For the last three years at CES, we've watched the evolution of ODG's (Osterhout Design Group) augmented reality (AR) smartglasses. First designed for industrial and government partners, the glasses have now evolved into consumer/prosumer products. We tried the company's new R-8 and R-9 glasses, which mark the debut of Qualcomm's Snapdragon 835 processor.
Up to this point we've seen two trajectories of AR glasses. On one hand, you have devices like the defunct Google Glass or various biking glasses, which present static screens in (or just outside of) your field of view (FOV). On the other hand, you have cutting-edge wearables like Microsoft HoloLens, which merge 3D virtual reality elements with your real environment.
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In our first two demos with ODG's glasses, from CES 2015 and 2016, the wearables leaned more towards the former. This year the glasses – perhaps unsurprisingly, given the buzz surrounding HoloLens – are starting to add some features that lean towards the latter.
The Android-running glasses are still primarily a smartphone screen for your face. Put them on and you'll see a sharp (dual 1080p OLED) display floating in the center of your field of view. The presentation is more opaque than in the early models: just enough transparency to make you aware if something is heading towards you, but not enough to prevent you from immersing yourself in Season Two of Narcos on Netflix.
Dipping its toes into mixed reality, though, the glasses also now have built-in positional tracking that let you view virtual objects that appear to be tethered to real-world set pieces. Our demo included a planet floating in the air ahead of us and a race track living on top of a table.
The virtual objects, however, were jittery: certainly less stable than what you'd see with HoloLens. ODG Vice President Nima Shams said this was at least partially due to the amount of movement in our environment (being CES, many people were milling about in the background), but the fact remains that we didn't see fully stable mixed reality. Despite being able to walk around from different angles and have the AR objects stay in the same general area, they wobbled too much to make for a fully-solid illusion.
Field of view also isn't wide enough to make for fully-convincing mixed reality (a flaw it shares with HoloLens). The consumer R-8 pair has a "greater than 40-degree FOV" while the prosumer R-9 has a 50-degree FOV. High-end virtual reality headsets have 110-degree FOVs.
While they aren't as subtle as your typical non-smart sunglasses, they're getting closer: Both new ODG devices are relatively light and thin. The consumer-targeted R-8 glasses weigh in under 4.5 oz (0.28 lb) and both appear to be less bulky than in previous years. "The Snapdragon 835 is why we can make the glasses this thin," according to ODG Vice President Nima Shams.
We still don't see a clear and widespread consumer need for the glasses. Instead of wearing glasses that put a smartphone screen in your vision, why not hold a smartphone in the same spot? And while future generations of the wearables may well improve on the HoloLens-like mixed reality aspects, the illusion currently appears too unstable to recommend buying for that purpose. That leaves niche uses: hands-free industrial or athletic settings, commuters who don't want their neighbors seeing what they're watching, or early-adopter tech enthusiasts who have no problem dropping $1,000 or so purely for the novelty. In that sense, the expensive prosumer model may be the one with the more natural audience.
ODG's consumer-facing R-8 glasses are scheduled to launch for under $1,000 in the second half of 2017, while the prosumer R-9 pair will ring up for $1,799 with a targeted Q2 release.
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