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There’s a great deal of attention being paid to the new, wearable displays for Augmented Reality. Hardware permits us to merge the digital and physical worlds in unprecedented ways. Wearable hardware delivers AR experiences while the user is also able to use one or both hands to perform tasks. The tendency to pay attention to physical objects is not unique to AR industry watchers. It is the result of natural selection: genes that gave early humans the ability to detect and respond quickly to fast moving or bright and unusual objects helped our ancestors survive while others lacking those genes did not.
Although this post focuses on the hardware for Augmented Reality, I don’t recommend focusing exclusively on advancements in AR hardware when planning for success in 2017. The hardware is only valuable when combined with the software, content and services for AR in specific use cases.
Now, considering primarily AR hardware, there are important trends that we can’t ignore. This post only serves to highlight those that, in my opinion, are the most important at an industry-wide level and will noticeably change in 2017.
Chips accelerate changes
Modern Augmented Reality hardware benefits hugely from the continued reduction in size and cost in hardware components for mass market mobile computing platforms. We need to thank all those using smart phones and watches for this trend.
As the semiconductor manufacturers gain experience and hard-code more dedicated vision-related computation into their silicon-based mix, performance of complete AR display devices is improving. Combined with the technology Intel recently acquired from Movidius (which will produce significant improvements in wearable display performance beyond 2017), Intel RealSense is an example of a chip-driven technology to monitor. Other offerings will likely follow from NVIDIA and Apple in 2017.
When available for production, the improvements in semiconductors for wearable AR devices will be measurable in terms of lower latency to recognize a user’s environment or a target object, less frequent loss of tracking, higher stability in the digital content that’s rendered, lower heat and longer battery life. All these are gradual improvements, difficult to quantify but noticeable to AR experts.
As a result of optimization of key computationally-intensive tasks (e.g., 3D capture, feature extraction, graphics rendering) in lower cost hardware, the next 12 to 18 months will bring new models of AR display devices. Not just a few models or many models in small batches.
These next-generation wearable display models with dedicated silicon will deliver at least a basic level of AR experience (delivery of text and simple recognition) for an entire work shift. Customers will begin to place orders for dozens and even, in a few cases, hundreds of units.
Optics become sharper
In addition to semiconductors, other components will be changing rapidly within the integrated wearable AR display. The next most important developments will be in the display optics. Signs of this key trend were already evident in 2016 – for example, when Epson announced the OLED optics designed for the Moverio BT-300.
It’s no secret that over the next few years, optics will shrink in size, drop in weight and demand less power. In 2017, the size and weight of fully functional systems based on improved optics for AR will decline. Expect smart glasses to weigh less than 80gms. Shrinking the optics will make longer, continuous and comfortable use more likely.
Developers raised issues about color quality and fidelity when testing devices introduced in 2015 and 2016. Color distortion (such as an oil spill rainbow effect) varies depending on the type of optics and the real world at which the user’s looking (the oil spill pattern is particularly noticeable on large white surfaces). The 2017 models will offer “true” black and higher fidelity colors in a wider range of settings. Again, the experts will feel these improvements first and “translate” them to their customers.
Another key area of improvement will be the Field of View. Some manufacturers will announce optics with 50° diagonal (a few might even reach 80° diagonal) in 2017. When combined with advanced software and content, these changes in optics will be particularly important for making AR experiences appear more realistic.
Combined with new polychromatic materials in lenses, lower weight and stronger material in the supports, optics will be more tolerant of changes in environmental conditions, such as high illumination, and will fit in more ruggedized packages.
More options to choose from
Speaking of packaging, in 2016 there are three form factors for AR displays:
- monocular “assisted reality” hardware that clips onto other supports (frames) or can be worn over a user’s ear,
- smart glasses that sit on the user’s nose bridge and ears, and
- head-worn displays that use straps and pads and a combination of ears, noses and the user’s skull for support.
The first form factor does not offer an immersive experience and isn’t appropriate for all use cases, but assisted reality systems have other significant advantages (e.g., lower cost, longer battery life, lighter weight, easy to store) so they will remain popular in 2017 and beyond.
At the opposite end of the spectrum, the highly immersive experiences offered by head-worn devices will also be highly appealing for different reasons (e.g., depth sensing, accuracy of registrations, gesture-based interfaces).
We need to remember that the use cases for enterprise AR are very diverse and so can be the displays available to users. The new wearable AR display device manufacturers entering the fray in 2017 will stay with the same three general form factors but offer more models.
In addition to diversity within these three form factors there will be extensions and accessories for existing products – for example, charging cradles, corrective lenses, high fidelity audio and materials specifically designed to tolerate adverse conditions in the workplace environment.
The results of this trend are likely to include:
- those selling wearable displays will be challenged to clearly explain new features to their potential customers and translate these features into user benefits,
- those integrating AR displays will be more selective about the models they support, becoming partners with only a few systems providers (usually leaning towards the bigger companies with brand recognition)
- buyers will need to spend more time explaining their requirements and aligning their needs with the solutions available in their budget range.
Wearable display product strategists will realize that with so many use cases, a single user could need to have multiple display models at their disposal. One possible consequence of this trend could be reduced emphasis on display systems that are dedicated to one user. We could see emergence of new ways for multiple users in one company or group to reserve and share display systems in order to perform specific tasks on schedule.
Rapid personalization, calibration and security will offer new opportunities to differentiate wearable AR display offerings in 2017.
All of these different form factors and options are going to be challenging to sort out. Outside enterprise settings, consumers will not be exposed to the hardware diversity in 2017. They simply will not invest the time or the money.
Instead, companies offering new hardware, even the brands that have traditionally marketed to mass market audiences, will target their efforts toward enterprise and industrial users. Enterprises will increase their AR hardware budgets and develop controlled environments in which to compare AR displays before they can really make informed decisions at corporate levels. Third party services that perform rigorous product feature evaluations will be a new business opportunity.
While this post highlights the trends I feel are the most important when planning for success with AR hardware in 2017, there are certainly other trends on which companies could compete.
To learn more about other options and trends in wearable AR displays in 2016, download the EPRI Technology Innovation report about Smart Glasses for AR in which I offer more details.
What are the trends you think are most important in AR hardware and why do you think they will have a significant impact in 2017?