Virtual reality and augmented reality have been downloaded into our lives and are now wired into our automobiles, apps, shopping experiences, and the games we play for fun. While virtual or augmented reality is even featured in modern hearable technology, glasses and headpieces have been the ubiquitous gateway to the virtual realm. The problem? Their bulkiness was more space-age awkward than out-of-this-world chic.
Now, though, major players in the tech sector are upgrading basic eyewear with virtual features, and the future of the augmented and virtual reality eyeglass market illustrates how this technology will change the way we see the world.
According to Forbes Business Insights, the augmented reality market is projected to swell to more than $65 billion by 2027. While the augmented reality glasses sector hasn’t necessarily dominated the market, this sector is expected to grow exponentially by 2027—with reports predicting 31 million units by 2027.
Currently, the options for augmented reality glasses (vs. more basic ‘smart glasses’) are a bit limited for the average consumer. The future for this sector, though, is promising, and major players in the tech industry may be eyeing their options for smart eyewear and other types of eyeglasses that incorporate virtual reality or augmented reality. Here’s an overview of augmented and virtual reality in this market, a glimpse back at the past of virtual and augmented reality eyewear, and an eye on the future, too.
Amazon Echo Frames
Leading the tech pack, industry giant Amazon released its own smart glasses and introduced the world to its Echo Frames. These glasses don’t feature augmented reality elements in the sense that wearing them takes the user into any type of augmented or mixed reality world, but the frames are a game changer because of their Alexa compatibility.
Echo Frames communicate with Alexa, and all the gadgets the virtual assistant may control within the home. Wearing the frames gives the user the power to command Alexa to send messages, make phone calls, or even perhaps brew the coffee.
According to Amazon, the frames also only work for the specific user’s voice. This feature, Amazon notes, ensures privacy. It could also possibly deter thieves, as voice control—theoretically—wouldn’t allow another individual to take control of the glasses.
Ray-Ban x Facebook?
Facebook announced that it would release its own pair of smart glasses in 2021, and the company’s new product “will have Ray-Ban branding.” No details about the capabilities were announced, but Tech Crunch noted that the glasses might not have full augmented reality features. The Verge reported that the glasses “…will not have an integrated display of any kind.” However, numerous sites—including The Verge—reported that Facebook may have eyes on a true augmented reality pair of glasses in the future.
Vuzix, however, offers a true pair of augmented reality glasses. The glasses feature capabilities that mix multiple tech elements into chic frames. Blade includes a camera, speakers as well as voice control. Augmented reality features for these glasses include the incorporation of digital instructions over daily tasks. Tom’s Guide reviewed the glasses and explained more about the tech features; users can see notifications from social media and read comments via their glasses, they can also view the weather forecast, receive messages from their phone, play a game and read lyrics to songs.
Moverio glasses look more sleek, contemporary, and futuristic than the Blade. Think Max Headroom! However, the Moverio glasses are offered in numerous models; there is a model aimed at augmented reality developers (it is geared for pros creating AR apps for eyewear), another for flying a drone, one model is extra durable for industrial sectors, a model that heightens “visitor experiences,” and several other designs.
With all the options, what type of Moverio is designed for the everyday user? Tom’s Guide discussed several augmented reality glasses on the market including the Moverio BT-30C, which, the Guide explains, allows users to view videos via a virtual screen that appears before the eyes. Moverio’s site describes this model as featuring a “Wearable display” that plugs into smartphones and tech devices via a USB.
Sound and vision merge with Bose Alto. These smart glasses incorporate the clear Bose sound quality with…well…sunglasses. While not true augmented reality, the glasses are capable of streaming music and allowing users to take calls and communicate with virtual assistants like Siri. These are the glasses to wear on the beach and chill out while listening to favorite tunes, but users shouldn’t expect advanced capabilities like pulling up visions of weather forecasts.
Spectacles by Snapchat
Facebook may have augmented reality in its future, but Snapchat Spectacles combined vision with visionary. Spectacles are exactly what many Snap users would want in app compatible eyewear. These glasses include dual cameras that are perfect for capturing 3D ‘snaps’ and videos, too. Videos taken via these glasses also can be shared to YouTube VR. As these glasses were created by Snapchat, it would make sense that the app also offers 3D effects for images snapped with the glasses.
Sports-Enhancing Augmented Reality Eyewear
While augmented reality and smart glasses are often marketed to the typical consumer, there are companies that have developed eyewear specifically for sports and competitive athletes. Augmented reality has the capability to revolutionize training and to enhance an athlete’s competitive edge. Check out these glasses designed for swimmers, cyclists, and runners.
Smart goggles for swimmers don’t yet offer the option to project a virtual competitor in the next lane of the pool, but Vuzix has designed technology made for goggles that provide data and feedback for competitive swimmers. The Smart Swim® device (for the pool) connects the coach to the swimmer, shows times for each lap, records workouts, and more; the device also is offered for open water, and, according to the company’s site, this model includes info on pace, yardage, distance as well as other data.
These augmented reality glasses are designed specifically for cyclists. The Raptor allows cyclists to snap photos and videos, receive emails/texts and listen to music. According to the company’s web site, the Raptor also provides navigation (including maps) and also offers training programs. Raptor features Everysight BEAM™ technology, an augmented reality projection display.
Wearables provide data for cyclists in front of their eyes. Solos Wearables include run time, direction, heart rate, speed and power data. The glasses ensure that the race is never interrupted, with data available at all times. While Wearables were designed with cyclists in mind, they also can be used for runners too. Yes, these glasses also display missed phone calls!
