Google gets some new competition, but outlook for smart glasses is hazy

They’re technically challenging, expensive, hard to make look good, already making enemies —” but are they the future?

A look through a pair of futuristic eyeglasses reveals a fantasy world. Or is it real? Reach out, press a button — a hologram, in fact — floating in thin air. Suddenly, a nearby lamp switches on until the virtual button is pushed again to turn it off. 

The eyeglasses, created by Meta, a Silicon Valley start-up, are among a growing list of rivals to Google Glass. The goal is to build tiny computer screens that people wear on their heads so they can read messages, get directions and take photos without having to take out their smartphones.

Meta’s ambitions go a bit further than most, however. If all goes as planned, people wearing its smart glasses will live in a sort of augmented reality filled with 3-D images they can touch, grab and share with others.

“I’ve always had a passion for making computing more natural,” said Meron Gribetz, Meta’s chief executive.

The new metaPro model.

Digital eyewear is an idea straight out of science fiction. It’s also a huge challenge to turn into reality. The technology is still a work in progress, and the few examples shown publicly have been clunky to use, including Google Glass. Beyond the technical challenges, and perhaps most important, companies are struggling to make smart glasses stylish while fending off complaints that the devices violate privacy.

Analysts disagree on how quickly sales of smart glasses will take off. Shipments of smart glasses will reach 75 million in 2018, according to ABI Research, implying a huge demand. But a number of other analysts are skeptical, saying companies must first give consumers a compelling reason to buy smart glasses and make them easier to use.

“It’s a lot of hype,” said Daniel Matte, an analyst with Canalys, a market-research firm. “There’s a lot of interest. It’s cool, it’s exciting. But it’s nowhere near being ready for the mass market.”

Privacy concerns, more

Companies hoping to sell smart glasses must also overcome increasing privacy concerns. Many people are worried about being surreptitiously recorded or photographed in public. A handful of bars and restaurants have gone so far as to bar customers from wearing smart glasses. There’s already an unflattering nickname for people who wear the devices, “glassholes,” showing just how much work lies ahead in rehabilitating the nascent technology’s image.

“No one wants angry people coming up to them all day saying, ‘Don’t film me,’” Matte said.

A woman tries Google Glass at a Google developer conference in May.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Last year Google made a splash when it unveiled its Google Glass, a wearable computer with a tiny screen that sits just off to the side of one eye. Wearers control the device by touching a side near their ear or by giving voice commands. Google Glass is not yet available to the general public. For now, only software developers can buy a device, which costs $1,500. The price is expected to drop by the time it goes on sale to consumers.

Google Glass isn’t the first of its kind. Researchers have experimented with the technology for years. But in making a big bet on smart glasses, Google helped ramp up interest in the field, and now a number of companies — such as LaForge Optical, Vuzix, Lumus and Oculon — are developing eyewear technology in anticipation of consumers’ eventually warming to the idea.

Recon Instruments, a start-up in Vancouver, British Columbia, already sells a minimalist version for skiers. People on the slopes can see their speed, distance skied and vertical descent displayed from their goggles. In the spring the company plans to expand into digital sunglasses. Runners and cyclists who wear them will be able to get performance data in real time.

Focusing just on sports makes it easier to tailor eyewear to athletes’ needs, said Tom Fowler, chief marketing officer for Recon Instruments. Such devices must be able to withstand a good pounding, along with rain, mud and even hail. And athletes require specialized kinds of data. Left unsaid is that providing a limited amount of information lets the company avoid the challenge of delivering the entire online universe to its customers.

A broader approach?

Meta is trying a broader approach by aiming to turn its smart glasses into a universal remote control. Instead of using a computer for everyday activities, work and entertainment, people would manipulate digital images projected in their eyewear.

Want to type an email? Use the hologram-like keyboard suspended in front of you. Want to play chess? Reach out and move your virtual pawn and then wait for your opponent to counter.

For all its big aspirations, Meta’s technology is a bit rudimentary for now. Trying it out means putting on bulky eyewear attached to wires.

In addition to turning on a lamp during a recent test, testers could pop some virtual bubbles with a light saber and use their hands to assemble a space rocket that then blasts off. Gesturing in thin air can prove to be awkward, however, at least for a newcomer to augmented reality.

Gribetz is optimistic Meta’s glasses will improve over time. He pointed to big gains in the past few months, including the ability to sense a room’s layout, which involves the highly complex problem of picking up on the presence of blank walls.

The company previewed an updated version of its eyewear, the metaPro, to the public Tuesday. The new model comes with a display that is 15 times bigger than Google Glass’.

Only developers may order the new version, but shipments of the device — along with a mini-computer that users must wear in their pocket and link to their eyewear via a thin wire — aren’t expected for another six months while the company continues to tweak the technology. 

As part of the update, Meta redesigned its glasses to be sleeker than its previous models. Smaller components allowed the company to do away with an unattractive brow at the top of the eyewear. Style is a detail Gribetz described as his obsession. People will have to make such a big mental leap to use the technology compared with the familiarity of a traditional computer that he doesn’t want any cosmetic issues to get in the way.

“We want to make glasses that people love wearing anyway,” Gribetz said, “and we just put a computer inside it.”

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