Smart glasses definitely got off to a rocky start with consumers. To quickly recap, they were expensive, dorky-looking, and in real life, they didn’t live up to the fantasy painted for us in pop culture. As technologically advanced as something like Google Glass was, the first iteration wasn’t anything like what we’d seen in the movies. For example, you couldn’t simply look at a person and learn everything there was to know about them.
Put simply, smart glasses were a solution in need of a problem to solve. That’s a conclusion shared by most, if not all, the experts we spoke to. For consumers, there just isn’t a “killer app” or a compelling use case to offset all the downsides. Except, when it comes to enterprise.
While Glass crashed and burned with the public, it’s actually gaining traction with businesses. Think factory workers on assembly lines, architects building 3D models, or doctors in hospitals. It’s why Google went back to the drawing board. The consumer pilot program for Glass was shut down in 2015, and it was folded into X—the lab Google refers to as its “moonshot factory.” The Enterprise Edition made its debut in 2017. Fast forward to 2019, and X has launched the second iteration of the Glass Enterprise Edition.
We trekked out to Mountain View in California to get a closer look at the Glass prototypes—and you can see how Google’s thinking changed as it shifted focus. The Enterprise Edition is a much more practical device. The body features safety grilles, parts of it are modular, and the glasses can also accommodate safety hats. When Google gave us a demo, it revolved around a real-life work scenario. We had to pick out components needed to repair a piece of equipment. The Glass showed us the steps, and with the help of a scanner, was able to confirm whether we’d picked the right ones. Gone were the flashy concepts about messaging friends—they’d been replaced with practical use cases.
“I think by focusing on enterprise, we can find ways that the utility of a device like Glass can be seen very, very quickly. You can make it an indispensable part of your day,” says Jay Kothari, project lead for Glass at X. “You can also make you more efficient throughout your day.”
Google is far from the only company that’s seen the value of enterprise. This is the same strategy Microsoft is using with its Hololens 2. Microsoft’s AR headset started with a lot of hype with regard to entertainment but has since been quietly refocused toward business. At a demo, Microsoft gave us a walkthrough of how to repair machine parts, as well as view 3D models of buildings in a shared space. That’s pretty useful for specific jobs but not quite so useful for the average person.
When you limit smart glasses to the workplace, it removes many of the societal concerns that plague consumer products. You don’t have to worry about the price—your company’s footing the bill. Style isn’t a concern because you’re only wearing the glasses to complete a task. Lastly, when you go home for the day, you’re not taking the glasses with you. You’re not wearing them to bars where someone else might feel threatened. In a nutshell, smart glasses in the enterprise space have a concrete and specific use—one that has nothing to do with your outside life.
There’s another player in the market that you might not have heard of: Epson. While you might know the company best for its printers, it’s also a leader for projectors—a key component for smart glasses. The company began looking for new applications for its projector tech, aka smart glasses. Its first model, the Moverio BT 100 launched back in 2011. It was kind of bulky and initially built with entertainment in mind. So far, the narrative here sounds similar to Google Glass.
Here’s where things shift. Epson has a unique take for smart glasses, opting for a B2B2C strategy. That’s a lot of letters, but it boils down to business-to-business-to-consumer. Epson sells its glasses to a business—a theatre, for example. You might be someone who’s hard of hearing, so at the theatre, you’d rent Epson’s glasses for subtitles. The glasses solve a specific problem for the consumer and business, and in return, Epson’s products get valuable exposure without the risk of bombing on the mass market.
You can see this strategy at play when you look at how Epson’s smart glasses evolved over the years. With the BT 200, Epson noted their glasses gained traction in the drone community. They were also used to give pilots a sort of smart heads-up display. Consumers also hacked early Moverio glasses to suit their needs, and that seemed like an affirmation for putting practical use cases first. That’s continued with its latest BT 300 and BT 30c models, which are lighter and can do more than ever.
“I think that’s one of the big takeaways from a lot of the applications we’re building, and built in the early days of AR glasses. They’re really purpose-built experiences,” says Eric Mizufuka, Epson’s product manager for Moverio smart glasses. “They’re not these always-on use case[s] where you’re going to be walking around with AR glasses on.”