Designed by two high school students, Ghost Pacer is the ultimate in virtual and augmented reality for runners. The glasses display a virtual running partner that can be set to outpace the user or maintain the runner’s own speed. Data can be sent to Strava and users also can race friends by utilizing run data from Strava. If a friend ran 13 miles in two hours, users can program this data into Ghost Pacer to create a virtual competitor whose speed is set utilizing these stats.
Looking Back at the Past: Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality Eyewear Relics
While the choices of augmented reality eyewear products for the average consumer are somewhat limited, the selection was even more limited in past decades when this technology was just taking off in the consumer market. When we visualize virtual reality eyewear, we usually think of big bulky headsets.
These massive headpieces were once the norm when users wished to enter the virtual world. Large headsets were used to project training simulations in various industries—like aviation—but headsets also were standard in virtual reality games.
The earliest types of virtual reality date back to large panoramic paintings that depicted a full view of a particular scene.
Generations later, consumers (including children) enjoyed a very humble version of virtual reality—the View-Master. These handheld devices allowed users to view images that seemingly came to life. A small disc contained numerous images that were changed as the user clicked a switch on the side of the device. Image discs could include popular cartoon characters or even animals. As the user clicked, the action appeared before their eyes.
In the early ‘90s, game giant Sega introduced its virtual reality glasses. While this could have been the early introduction that gamers needed to really latch onto the virtual reality concept, these glasses unfortunately never hit the market. In 1995, Nintendo released a console with a virtual concept. Virtual Boy had a bit of a confusing name, as Nintendo’s Gameboy was the well-known handheld console. Virtual Boy wasn’t handheld, instead it was set atop a movable stand. Graphics were 3D and images were viewed by looking into the console; at the time, 3D graphics for a gaming console were a big deal. The console was sold at stores for $180, but the concept didn’t catch on with the public.
Many years after the simple View-Master and the missed opportunities by Sega and Nintendo, Google Glass represented one of the better known mainstream attempts at augmented/virtual reality eyewear. Unfortunately, the design wasn’t incredibly streamlined and there were reported issues of privacy concerns—in fact Investopedia reported that bars sometimes banned the devices (which featured a camera). The insanely high sticker price also didn’t help sales or popularity.
The Oculus Rift, which was launched in 2012, is still popular for its virtual reality headset design. However, you won’t find the average person wandering around town donning a Rift. These headsets plug into PCs and are popular among gamers…and perhaps even designers, too. The Rift is meant to transport users to the virtual realm, and its design—while streamlined—is still the traditional headset.
The evolving concept of virtual reality headsets also has peered into design processes within various business sectors, including the automotive industry. Microsoft’s Hololens is a mixed reality headset that is used by businesses across many industries. Notably, Volvo partnered with Microsoft to use Hololens during the design process and became the first automotive company to utilize this technology in its “engineering toolkit.” During the Covid lockdowns, Ford’s executives also used virtual reality to preview design concepts. And, while the headsets remain a bit traditional in design, the graphics displayed within those headsets have transformed from pixelated obscurity to become a concise and precise replica of reality.
An Eye on Future Designs
Smart eyewear and eyeglasses that incorporate virtual and augmented reality will likely become more commonplace. As new designs are introduced, the technology they offer also will become more diverse. While smartglasses incorporate virtual assistants, it is quite possible that newer glasses that feature virtual reality could take the virtual assistant into our eye line.
Siri, Alexa, and Cortana don’t have a visual identity. But, in the future, they could appear to us as holograms. Maybe the user—the wearer of smart glasses—gets to control how these assistants appear. They could look like the user, a friend, a celebrity, or maybe future offerings will allow the user to design the image from a menu of options. Build your own virtual assistant!
Industry leaders are not likely to give away their designs and ideas for future offerings. So what virtual or augmented reality features are included in new smart glasses are in the hands of designers and programmers. Visualizing messages, weather, and even maps, though, may be obvious augmented reality features. Looking at current eyewear products that feature augmented reality elements may be a predictor of what the future holds for newer products designed for the average consumer.
However, each company may have its unique take on product design. Major players in the industry also would (hopefully!) want to ensure that a new offering would be compatible with other company products. For example, the Apple Watch typically can pair with many iPhone models.
Consumer demand also may play a role in the design and functions of augmented reality eyewear. If the average person cannot understand how a product will benefit them or their lives, they likely won’t be willing to invest money into making a purchase. Glasses may need to enhance everyday tasks, simplify the mundane, and enrich the tech experience. And, of course, privacy issues cannot be an issue. Users likely don’t want to worry that the camera is watching them, that their data is being shared, or that their every move is being tracked. Businesses also probably wouldn’t be thrilled about having customers wearing cameras attached to their eyewear.
Moving forward and peeking into the future of virtual and augmented reality eyewear, companies need to be cognizant of what didn’t land in the past. Gimmicks and fads also don’t always translate to sustainable sales; the future offerings need to help users simplify their lives, help guide their daily tasks, and enhance and enrich the tech experience. The most successful products also will likely sync to social media; Snapchat’s glasses, for example, helped enhance the user experience via the app. Perhaps this type of functionality needs to be inclusive of all future eyewear that boasts augmented capabilities.
Augmented reality eyewear could transport users into social media sites, transforming the two-dimensional realm into a face-to-face experience. Perhaps these glasses could allow users to interact virtually via glasses. Maybe a post can turn into a real conversation. Perhaps a like becomes a real-life thumbs-up instead of an icon. The future of smart and augmented reality eyewear designs might be blurred in mystery, but the vision is clear and perhaps even…rose-tinted.