Unfortunately it has taken a lot longer to get augmented reality glasses to consumers than I expected. A lot longer. I thought we would be wearing them all day by now. Heck, when I got Google Glass years ago I thought I never would take those off.
Boy, was I wrong.
Many in Silicon Valley taunt me for my previous optimism, saying “not this year, not next year.”
That doesn’t mean they aren’t getting closer. For the past seven years I’ve been watching Lumus, a small company in Israel, that makes the best lenses/displays I’ve seen so far. Every two years they come and visit me and show me its latest. Every year they get brighter, lighter, more efficient, smaller, and more.
Here, in video, is Lumus’ head of marketing showing me its latest displays and you see just how big an improvement it has made. You can see these are getting much closer to the size and quality that consumers will be happy wearing.
But since I have been so wrong before, I wanted to take a more sober look at these displays and ask myself “when will consumers buy these?”
That may just be the wrong question. Unless I was working at Meta or Apple or Snap.
Enterprise uses of these are coming right now. Just look at the revolution in robotics that is underway. AI pioneer Adrian Kaehler has been retweeting every amazing robot on Twitter (he is CEO of Giant AI, which makes manufacturing robots coming over the next year) and there are dozens that work on all sorts of production lines, not to mention do a variety of other jobs. These glasses would be perfect for controlling, and training, all these new robots. And a variety of other things, from training to surgery. This is why Magic Leap has a new shot at life that I also didn’t see, due to its cord and lack of consumer experiences.
Other augmented reality companies have pivoted away from consumers and toward enterprise uses of these glasses and devices (most notably Magic Leap and Microsoft’s HoloLens).
Well, for instance, look at some of the limitations of even these amazing new displays from Lumus. While they are many times brighter than, say, the Magic Leap or HoloLens displays, and have bigger fields of view, the image does not quite match my 4K TV, which cost me $8,000 last year.
So, consumers who want to watch TV, or particularly movies, in their glasses will find the image quality still not as nice as a bleeding edge TV, tablet, or phone display (although inside they are damn close). Even though augmented reality glasses give many other advantages (like you can watch in a plane or while walking around, something my big TV can’t do). But these are dramatically better than they were last time I saw Lumus’ latest. White whites. Sharp text. Bright videos and images.
The field of view, too, is 50 degrees. OK, that does match my 83-inch TV when I am sitting on my couch (the image in the Lumus is actually bigger than my TV slightly) but that isn’t enough to “immerse” you the way VR does. Will that matter to consumers? I think it will, but 50 degrees is way better than what Snap is showing in its current Spectacles. In 2024’s devices screens will be virtualized, too, so the hard field of view numbers won’t matter nearly as much. These are certainly better than my HoloLens’s field of view.
Also, bleeding edge TVs, like my Sony OLED, have better color and luminance depth. What does that mean? TV and movies still look better on my TV. But that, also, is sort of a bad comparison. My TV can’t travel with you. These displays are pretty damn good for a variety of uses, I just wish I didn’t need to wait until 2024 to get them.
This is why many who are working on Apple’s first device tell me it is NOT doing see-through glasses like these for its first product. They just don’t match consumer expectations yet (although these Lumus lenses are a lot closer than any others I’ve seen so far).
Apple’s first device is what those of us in the industry call a “passthrough” device and is NOT a pair of glasses like what Lumus is showing here. In other words, you can’t see the real world through the front of the device. Unless the device is on (Apple’s device will present a digital recreation of the room you are in — I hear its new version of augmented reality is pretty mind blowing, too).
Until this next generation of devices happens these glasses will mostly be used for R&D or enterprise uses, like controlling robots or production lines, or doing things like surgery, where field of view, brightness, etc aren’t as important as they will be for consumers. Lumus is selling their much better lenses to consumer-focused partners, but they don’t expect the really interesting glasses until 2024.
I’ve been working with a variety of enterprise users and here there is a deep hunger for better glasses. At Trimble, a construction company, for instance, they are working on a variety of initiatives. They are using the Boston Dynamics’ robots to map out construction sites in 3D and then using HoloLenses to do a variety of tasks. The problem? The HoloLens only has displays that are about 400 nits. Technical term for “dim, poor quality color, very little readability in bright sunlight.” Lumus’ displays are 5,000. Yesterday I took them outside and saw that they are plenty bright enough for bright environments.
