Augmented Reality (AR) takes many forms. It is a tool which allows people to see things and hear things that literally augment — or add to — reality. Like the smartphone in our pocket, AR makes us better. Faster. Smarter. AR also comes in all sizes and flavors. Mobile AR is hot right now because everyone has a smartphone in their pocket. But mobile AR is in its infancy. The most common form of Augmented Reality, the one that’s transforming business and generating billions is based a tiny low-cost LCOS display (Liquid Crystal On Silicon) which sits comfortably on the edge of the users’ vision, giving unobtrusive access to a video display about one inch from the eye. In manufacturing and warehousing the microdisplay, controlled with a combination of voice, gesture, and ring, displays schematics and other information so workers no longer have to time shift between paper diagrams or a laptop or manage a handheld RFID reader.
The popular Vuzix M-300.
The holy grail of AR is best expressed by the ambitions of Magic Leap, a multi-billion dollar startup backed by the biggest tech, entertainment, and venture capital companies in the world, is not to put a tv on your face. It’s to integrate the real world with the digital in a more seamless way. We’re seeing stirring of this in mobile AR when the camera has become the interface. With depth and surface detection, along with new spatialized mapping, computer vision allows the real and digital to mingle, and objects to remain anchored in space, waiting to be revealed. This has created amazing and profitable games, like Pokemon Go (2 billion dollars in sales and still counting). The value of this outside of games has yet to be determined. The potential is enormous. But the real money, hundreds of billions, is in the boring, decidedly unsexy microdisplay, made by Kopin, RealWear, Google, ODG, Epson, and Vuzix. The use of these devices in manufacturing is exploding. Toshiba just jumped in with its own offering. No one knows if microdisplay-based AR will ever catch on with consumers, and at this point, most of the industry thinks of it as an afterthought anyway.
Brian Ballard, CEO of Upskill, which provides the software for many of these monocular AR systems, told me in an interview Friday, April 27, that just about everyone in manufacturing and warehousing is switching — or planning to switch — to these types of monocular LCOS Head Mounted Displays (HMDs) to enhance their systems. These HMDs are decidedly not fashionable, but they’re light and easy to use. Many attach to safety glasses, hats and helmets that workers already wear. “The time saved by keeping the workers’ hands-free falls straight to the bottom line,” Ballard explained. “Some workers have trouble adjusting at first, but whether it takes a day or a week, they ultimately embrace it because it makes their job easier and safer.” Upskill reports it helped Boeing reduce wiring time in some aircraft by 30%.
Forrester predicts that by 2025 there will be 14M smart glasses in the workplace. IDC predicts this will be a 48 BN market. While some of these devices, like the RealWear and ODG, run the Android operating system, many, like the new Toshiba AR-100, which is tethered to pocket-size dynaEdge PC. are full windows devices. Carl Pinto, Vice-President of Marketing and Engineering at Toshiba, told me the company is hoping to get 10,000 units into the field this year, where it can work with partners to refine the device and add it its capabilities. RealWear says it will have 20,000 in the field by year’s end.
RealWear, led by former DAQRI General Manager, Andy Lowery, recently completed a 17M series A financing, led by led by Columbia Ventures Corporation. He is joined by Dr. Chris Parkinson, a former Kopin engineer with over 40 wearable patents, who left Kopin to start RealWear in 2015. At a list price of $2,000, RealWear is slightly more expensive than the $1,800 Toshiba AR-100. The RealWear HMD, like the ODG R-9, is a completely self-contained wearable computer with an advanced Android smartphone running on a super-fast Qualcomm chip, the 835.
Realwear HMT-1 in the field.
Lowery outlined the four use cases that guided the company in designing its wearable mobile computer smart AR glasses. “The core use cases for the HMT-1 are productivity, safety, and empowerment. Remote mentors can augment low-skilled workers by connecting them (and their camera) to an engineer in a remote location. Digital workflow, which gives workers access to step by step instructions, diagrams, and legacy knowledge is delivered right to the device through basic voice commands. With voice commands, you can literally pull up your documents magically, then move your head around to navigate and zoom in on the place you want.”
Toshiba’s AR-100 smart glasses with a DynaEdge microcomputer.
