1.2 GHz ARM Cortex processor, built-in (noise-cancelling) microphone and ambient light sensor. The 1200 mAh battery lasts about five hours with the display of continuously. It is charged via a USB connection.
At present the product, comes with a disclaimer that it is not offered as a consumer product, but only as a development platform. This does not mean that you cannot buy it as a consumer, only that it is offered “as is” with no warranty express or implied and - perhaps more importantly - that it is not approved by the FCC or CE. Also, it can display the same content as the screen of the Android device to which it is attached, but it has no dedicated apps on the market just yet.
Moverio BT-300 Smart Glasses (AR/Developer Edition)
Like the Optinvent above, this is a developer edition, rather than a consumer product, and priced the same too. Using a transparent si-OLED display it features binocular projection providing views for both eyes. This means that unlike most Augmented Reality headsets (but like Virtual Reality headsets) these smart glasses offer the option of side-by-side 3D viewing - albeit at lower resolution. The result is a virtual 80-inch screen at “distance” of 5 meters to a 320-inch screen at a distance of 20 meters. This is only a 23° field of view. But for AR (as distinct from VR) that is perfectly reasonable.
But first, what’s in the box?
- Moverio BT-300 (Headset and Controller)
- AC Adapter (100 – 240 V AC, 50/60 Hz, 0.15 A)
- USB Cable
- Carrying Case (semi-hard type)
- Inner-ear Earphone with Microphone
- 1x Shade (40%)
- Inner Frame for Optical Lenses
- 2x Temple Grip
- Quick Setup Guide
- Nose Pad (OTG type)
- User Manual
The glasses are unquestionably light. Indeed, according to the manufacturers, they are the world’s lightest Si-OLED-powered, binocular, transparent smart glasses, weighing in at only 2.5 ounces or 69 grams. They are powered by an Intel® Atom™ x5 1.44GHz Quad Core CPU.
In many respects, this product ticks all the right boxes, with a front facing 5MP camera, head-tracking, choice of wireless connectivity, six-hour battery life, etc. The display’s 720p falls short of the 1080p, but is par for the course with most AR glasses currently. With 24-bit color and a 30Hz refresh rate, the image is very clear, even in bright, sunny conditions - a key test for augmented reality glasses.
As it is a developer kit, it is again in the position of not having many dedicated apps. But it can be used out of the box for a multiplicity of functions, including pretty much anything you can do on your Android smartphone - and of course getting a bird's-eye view when you fly a drone!
You can wear these glasses over prescription glasses, so no problems there. They even have their own apps market from which you can download games, like Protocol Zero, and practical apps, like VR Architecture Walkthrough, a Virtual Reality Architectural Visualization app. These apps, and many others there, are free. There is even an app for drone control.
On minor drawback is the trackpad, which is rather tricky and fiddly to use. But once you get the hang of it, the inconvenience is minor.
While people speculate on the future of AR and ask questions like “Will Apple enter the fray with its own headset?”, “Will the Microsoft HoloLens become an affordable consumer product?”, “Will Google Glass come down in price and hit the mainstream?” and even “Will Amazon bring out an AR Kindle?” we are missing the point. AR, in some form, is already here.
Yes, it is expensive - although the Vufine+ challenges even this assumption – yes, it is a bit rough around the edges, both figuratively and literally. But it is here! There is a market for it. For those who really want it, the technology is affordable. And there is an element of choice.
You can be the owner of an AR headset this Christmas - ditto for your loves ones - if you’re ready to dip your hands into your pocket. Of course, it’s not for everyone. Some people may prefer to hold out. But there are no breakthroughs around the corner. And all products eventually wear out and need replacing. So, unless you are hoping for some big announcement in a year’s time and are willing to hold out that long, now is the time to buy a cool-looking pair of AR glasses.