Facebook has recently unveiled its first smart glasses offering for the public. It aims to eventually develop an actual augmented reality device.
The glasses were created in partnership with Ray-Ban maker EssilorLuxottica, in the hopes of offering more stylish and less geeky eyewear than past attempts by competitors, most noticeably Google Glass from almost a decade ago.
The Facebook glasses will allow wearers to listen to music, take calls, capture photos, and short videos, and share them across its social media site, a companion app. Facebook said the glasses line, called "Ray-Ban Stories," would start at $299.
Perhaps the most noticeable feature of the glasses is their lack of augmented reality (AR) capabilities. This is not surprising as Facebook, in a recent blog, confirmed that Facebook had been working on a wrist controller for its “future” AR glasses.
Facebook’s latest AR wristwatch controller will augment smart glasses to allow wearers to operate in an AR world. The wrist inputs will help users touch and move virtual objects and control them at a distance, as was explained in a blog from Facebook’s Reality Labs (FRL). These innovations fall under the domain of human-computer interaction (HCL) hardware and software systems.
A lot is happening with smart glasses and AR tech, judging by the many competitors in the field. Let’s consider a few of them.
Smart Glasses Competitors
Over the last decade, many tech players have entered the smart glasses space, including Amazon, Alphabet, Google, Microsoft, Apple Inc, and Snap. To date, most of these early products – especially Google Glass – have met with consumer resistance due to privacy issues, high prices, and a few design issues. Some analysts have suggested that it would be many years yet before consumers adopt AR smart glasses.
Still, at least one tech giant seems to have solid plans for its foray into the spectacle market. Apple Glass is expected to run on a proprietary glass operating system or Glass OS, similar to the one Google designed for its Android Google Glass years ago. It is rumored to include the capability to track finger and hand movements. Few expect these glasses to be consumer-ready until 2023, even though Apple CEO Tim Cook appeared to be wearing a pair of smart glasses at Apple’s annual Fall event.
Another potential competitor has recently promoted the concept of smart glasses that can function as a standalone wearable rather than a secondary smartphone display. The Xiaomi Smart Glasses look like regular clear spectacles but feature “microLED optical waveguide technology” for lens display capabilities. Xiaomi says that its new and first pair of smart glasses can be used for calling, navigation, viewing messages, taking pictures, and more. The chip powering the display measures just 2.4mm x 2.02mm. At the heart of it, all is a quad-core ARM processor and an Android operating system.
Let’s not forget other, less well-advertised smart glasses competitors like Bosch. One of the shortcomings of smart glasses of the past was a lack of a clean visual experience, i.e., bright images that were always in focus – even in direct sunlight. Bosch has addressed these issues with its optical Light Drive system for smartglasses, an integrated technology stack consisting of miniaturized MEMS mirrors, optical elements, sensors, and onboard processing. The optical systems include microelectromechanical system (MEMS) mirrors with an ASIC controller that precisely directs a low-power beam of light to the user’s eye, helping to eliminate digital fatigue.
There is no externally visible display or integrated camera, the two pitfalls that have alienated users of other smart glasses technologies. The smaller size allows designers to overcome the bulky, cumbersome characteristics of many of today’s smart glasses. For the first time, a turnkey system enables smaller, lighter, more stylish smartglasses designs that meet the visual and comfort needs. The tiny module is also big news for those who wear eyeglasses for vision correction - a significant market since six out of ten people use corrective lenses every day.
Much is happening in the evolving Smart Glasses space that consumers and designers must feel like they have blurred vision. So here are my takeaways from the most recent news.
The Facebook glasses will allow wearers to listen to music, take calls, capture photos, and short videos, and share them across its social media site. This means the devices are little more than spectacles with a fancy camera and music player – for now. We know that the company’s real goal is to create an AR experience, as supported by their early development of an AR wristwatch controller for future glasses.
Apple appears to have definite plans to offer smart glasses in the next few years. Watch out for related developments with their smartwatches and iPhones to support these glasses.
Several companies, like Xiaomi, are still in the conceptual stage for their smart glasses products. What is interesting here is that Xiaomi plans to create a smartphone-free, stand-alone device. This will require a lot of ASIC and MEMS chip designs, which won’t be cheap.
Interestingly enough, the company that started the Smart Glasses movement - Google – still provides spectacles but only as a productivity aid for the enterprise and industrial markets.
Finally, don’t forget to watch the less well-known Smart Glasses developers like Bosch.
So smart glasses, like smartwatches, will eventually be a thing. It will probably be a while before these spectacles can really stand on their own, without relying on a smartphone for computations and communications to the Internet. Even Facebook is hedging their bets with the wristband to go with their future glasses.
Smart glasses will probably remain a niche market for many years to come, plagued by security issues and cost. But AR is here now and will only be enhanced by smart glasses – when they finally arrive in earnest.
John Blyler is a Design News senior editor, covering the electronics and advanced manufacturing spaces. With a BS in Engineering Physics and an MS in Electrical Engineering, he has years of hardware-software-network systems experience as an editor and engineer within the advanced manufacturing, IoT and semiconductor industries. John has co-authored books related to system engineering and electronics for IEEE, Wiley, and Elsevier.