I held a black-and-white square of cardboard in my hand and watched as a dragon the size of a puppy appeared on top of it and roared at me. I watched a tiny Earth orbit around a real soda can, saw virtual balls fall through a digital gap in a table, and viewed a life-sized virtual human sitting in an empty chair.
What made these impressive special effects possible was a pair of augmented reality (AR) glasses—specifically, the Wrap 920AR glasses from Vuzix. Whereas virtual reality shows you only a digital landscape, augmented reality (AR) mixes virtual information, like text or images, into your view of the real world in real-time.
In the last few years, AR has started appearing on smart phones. In that context, software superimposes information on top of your view of the world as seen through the device’s screen. But AR eyewear, which provides a more immersive experience, has been confined to academic research and niche applications like medical and military training. That’s been largely because older AR hardware has been so bulky and has cost tens of thousands of dollars.
The Wrap 920AR from Vuzix, based in Rochester, New York, costs $1,995—about half the price of other AR goggles with similar image resolution. The company hopes that the glasses will appeal to gamers, animators, architects, and software developers, and it has developed software for building AR environments, which is included with the glasses.
Wearing the 920AR means looking at the world through a pair of LCD video displays. The 920AR is heavier than a regular pair of glasses but far lighter than other head-mounted virtual-reality displays I’ve tried. The displays are connected to two video cameras that sit outside of the glasses in front of the eyes. The screens show each eye a slightly different view of the world, mimicking natural human vision, which allows for depth perception. Accelerometers, gyro sensors, and magnetometers track the direction in which the wearer is looking. The glasses also come with ports that let users plug it into an iPhone for portable power and controls, such as loading a particular AR object or environment.
The Vuzix software can recognize and track visual markers (like the black-and-white piece of cardboard I held), or lock onto a certain object or color (like the soda can). Tracking works well as long as the pattern or object being tracked are visible to the cameras; tilting a tracking pattern too far will cause the virtual image to flicker. By tracking head movements, the software can make sure that virtual objects are perfectly positioned atop the real world.
“There are other folks who make stereo, see-through eyewear, but there’s no one making anything near the price point of Vuzix’s,” says Steve Feiner, professor of computer science at Columbia University, and a lead AR researcher since the 1990s. Feiner says that the integration of cameras and motion sensors into the display makes the glasses less bulky.
Blair MacIntyre, an associate professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology who works on AR games, notes that most researchers and companies are focusing on smart phones. “Very few people have been making head-mounted displays [for consumers] since cell phones became powerful,” he says.
However, MacIntyre notes that AR glasses are still more practical than phones in many situations. “Anything tool-oriented—medical, military, maintenance repair—will require head-worn displays,” he says, because people’s hands need to be free to do such tasks. MacIntyre also points out that discovering information about the world using AR would require looking through a device constantly, which is too cumbersome to do with a phone.
For AR glasses to become really popular, MacIntyre says, they will need to get lighter and better looking, and there will need to be worthwhile applications. “No one’s going to pay even $100 if there’s no application,” he says. MacIntyre thinks gaming could be a killer app for AR, and he says business or social media applications may also be popular. The Vuzix glasses are “kind of an intermediate step,” he says. “There won’t be a million people buying them, but I do think it’s a lot closer to what we need than anything else has been.”
Ultimately, it may be practical to incorporate AR into glasses without a builky display, by superimposing an image on a lens using optical components. “Clear glasses are a very old idea that go back to the earliest days of AR,” says Feiner. But it is more difficult to track the image that a person sees, and to accurately superimpose virtual objects on a clear display. Optical displays also have difficulty competing with ambient light.
MacIntyre believes even those who do not normally wear glasses may eventually find AR glasses appealing. “Ten years ago, if I told you that people would wear a big thing on their ear that blinks, no one would imagine that,” he says, referring to Bluetooth headsets. “The value outweighed the lack of aesthetics and the awkwardness.”