Snap Inc., the company best known for the popular Snapchat social camera app, has announced its first augmented reality glasses that most people agree qualify as real AR glasses. Like previous glasses that the company has produced, they are called Spectacles.
Glasses will not be available to buy as a mass-market consumer product, at least not for the foreseeable future. Instead, Snap sows units to developers and content creators so that the glasses can be used to create new experiences and filters. These creators will build these with Lens Studio, a Snapchat-specific tool that is already widely used.
Spectacles enable new ways to view and create Snapchat lenses, generally simple augmented reality filters that Snapchat users apply to the videos they send each other.
With 134 grams, Spectacles is one of the most compact AR glasses of this type. The two optical waveguide clear displays have a brightness of 2,000 nits, so the image is clear outdoors in sunlight and other bright environments. A 15 millisecond delay from motion to photon isn’t perfect, but it’s close enough to make the experiences overall seem accurate and impressive. Users operate the glasses with a touchpad on the frame or with voice commands.
The cameras are used to capture images of the real world from the user’s point of view; Lenses are then applied and the finished video that combines the video recording with the virtual effects can be saved or published for other people.
This is the fourth generation of Snap’s Spectacles. The first two generations were just video recording devices, each with a single camera. Users would then apply effects to the videos on their phones. The third generation added a second camera to capture depth information, allowing for more sophisticated and accurate effects and filters, but they also didn’t have built-in displays, forcing users to visualize and apply lenses to their phones after the video was captured. . Until this iteration, users couldn’t see the effects through the glasses themselves.
Not ready for mass consumption
Unfortunately, as with so many early AR glasses, there are still many limitations. The field of view is quite small – you can see how limited it is if you watch the samples in the promotional video below. The concepts are neat, but they’re a long way from what AR enthusiasts dream we’ll eventually see.
Basics of optics, such as preserving étendue and others, pose a major challenge to a fully immersive field of view on practical sized lenses so close to the viewer’s eye. Significant improvements in this area are difficult to achieve without compromising other key design parameters to make AR glasses both practical and immersive.
Another challenge that companies with AR aspirations like Snap, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft or Google have to overcome is battery life; Snap’s Spectacles run out of juice after just 30 minutes of continuous use.
Most of the technologies used in the latest AR glasses have been around for years and with the exact same limitations. The most significant recent breakthroughs in AR have to do with software and cost, even as R&D teams continue to struggle with some of the same long-standing hardware hurdles — sometimes with modest progress, sometimes with almost none.
Some issues can be at least partially addressed by running the most demanding processing on a synced device, such as a smartphone, rather than on the glasses themselves. Apple’s recent focus on faster cellular chips for the iPhone could, among other things, provide the basis for running AR applications on an iPhone synced to a headset that does relatively little of its own processing.
For some AR devices, the limitations of processing power on the device are partly responsible for the small field of view, so that approach could alleviate the problem. But as noted, that’s not the only (if not the biggest) challenge to overcome when it comes to achieving a more immersive field of view or overcoming any of the other limitations of current glasses.
The potential of AR as a computing platform is clear, but it won’t reach the mass market until major breakthroughs happen. Investments are pouring in like never before, so those breakthroughs could very well come. But predicting how fast (or slow) that process will go is difficult.
The big players in AR are (slowly) getting going
Despite these hurdles, major tech companies like Facebook and Apple are all-in on AR. Facebook recently announced it is developing a wristband that will be used as an input device for its smart glasses, and the company is expected to launch smart glasses soon that will not have AR capabilities.
Apple executives have repeatedly stated that they believe augmented reality is an important part of Apple’s future, and it is believed that Dan Riccio, the company’s former head of hardware engineering, has recently stepped down from that role to fully focus on to focus on the development of mixed reality products.
These companies and others have one thing in common: either they firmly believe (like Apple CEO Tim Cook) that augmented reality glasses will eventually follow the smartphone as the world’s leading mobile computing platform, or they believe it will at the very least be a strong point is. Chances are they would be foolish not to hedge by investing heavily in the technology so as not to risk falling behind.
However, the aforementioned technical challenges and more mean we’re unlikely to see a turning point for AR goggles this year. Snap’s Spectacles aren’t going to change the landscape. Apple is rumored to be targeting a 2022 date for its first attempt at releasing a mixed-reality headset, but leaks suggest the company’s first mixed-reality product will likely be more focused on the developers who will create future apps and experiences than with end users.
While Facebook has repeatedly indicated that AR glasses are a huge focus for the company, a mass-market release is still a few years away. And even Snap CEO Evan Spiegel told The Verge that he believes AR glasses won’t become mainstream for a decade or so.
Snap’s new Spectacles appear to be primarily an early test run to attract the development and content creation talent that will play a part in refining the tools and experiences that will become the cornerstone of Snap’s AR ecosystem in that not-so-immediate future. Like previous generations of Spectacles, they also play a part in a marketing strategy to associate Snap’s products with influencers on social media; the first wave of Spectacles didn’t do much, but Snap enjoyed a lot of publicity because the content creators wore them prominently and publicly.
List image by Snap