But that also meant sacrifices. Mizufuka outlined for us the classic “pick two of three” dilemma facing all smart glasses. To make a mass-market product, it has to be affordable, deliver a great experience, and have an appealing form factor. When it comes to smart glasses, current technological limitations mean you can have two out of three.
Epson clearly picked affordability and experience. While its glasses work as advertised, they’re still not the sort of thing anyone would wear casually. You can say Google started with form factor and experience with its Explorer Edition, and then perhaps shifted more heavily into experience with its Enterprise Edition. Microsoft has put most of its eggs into the experience basket, while slowly refining size and comfort with the Hololens 2.
So if this is where smart glasses are succeeding, it’d be reasonable to think consumer smart glasses are done for—at least in the near term. Except that’s not entirely true either. Focals by North are a pair of consumer glasses that again focus on form factor and experience. And as far as product goes, it does a better job at blending into your everyday life than Glass did. They look like something you’d find from Warby Parker and are fully capable of giving you directions, texting friends, calling Ubers, and interacting with Amazon Alexa. The thing is getting a stylish bespoke pair requires a rather involved fitting experience.
To get a pair, we had to visit North’s Brooklyn showroom. That involved getting a 3D face scan, picking out a wide or narrow fit, and then selecting my frame’s colour and shape. Once that was done, we had to wait a few weeks before picking them up—which then involved a tutorial session on how to pair the glasses to a smartphone, as well as one last fitting. Not everyone has the kind of time or money to drive (or fly) to a North showroom or pop-up store. And, if you need glasses to actually see, waiting six weeks for a new pair of glasses can be excruciating.
Earlier this year, North released an augmented reality app to expand accessibility but that doesn’t solve the price problem. A pair of Focals by North could easily set you back at least $US600 ($871). That might be acceptable if you got a killer experience. The reality is the apps are somewhat limited, connectivity is a problem, and when you’re out in direct sunlight, the projected information can appear washed-out if you don’t shell out for the sunglasses attachment.
North’s glasses might be better, but they still don’t offer a compelling enough reason for the average person to buy-in. But even if they were perfect, no one has figured out why you’d need a pair. In the same way, smartwatches seemed useless until heart rate monitoring tech got good enough to potentially save lives. Now, you see plenty of people wearing them in the wild. Cell phones were a luxury until it clicked just how useful it was to always be connected, especially in cases of emergencies. Smart glasses just don’t have that yet.
“The only thing that’s really going to drive users to adopt this type of technology is if it’s going to be solving a problem for them in their daily life,” says Chuck Yust, a designer with Frog Design. Things like AR navigation genuinely sound cool, but you can also do that on your smartphone. Plus, just as science fiction shaped our expectations with smart glasses, newer stories are also warning us of the dystopia they could bring.
Let’s go back to Tony Stark and the Iron Man franchise. Whereas Stark has always used heads-up displays, it’s portrayed more benignly in earlier films. By the time Spider-Man Far From Home comes around, he’s handed off a pair to Peter Parker and it’s clear the glasses are a major threat to privacy and security in the wrong hands. Likewise, Black Mirror has an episode where it’s possible to edit entire people out of our vision. These are exaggerated examples, but they do illustrate how culturally, we’re warier how this specific technology can be abused than we were in the ‘80s and ‘90s.
“We already have the capacity to live in our own realities so much,” says Madeline Ashby, a science-fiction novelist, and futurist. “Creating our own reality, living in our reality to the exclusion of others, and to the exclusion of facts—then you run into other problems. I think that’s what makes people nervous not just about smart glasses, but also about augmented reality, about virtual reality, about choosing other realities.”
Despite all these misgivings, smart glasses aren’t going anywhere. Aside from Google and Microsoft, more tech giants are exploring this field. North just announced a second generation of glasses days ago. Facebook is rumoured to be working on a pair of AR glasses. There are numerous rumours that Apple will have a pair sometime in 2022 or 2023. Amazon announced a more low-tech version earlier this year.
Maybe one of them will crack it—maybe not. After all, they’d still need to figure out a killer app, comfortable yet customisable form factor, and bring the price down to something relatively affordable. Then aside from hardware challenges, there are societal questions of privacy, security, and surveillance. Until a company can create a device that’s convincing enough to bridge all these gaps, it might be best that smart glasses remain a piece of science fiction.