Apple’s Smartglasses

Currently, there are over 30 different products on the market in the “Augmented Reality Smartglass” category. The technology ranges from the most simple to highly complex and prices go from $30 to well into the thousands. Everyone knows about HoloLens and Google Glass, and just about everybody knows about Meta, ODG, EPSON Moverio, Recon, Optivnent, Trivisio and a dozen other vendors who are currently shipping solutions.  For a great overview of what is currently on the market, have a look at this super Buyer’s Guide from Ron Padzensky.

Conspicuously missing from this mix is Apple. While everybody in the Augmented Reality business knows that Apple is doing something, nobody (probably not even Tim Cook himself) seems to be able to determine precisely what. As a result, the rumour mills have begun to churn with increasing energy, with more and more people weighing in on what to expect from Apple by way of Augmented Reality this fall. Matt Miesnieks recently wrote an exceptional article explaining why we shouldn’t expect to see Apple release a Smartglass product in the very near future, and Robert Scoble had some very interesting comments to add. In short, the Smart Guys are saying that we shouldn’t get too excited this year.

We all know that Augmented Reality is currently thriving in the Enterprise market and although the Consumer market has tremendous promise, comparatively little of importance is happening – excepting Apple’s recent release of ARKit for Beta and everyone’s expectations regarding Augmented Reality capability on the upcoming iPhone 8, and a number of established PC vendors jumping onto the HoloLens bandwagon with $300 products scheduled to ship either late this year or early next year. Isn’t that enough? No, not really.

Augmented Reality truly arrives when it can be experienced on a set of Smartglasses that nobody will be ashamed to wear in public. Personally, I love Star Trek, but I have no intention of going shopping looking like Geordi La Forge. Obviously, in addition to reasonable aesthetics, a successful Smartglass product will also have a decent field of view, good display resolution and a reasonable battery life. Matt Miesnieks has another wonderful article explaining why you shouldn’t expect to see this in the coming weeks either.

If the Smart Guys say that we shouldn’t expect Apple to release a Consumer focused Smartglass product this year, then why are we still itching for one? Well, clearly just because we can’t have something doesn’t mean we still don’t want it and we all know that sometimes even the Smart Guys get it wrong. For that matter, even they hedge their bet and say “Who knows for sure?”.

Looking at the array of already shipping Smartglass products and believing that Apple is under steadily increasing pressure to deliver a Smartglass product, one has to wonder (in spite of Matt’s articles) what technical hurdle has to be jumped in order to deliver a product that meets Apple’s reputation for quality and innovation, yet can get out the door this year at a reasonable price, keeping in mind that there are already a few dozen products on the market. While Apple products are typically very good, they aren’t massively better than the competition – so what’s the big deal here?

It appears to me that Apple’s largest competitor when entering the Smartglass market is going to be themselves. They are so terribly late to market and Tim Cook has been playing up the potential of Augmented Reality in the press for so long, that it is almost a given – no matter what they do, it will not measure up to expectations. Thus the pressure to make something cooler than everyone else, which takes more time to bring to market, which then just adds to the pressure to make something even more cooler. Its a pernicious cycle. Wouldn’t it be better to just deliver a turd and get it over with? Let greatness come in later revisions….

No. Never! Shame on my for even thinking such heresy!!

What is universally agreed upon is that Apple will release a Consumer oriented Smartglass product at some point – and the sooner the better! Of all the vendors able to deliver Consumer targeted Smartglasses, Apple is the one best positioned to deliver a product that not only meets a high standard for technical quality, but also hits the spot when it comes to design. In spite of all the good reasons that Matt and Robert give as to why not to expect Apple to deliver a Smartglass product this year, let’s have a short look at what actually could happen.

Because price, power consumption and physical space are going to be key limiting factors, I expect that the first Apple Smartglass product ships with a generic 12MB (or thereabouts) camera without bells and whistles (cost too much, take too much energy). I am thinking of a single camera on the right or left temple, or maybe one on each temple. With two cameras it will be easier to get a stereoscopic view and maybe reduce the compute overhead to get a good positional accuracy. What is important is to leverage existing technology to the benefit of cost and time to market.

Because aligning the timing of all sensory input is so critical, I expect that the positioning sensors will have to be in the Smartglass frame. After that, though, the door is open for optimisation.

Let’s say for example, that sensory data is gathered on the Smartglass and transferred to an iPhone for processing. Yes, this creates a delay, but would that delay be large enough to be noticeable? As well, you don’t have to ship full images for VIO to be accurate. It would be easy enough to implement edge detection of the images, and maybe even vectorize them, on the Smartglass and send the resulting, much smaller, data sets to the phone. Maybe the data transfer can be done via low power Blue Tooth, or simply through a cable. In either case, the iPhone already has enough processing capability to meet the needs with ARKit and VIO, so there won’t be a question about horsepower. This allows the processor on the Smartglass to be less expensive and have a lower power drain. Offloading the computation to the iPhone reduces the energy requirements on the Smartglass, and if the device is cable connected to the iPhone, there is the potential for the iPhone to be used as a charging facility as well.

So, that’s my bet. A Smartglass tethered to the iPhone – to start with at least.

For every reason why this could happen, there are two good technical reasons why it won’t. That said, there remains the nagging reality that everyone who is anyone has already announced or is delivering Smartglass technology in some form or other. Apple’s ego is taking a bruising, and that alone is a reason for them to deliver something… anything…. It seems incomprehensible to me that Tim Cook will be content to simply talk another year about the incredible power and potential of Augmented Reality and wouldn’t at least announce a Smartglass solution this fall, regardless of its potential delivery date.