Whenever I mention smart glasses, I get responses like “who needs them?” or “what’s the point?”. In fact, it’s happened to me several times this past week – when Facebook & Ray-Ban announced the Ray-Ban Stories and with the reveal of Xiaomi’s smart glasses.
It’s got to the point where I wonder if I’m the only one that can see their potential, and that everyone else, if you’ll forgive the pun, is being short-sighted about it.
I concede that the current offerings aren’t up to much, but as with any tech, smart glasses need to walk before they can run. We didn’t swap our landlines immediately for iPhones, after all.
Back when the Apple Watch was first announced, I heard similar cries. “If I need to look at notifications I’ll just look at my phone”. “I don’t need apps on my wrist”. Fast-forward to 2021 and there are over 100 million Apple Watch wearers, and plenty more sporting alternatives such as the
Samsung Galaxy Watch 4 and
Fitbits that blur the line between smartwatch and fitness tracker.
The point is that people don’t like change and they often dismiss new gadgets out of hand. And the problem is that we’re still a good way off seeing a pair of smart glasses that are actually a compelling proposition.
Right now, we’re seeing only the first glimpses of what smart glasses will be like.
The other problem is that it’s taking way longer than our patience allows for. Rewind to the early 2010s and all was quiet on the smart glasses front, except for Google Glass which – with hindsight – was well ahead of its time.
They went on sale in 2014 but for various reasons – among which were the steep price and sub-par user experience – Google shelved the project. As the years progressed, basic smart glasses begun to appear such as the
first-gen Snapchat Spectacles.
Though Snapchat’s smart specs were little more than action camera strapped to some sunglasses, it gave Snapchat users a way to record memories without getting a phone out of their pocket, offering a much more natural way to capture moments from their POV (point of view).
It wasn’t a huge seller, mainly due to the high price, the bizarre vending machine marketing campaign and teething issues with the tech, but I fell in love with the concept. Why wouldn’t you want to be able to capture important important moments, such as asking your partner to marry you, without having to ruin the moment by shoving a smartphone camera in their face?
That’s just one area where smart glasses could replace phones – but it’s one of many. Audio company Bose also saw an area of growth and released the Bose Frames, a chunky pair of glasses that use the company’s Open Ear Audio technology and Bluetooth connectivity to allow you to listen to your favourite tunes without the need for headphones or earphones.
Huawei teamed up with Gentle Monster at least twice to make smart glasses, and a few other brands had a crack – including
Fauna – but none of these succeeded in any meaningful way.
More recently, Facebook and Ray-Ban have partnered to create a sort of mash-up of the Bose Frames and Snapchat Specs that’s dubbed
Ray-Ban Stories. Building on the POV capture of earlier smart glasses, the smart specs sport dual 5Mp cameras for video and photo capture, triggered either by a tap or via Facebook virtual assistant with your voice, courtesy of an integrated three-mic array, and with integrated speakers in the stems, you can take calls and listen to music too.
It’s the next step in the evolution, bringing multiple technologies into a single product. It’s still basic and the sunglasses are expensive at £299/$299, but we’re approaching an interesting milestone in the development of smart glasses.
Even Apple is
rumoured to be working on smart glasses. They sound like something out of a sci-fi movie, complete with displays embedded into the frames and AR capabilities that blend the real and virtual worlds into one. As you can guess, they’re not expected to launch for quite a few years yet, and Apple is yet to confirm anything officially.
One company that is more outspoken about its smart glasses future is Xiaomi.
The Xiaomi Smart Glasses aren’t available to buy just yet, but the firm has
outlined the concept product in great detail, describing a pair of glasses that can receive notifications, make calls and texts, take photos and even give you directions thanks to ‘advanced MicroLED optical waveguide technology’, which means putting a transparent display into one of the lenses.
And this is all without the need for a smartphone.
Xiaomi claims that the glasses will weigh in at a slender 51g when they do eventually appear, meaning they won’t be as unwieldy and thick as most pairs.
As far as I’m concerned, smart glasses like these could remove the need for a phone or smartwatch.
Instead of using Google Maps on your phone, you’ll be able to see directions overlaid directly onto the world around you once you don a pair of smart glasses.
You’ll be able to glance at incoming notifications, which appear right before your eyes, allowing for more natural interaction with people in an increasingly busy digital world. You’ll be able to take photos and high-quality videos from your POV and be able to share them on social media without having to get your phone out of your pocket and launch the camera app.
There’s also the potential for gaming. Niantic – creator of Pokémon GO – teased the image below earlier this year of its own AR glasses and is working behind the scenes with various companies such as Microsoft and Qualcomm to bring its AR games to life.
Looking even further ahead, I envision a future where AR smart glasses become commonplace not only in general life but industry and education.
Imagine an apprentice mechanic looking at a car engine, but instead of having to refer to technical documents, smart glasses could show what each component is, and highlight potential problems in real-time. Architects could design buildings and share digital mock-ups with colleagues, all viewable in the augmented world made possible by smart glasses.
In fact, that’s exactly what happened to Google Glass after its consumer flop; it was then sold for
business and industrial use. So, even if it takes years for smart glasses to mature to a point where consumers integrate the tech into their lives, they certainly have potential in business.
Back in the day, privacy was one of the sticking points for smart smart glasses and is one of the reasons why Google Glass was banned from certain public places. Yet this hasn’t stopped companies developing new models with cameras.
It could be that the public can tolerate anyone being able to whip out a smartphone and snap away at a moment’s notice, but not smart glasses which could be recording all the time. Manufacturers are trying to make it more obvious when cameras are active by including LEDs, but that only helps if the person being filmed is aware of what those LEDs represent.
Will smart glasses end up being camera-less? Or is there a more nuanced way of protecting privacy, such as with shutters that cover cameras when not in use? We can only wait and see.
What I see, and as clichéd as it sounds, is that the possibilities are endless. That’s what gets me so excited about smart glasses; it’s not the now, but the what could be.
I’ll admit that the smart glasses we’re seeing right now are a far cry from what they could be but I’m confident that we’ll look back one day and scoff at the idea of using a smartphone or a smartwatch.