The Toshiba dynaEdge AR-100 incorporates a smart glasses solution that was co-developed with Vuzix, a Rochester N.Y. based supplier of industrial grade microdisplay-based AR headsets like its own M-300. “The reason that Toshiba and others are working with our inventions is that they are simply the best-in-class: unique, valuable, and easy to use,” Vuzix CEO Paul Travers told me in an interview several weeks ago. The company recently announced that a consumer version of its smart glasses will be available in Q2 for developers and by fall for consumers “around $1,000” (no price has been announced).
Vuzix’ semi-transparent microdisplay, based on proprietary technology, is still a monocular but has a stereoscopic feel as it presents to both eyes. The Blade features GPS, Touchpad control, a camera, two-way communication, and integrates Alexa. “You can finally put your phone in your pocket and leave it there,” said Travers. A developer version will be out by June. Vuzix is so protective of its new AR glasses technology that it is manufacturing the Blade in Rochester. “We’d spare no expense to protect our IP,” Travers told me, “plus the quality of products coming out of our American plant is fantastic. Making a transformative product locally gives a competitive edge.” Consumers will have the critical option of using their own prescription lenses in the Vuzix Blade, which Travers believe is critical to success.
Trying the Vuzix Blade prototype at CES in January. On the right is CEO Paul Travers.
Three companies are or were seeking to bring enterprise microdisplays to consumers. One has failed. One is now slow-walking their plans, and one is boldly entering a market where others have stalled. In 2015, Intel acquired Recon, which last year released a critically acclaimed monocular AR Jet Sportglasses for performance athletes. In February, Intel showed select members of the press the Vaunt, all-in-one smartglasses that look like regular glasses. No fat wings, or anything else that gives away its purpose. In early April, without public explanation, Intel shut down Recon and the New Devices Group. The company declined to discuss the move.
In 2016, Osterhout Design Group (ODG), an established defense contractor with a pioneering enterprise AR business, took 58M dollars in investment from a diverse group of investors, including entertainment giant 20th Century Fox. The company announced plans to introduce the R-8, a consumer version of the R-7 for enterprise, in China via a partnership with cellular giant MIGU in Q4 of last year. ODG is focused on R-7 and R-9 delivery today while finalizing the R-8 product before rollout begins. The path to the consumer is a step at a time,” ODG COO Pete Jameson told me as the company announced a new partnership with KDDI, a leading Japanese telecommunications operator, for “extended reality glasses”, the R-9. The vision is a that a businessperson using the R-9 for mobile computing at work might slip them on to watch videos during the commute home. Jameson thinks consumer adoption is inevitable but the timing is less clear.
Wearing ODG’s decidedly unfashionable R-8.
In this atmosphere, Kopin is releasing its own $499 SOLOs AR sports glasses for performance athletes this spring. They seem to be the only industry leader now pedaling hard toward consumers. There are many lower cost 2D video glasses on the market such as the $200 Vufine, The Tech Comm Jupiter ($300) and GoVision Appolo ($117), which all use microdisplays to deliver video-on-the go. Despite the low price point, and despite the fact that consumers spend much of their time on smartphones consuming videos, none of these products have broken out. Sony is also working on a Bluetooth microdisplay that will mount on a regular pair of glasses.
Kopin SOLOs AR sports glasses.
Apple is also reportedly working with proprietary micro-OLED technology for its iWatch, and potentially using this technology to produce an HMD. There’s been speculation and rumor around this for several years. Last week CNET reported that Apple was preparing a headset capable of AR and VR for release in 2020. The article has created quite a stir, but its only source is “a person familiar with Apple’s plans”. In it’s concluding paragraph, the author suggests “Apple still could change or scrap its plans.” In other words, as is so often the case with Apple, CNET is reporting a rumor with a compelling click bait headline which is being shared all over social media.
The number of companies that will be introducing microdisplay-based devices to consumers in the coming year suggests that the opportunity for microdisplays to capture video viewing time from computers and television is possible, but Upskill’s Ballard is skeptical. “I don’t see the use case for consumers,” he said, echoing a sentiment shared by others in AR. “We’re focused on the many hundred billion dollars enterprises that need and want to be transformed today.”
For this to be more than an iWatch on your face, it needs to be powered by Computer Vision and Universal Visual Browser.