What You Need to Know About Google Augmented Reality Glasses

Google GlassesThe rumours regarding the possible launch of Google’s far awaited augmented reality head-up display (HUD) glasses by the end of 2012 have taken tech blogs by storm in the last few days. Leaked by undisclosed Google employees, the so-called Google Goggles (the name of Google’s popular image search mobile app) are to be released to the public as an experiment somewhat like the Chromebooks in 2011 and priced similar to a smartphone.  So what should we expect from this new gadget?

Understanding Google Glasses’ Technical Specs

From the two main blogs that claim to have access to the latest developments from the mysterious Google X labs – 9to5 Google and NY Times blog – we already have a series of possible technical specs regarding Google’s glasses.

Samsung AMOLED Display

Samsung AMOLED Flexible and Transparent Display Showcased in 2010

Transparent LED or AMOLED display. It seems obvious to choose a transparent display for a pair of glasses; however the type of display chosen will certainly play an essential role not only for the user experience but also in their general bulkiness.

Low resolution built-in camera. If this proves to be true, it can come as a great disappointment for many HD fans out there. But don’t give up on Google just yet! The camera will only act as the ‘eyes’ of your glasses, not your eyes, as it will be used for image recognition purposes to display the right set of digital information on top of your real view through the transparent display (HUD).

If augmented reality capabilities are not enough for you, capturing images and low resolution videos will most likely be possible as well. Though, with the latest smartphones already incorporating full HD cameras, we expect that this hic-up will soon be fixed by Google, maybe even before their release. Furthermore, no mention of 3D capabilities for either the internal camera or the AR software will probably be met with dismay, especially when most AR mobile browsers are already capable of 3D rendering and 3D smartphone cameras are starting to gain popularity.

Motion sensor and Gyroscope?  We don’t know for sure if the motion sensor cited by NY Times blog refers to a motion detector as the one integrated in many alarm systems and which can potentially be used to give warnings about approaching vehicles for example, or to a gyroscope used in most smartphones to track their tilting (very popular for gaming apps in providing a better user experience and interaction).

The latter one will almost certainly be responsible for the really cool feature of Google glasses: a navigation system using head tilting to scroll and click. 9to5 Google says that this will be “very quick to learn and once the user is adept at navigation, it becomes second nature and almost indistinguishable to outside users”. Whether this will be the case is the most important question Google will be answering at the launch. A high-tech pair of glasses capable of computer-like functionality is worthless without a quick, smooth and user-friendly navigation.

Cloud Computing or Android?

Cloud Computing, Android or both?

Android based or Cloud based? It appears to be a big gap between the two sources when it comes to the actual software/ OS that will run on the new gadget. While NY Times talks about an Android based system with full Internet capabilities, 9to5 Google clearly mentions that the device is not an “Android peripheral” and it will directly communicate with the Cloud over IP.

Taking into consideration the time lapse between the two articles of almost 3 months (NY Times’ is the most recent), it is possible that the latest developments and increasing popularity of Android OS might have replaced the initial Cloud based decision. It clearly makes sense to use a system that has already proven its functionality, that can be easily integrated with the other Google devices and which supports a whole lot of existing apps.

This becomes even more important when an integration with the popular Google apps has also been rumoured. Google Latitude, Google Maps and Google Goggles are only a few of the apps that will most likely be installed on the new device and, according to a Google employee, will display information in an augmented reality view.

Oakley Thumps

Google sources say the glasses will look very similar to this Oakley’s Thumps

The Design. Most rumours to date refer to an Oakley Thump inspired design with the heads up display (HUD) available only for one eye on the side. With a few video-enabled glasses out there, Google can take some inspiration from some of them such as the Vuzix video eyewear and learn from the less aesthetically-appealing ones like Motorola’s Kopin Golden-i AR glasses.

Being a wearable device, Google has to pay a great deal of attention to how the glasses will finally look, especially with so many eyes focused on them. However, with the glasses being launched in a pilot programme, there is a high probability that Google will not concentrate too much on their aspect, leaving it for the newer versions, but more on its usability.

The Battery. There is no information regarding the type of battery used or its longevity; however, because they are designed not be worn for more than a few hours per day, the AR glasses are expected to have enough battery power to last for an entire day cycle.

Beyond AR Glasses Technology

The success or failure of Google augmented reality glasses will not depend only on the final product’s technological limitations but also on the way the company will alleviate a series of ethical, security and health concerns that come with their technological parts.

Augmented Reality Privacy Issues

What you may be able to see through the AR glasses

A built-in camera, Internet connection and GPS make the wearer a moving target for Google’s advertising ‘arrows’, correlating a person’s real life activities with their online presence. Getting access to the Holy Grail of marketing, Google will be able to display ads from a competitor when you look at a bank’s local branch or overlay interactive ads when you read a magazine. But how much information are users willing to share until it transforms in a real privacy and security threat and how long are users willing to endure being bombarded with ads before becoming really annoyed?!

