Wearables

ODG smartglasses continue to evolve, but who are they for?

ODG smartglasses continue to e...
ODG VP Nima Shams modeling the company's new smartglasses
ODG VP Nima Shams modeling the company's new smartglasses
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ODG VP Nima Shams modeling the company's new smartglasses
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ODG VP Nima Shams modeling the company's new smartglasses
The new glasses
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The new glasses
The R-8 and R-9 glasses go in sale later in 2017
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The R-8 and R-9 glasses go in sale later in 2017
The consumer-facing R-8 glasses
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The consumer-facing R-8 glasses
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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.

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 new glasses
The new glasses

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.

The R-8 and R-9 glasses go in sale later in 2017
The R-8 and R-9 glasses go in sale later in 2017

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.

The consumer-facing R-8 glasses
The consumer-facing R-8 glasses

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.

Product page: Osterhout Design Group

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2 comments
JeremyH
Wne you see that 'shades' look, you know the developer wants the headwear to look cool..... and they have a tiny problem with brightness. :)
MartinBrock
Only the market knows for sure, but the R8 crosses seems to cross the consumer threshold. The higher resolution and wider field of view of the R9 is obviously preferable, but a breakthrough, consumer device necessarily involves compromises. At less than a grand, the price is right. The first iphones were $600 on contract. Apparently, these devices will have cellular radios, and replace a smartphone, in China, possibly this year. Presumably, the price will be even lower on contract. Hopefully, ODG will make a similar deal with a U.S. telecom soon. I paid $800 for my Galaxy Note 4 off contract, so the R8 price is attractive to me. Why not hold a phone in front of my face? Continually? All day? This question answers itself. People can also hold phones to their ears, but they use bluetooth headsets anyway. I want to be connected all the time, hands free. AR is a gimmick at this point. My personal computer doesn't augment reality. It augments my brain. Ultimately, I want it surgically implanted in my head. A wearable computer is a step in this direction. Maybe wearable computers are not for everyone, but I'm not all that weird. When the device is right, a market exists, and it will grow rapidly, like the smartphone market. These devices lack a depth sensor, like the infrared sensor on the Hololens, so they can't map their environment as accurately. This limitation is another design compromise, but it's not a deal breaker for me. I want virtual objects fixed relative to my head, not relative to my room, and the IMU is sufficient for this purpose. If I'm sitting down, in a fixed location and orientation relative to the room, the difference is negligible anyway. If I'm walking around outside, I want to the objects moving with me, not pinned to the walls I'm passing. Outside of gaming, the use case for a precise position sensor is questionable at this point, and I'm not a gamer. I want to replace my smartphone and possibly my laptop with a wearable, mobile device. I don't want a new game console with very limited content. Hololens will fail, as Kinect failed, because it tries to achieve too much too soon in one device. Someday, Microsoft may pack a full-fledged, Windows 10 computer with all of the sensory apparatus required for the Hololens experience into a package as small and light and power-efficient as the R8, but the wearable computing ship will have sailed by then.