Also, the HoloLens is very heavy and big compared to the glasses that Lumus and many others are readying. The construction workers are not happy with the size of the HoloLens, or even the Magic Leap, which has a cord down to a computer that clips on your belt.
These enterprise users are hungry to buy a decent set of augmented reality glasses. Lumus should help its partners get to these markets long before Meta, Snap, or Apple figure out how to get consumers to want to buy glasses.
How will I evaluate whether the market is ready?
Let’s make a list.
1. Brightness. 2,500 nits is perfect for most enterprise uses (HoloLens is only 400 and all my clients complain about lack of brightness and visual quality). Lumus says theirs can do 5,000, which gets close to consumer expectations. Big improvements over the past and over competitors I’ve seen.
2. Color. The Lumus lenses are much better than others I’ve seen. Pure whites and decent color (I could watch TV and movies in them). Enterprise is ready. Will consumers take to these in 2024? I think so. No color fringing like I see on my HoloLens. Much much nicer.
3. Size. The projectors in the Lumus are much smaller than they were three years ago when I last saw Lumus’ work. Very awesome for doctors, construction workers, production line workers, etc but still a bit too big for “RayBan” style glasses. But I could see wearing these for hours.
4. Cost. They avoided this question, sort of, but the cost is now coming down to enable devices that are $2,000 or less. That is acceptable for many enterprise uses, but still too high for most consumers. That said, I’m wearing glasses that cost $1,500 before insurance, so we are heading to consumer pricing.
5. Battery life and heat generation. Here Lumus has made big strides. They claim devices that are running their latest projectors will be able to go for hours, even all day, depending on how often the displays are showing information. That is great for, say, a surgeon, using a system like the one MediView makes. They only need displays on for a few minutes during surgery. Same for many other enterprise uses. Most workers won’t be trying to watch live streaming video all day long, like consumers will be. Also, they don’t heat up like others on the market do. But for consumer uses? Not quite there yet. Consumers will want to watch, say, CNBC all day long, along with working on screens of information.
6. Field of view. Yes, it’s better than my expensive 83-inch TV, but not by much. Consumers will have higher expectations than just 50 degrees. Enterprise users? Don’t care much at all. The benefits of having screens on their eyes outweighs the lack of wrap-around screens.
7. Content. Consumers will want to do everything from edit spreadsheets to watch TV shows and movies and play video games. All of which Lumus will never do, so its partners will need to come up with all of that. Enterprise users are far more focused on very specific use cases, like controlling a robot, or being able to see data on production machinery. That’s a hard job, for sure, but a far easier one than getting the wider range of things consumers expect done. Yes, the Metas, Apples, Googles, Snaps, Niantics, etc, are working on all that but they aren’t nearly ready with enough to get consumers to say “wow.”
8. Resilience. Consumers will want to wear these devices out in the rain. Will drop them. Their kids will step on them. How do I know? All that has happened to my glasses, which I’m forced to wear simply to see. Enterprise users are more focused on safety and many jobs, like surgery, will not need nearly the same kind of resilience that consumers will need.
Now, can all these problems be fixed by, say, an Apple or a Meta or a Snap? Sure, but I bet on Apple being more aggressive and that didn’t happen. So, we need to see how well it does next year with a launch of a bigger, heavier device aimed at home users to see how well consumers react to augmented reality devices on our faces.
Now, is there someone out there that has glasses ready to go sooner? Maybe, but, let’s say NVIDIA has a pair that does a lot, will they have all the advantages of Apple? No way. Not for a while.
This is why Mark Zuckerberg told investors that it will be “years” before augmented reality devices make big money with consumers. Even its VR efforts, after being out for seven years, and having a ton of content and low price of $300, is only selling about 1.5 million units a quarter (Apple sells that many phones in about two days).
Translation: as excited as I am about going to this week’s Augmented World Expo, we still have a couple of years to go, at minimum. I’m bummed writing that, but it’s better to be more realistic about the near future than optimistic.