The built-in camera privacy concerns refer not only to the wearer but also to the people surrounding them. Google sources pointed out in the NY Times blog that they want to “ensure that people know if they are being recorded by someone wearing a pair of glasses with a built-in camera.” The way in which they are going to achieve this is still unknown, especially because a blinking red LED light (like the one used on normal hand-held cameras) may not be enough.

Then there are also the health concerns regarding the 3G/ 4G data connection. Having what is effectively a smartphone so closed connected to your head for an extended period of time will surely raise many questions about the potential health risks.

Looking beyond their potential technical problems and considering that Google will be able to alleviate all the above-mentioned concerns, the AR glasses have the potential of becoming the next big thing in mobile technology, next to smartphones and tablets.

Update: To get a glimpse on how these AR glasses will impact our future have a look at 8 Amazing Ways Google Glasses Will Change Education.

What other technologies would you like to be integrated in Google AR Glasses? What feature or set of features would determine you to buy the gadget? We would like to hear your opinions about this bold Google project in the comments section below.  

Augmented Reality’s Dark Ages and The New Dawn

One of the most awaited AR technologiesIn the last few days we’ve stumbled into a series of blog posts and articles questioning where the far awaited killer AR apps are and whether augmented reality has entered its own Dark Ages. The AR technology path to ‘enlightenment’ seems to have reached a standstill where people’s expectations can no longer be fulfilled. While many AR enthusiasts find this upsetting and extremely disappointing, it is a normal path in the life of any disrupting technology.

The Evolution of AR So Far

As shown by Gartner’s Hype Cycle, augmented reality was just passing over the peak of inflated expectations in 2011, so it was only a matter of time until the AR bubble would burst and start sliding down the through of disillusionment.

Gartner's Hype Cycle 2011Fuelled by its own novelty and by relentless marketers in need of grabbing attention, augmented reality has rapidly become a world-wide phenomenon. Advertising AR gimmicks proved to be a huge hit among companies desperate for coverage and concerned that by not dipping into this technology they will lose their ‘coolness’ in front of technology-savvy audiences. Coca-Cola, BMW and General Electric are only a few of the major corporations that have tried to provide an AR experience to their public without any true customer value.

Flying an Avatar helicopter on a computer screen with a bottle of Coke or driving a BMW Z4 on an AR marker is not what augmented reality is all about. None of these will attract somebody for more than a few minutes and after a couple of months they will not even be remembered. Experiences like these damage the consumer’s views of AR and negatively contribute to its current situation.

We shouldn’t, of course, forget the handful of great AR applications currently available, but with many of them only in beta stage, widespread usage cannot be yet considered.

While truly valuable AR research and development is carried out around the world, especially in Europe (where many key AR players have their headquarters), the public only sees the hype and becomes a ‘victim’ of their own expectations.

The New Dawn of Augmented Reality

As it happened with the dot-com bubble at the end of the 90’s, when the motto “get big fast” while paying no attention to basic economic truths led to many bankruptcies and to a reinvention of the Internet business, augmented reality seems to go through a similar evolution, at a much lower scale; in the case of augmented reality, “get big fast” was replaced by “get the attention fast” while not providing any real value.

For augmented reality to start going up the slope of enlightenment, it needs to pay more attention to what consumers actually need and how all these new AR developments can work together in providing a real augmented and valuable experience to the end user. Understanding that growth without value production was not going to last for long was one of the key factors that allowed Internet companies to recover from the dot-com bubble burst. Similarly, AR companies have to leave behind the gimmicky tactics and work harder with their developers and marketers to return to the roots of augmented reality as an immersive, personal and enhanced representation of reality.

Despite AR’s current problems and difficulties, it is just too useful to be left behind. And the good news is that other technologies such as computer-brain interface and human augmentation are slowly advancing on Gartner’s Technology Trigger curve and will surely show significant market presence in the next years. So it is likely that augmented reality’s younger ‘brothers’ will be perhaps the ones pushing AR further and fulfilling the augmented reality dream.

How do you think AR will manage to get back on the slope of enlightenment? Will it be through a killer app or AR glasses as some bloggers suggest or through something else? Please leave your comments and questions below.

Mobile AR browsers and what stops them from taking over the world

View through a mobile AR browserHalf a billion smartphones shipped worldwide in 2011 and a growth of more than 50% year on year (Canalys) means not only a rapid adoption of the new technology but also a great opportunity for augmented reality apps to tap into the most important characteristic of modern people – mobility.

Carrying a mobile phone wherever you go is no longer a commodity but a necessity for communication purposes and especially for access to information and entertainment. And what if you could get all of these based on your location, your interests and your sensorial perceptions (a.k.a. your reality)? Then you get a mobile augmented browser.

What is a Mobile AR Browser?

Launched in 2009, the mobile augmented reality browser combines augmented reality technology with a mobile Internet browser and smartphone technologies (camera, GPS, compass) to display digital layers on top of what you are seeing.

The building blocks of all mobile AR browsers, these digital layers called “layars”, “channels” or “worlds” (depending on the browser used) can contain any type of information, from text and images to videos and interactive 3D animation.

Whether you want to find the best offer from the nearest restaurant, play the trailer of the movie you just saw on a billboard or check what you nearby Twitter friends are up to, the mobile AR browser can help you.

But which one should you choose? There are more than a few AR browsers out there, and the first impression is that all are the same; at a deeper glance though, they are actually quite different, with different strategies and different audiences. Let’s take a look at the first three.

Top 3 Mobile AR Browsers

Layar – the ‘cool’ browser (3.5 stars rating on Android Market and 2.5 stars on App Store) – one of the first mobile augmented reality browsers, Layar was launched in 2009 by SPRXmobile, a Dutch mobile company. Supporting only Android phones initially (contrary to the mass trend of apps being firstly launched on iPhone and then on all other devices), the AR browser soon became a popular app, being now available on all major mobile operating systems except Windows (currently being developed).

Beatles Crossing Abbey Road in LayarWith over 10 million downloads worldwide and over 1 million active users, Layar has continuously grown and added not only thousands of layers but also new technologies and features such as Layar Vision. By using computer vision techniques, the app scans real objects and if they match the fingerprint included in the opened layer, Layar Vision can quickly return the associated AR experience.

Junaio – the ‘techie’ browser (3 stars on Android and 2.5 stars on App Store) – self-proclaimed “the most advanced augmented reality browser” and with more than 1.7 million downloads, Junaio, developed by the German AR company Metaio, is currently available only on iPhone and Android devices.

Junaio Mobile AR Browser

Junaio Mobile AR Browser

Very similar to Layar (from a features perspective), this AR browser seems to be going for the “Jack of all trades” strategy where all new AR developments are quickly integrated in the browser, aiming for the creation of an AR hub. This is how Junaio’s latest version got to include a traditional AR browser, object recognition technology (similar to Layar Vision), internal web browser and QR and bar code scanner.

Wikitude – the ‘social’ browser (4 stars on Android and 2.5 stars on App Store) – claimed to be the first mobile AR browser worldwide and winner of numerous industry awards in its 3 years of existence, Wikitude GmBH is the only AR browser available on the five major mobile operating systems (OS, Android, Symbian, Windows and Blackberry).

Wikitude with My World Beta

Wikitude with My World Beta

Without incorporating the latest AR developments, Wikitude is a strong competitor to Layar and Junaio through its functional and social focus. One of its key features is Wikitude My World (beta), which allows users to create their own world (layer) with locations, descriptions and pictures that can easily be shared with their friends through Facebook.

Potential Threats and Weaknesses

Despite their novelty and their high potential, the mobile AR browsers have managed to capture only around 1% of the smartphone market (in terms of active users). There is no doubt that they have strongly benefited from the AR hype (with millions of downloads in only a couple of years); however, when it comes to actively using these apps on a regular basis, the figures plummet.

Layar, which had more than 10 million downloads since their inception, has only around 1.5 million active users (according to their own figures). Some would say that this figure is not bad (15% active users) but when compared to the 50+% active users of a third party Internet browser of similar size (by number of downloads), Dolphin, we can start to notice the differences. So what stops people from using mobile AR browsers?

Technology – Like any new technology, AR browsers are not fully stable and still under intensive development. As a result, they will surely have technical glitches, errors and bugs which are not seen with good eyes by today’s technology-savvy users who are less forgiving then they used to be.

‘Smart’ mobile devices – The devices that make all of these possible are also a serious threat to AR companies through their continuous fragmentation. Many operating systems, each with multiple versions operating on hundreds of different smartphones increase the developers’ pressure with a direct impact on quality and stability of the newly released software.

Innovation Adoption LifecycleComplacency – Any new technology goes through a ‘technology adoption lifecycle’ and mobile AR browsers are no exception. People’s resistance to change makes it harder for users of traditional mobile Internet browsers to suddenly start using their smartphone’s camera for search. Time and user education can have a positive effect on increasing the adoption speed.

Social - All media coverage of mobile AR browsers has given birth to a number of thoughts and worries which may affect its adoption. Starting from the awkward feeling of people watching you when moving your mobile camera around to more serious fears of being tracked down by criminals when posting on Twitter that you have just bought a new TV, these concerns can be easily tackled by developers and even users through their application’s settings. But the harm has already been done and changing a person’s negative perception is harder than creating it in the first place.

Competition – With more companies fighting for a piece of the $3 billion mobile AR market expected in 2016 (ABI Research), the increasing competition is not all good news for the consumer. In an attempt to be the first on the market, mobile AR browser developers are already pushing the latest technologies to the limit by launching new features before being fully tested and before providing the support users need, leading to complaints, bad reviews and poor user ratings.

Even if the mobile augmented reality browser is here to stay, widespread adoption may still be a few years away. Tackling the above issues and raising awareness about the benefits provided are key actions that will determine future success.

How do you see the future of mobile AR browsers? What other issues stop AR browsers from being widely adopted? Leave your comments and questions in the box below.