When Google shipped its first Google Glass units to testers (“Explorers”) about a year ago, it promised we’d all soon find ourselves in a hands-free world. Most Americans, however, still aren’t sold (and forget about Europe). People think face computers look creepy, and are turned off by fears of crowdsourced surveillance.
Still, a number of companies think convincing people to buy smart glasses is just a matter of, um, framing. People just want them to be less obvious, less expensive, less complicated, or less goofy-looking. Here are nine companies trying to find a niche in head-mounted devices.
If you’re a construction superintendent, surgeon, or “prosumer,” Vuzix believes that its $1,000 monocle will streamline your workflow. Stylistically, the earpiece with a monitor extension looks a bit like an early Bluetooth headset, which means it will be popular with anyone who is oblivious to snickering co-workers.
The M100 actually debuted at last year’s Consumer Electronics Show, but is enjoying some positive chatter on Twitter from this year’s event. It runs Android and has ample onboard memory (32GB). On its own it takes HD pictures and can connect wirelessly to the internet. If you sync it with your phone, it can access your calendar and run most of your apps. The built-in GPS and array of sensors that know where you’re looking have the potential for interesting future applications. It’s light and compact, but the weight is all on one side, and the arm looks like something I wouldn’t want blocking my view if I were building skyscrapers, performing surgery, or ‘”prosuming.” At $1,000, the M100 is one of the most expensive Glass competitors.
Spaceglasses are for people who don’t think Google Glass is geeky enough. They look like a mix between a scuba mask and aviator shades. Each lens offers a 40 degree field of view with crisp 1280×720 resolution. The onboard Intel i5 processor runs on 4GB of RAM, and has a battery that lasts for hours. Like the M100, it’s not completely autonomous, and needs to sync up to your mobile device to do most things.
Meta has hedged its bets on geeks, and already has 500 native apps to prove it. Among the most provocative is a feature that lets you create objects with gestures and send them to a 3D printer. It’s provocative, especially now that the price for 3D printers is dropping. But are hand-sketched holograms really the future of drafting? Perhaps more interesting are the twin full-color cameras, which let you take stereoscopic video, for holographic playback.
iOptik is one of the most interesting Glass challengers, because it uses contact lenses to project data directly onto your eyeball. A pair of glasses is still necessary, but all they do is get the data from the web or your phone, and they don’t look like something out of a bad 1980s sci-fi film. The contact lenses put the screen into your near-field vision, which means your virtual world will follow the movement of your eyes. The lenses can also be filled to fit your prescription. Like the others, iOptik siphons its most useful applications by linking to a mobile device. There’s no price yet, since Innovega is waiting on approval from the US Food and Drug Administration before it can start manufacturing.
iOptik has been getting a huge CES buzz, though CES crowds tend to have a stronger palate for this kind of stuff, so it’s tough to say if that enthusiasm will translate into a real market share.
GlassUp is the face computer for social media addicts. What does it do? Not much yet, since the company is still prototyping. The Italian company’s CTO is a top-flight optical technician; his previous job was designing systems for air force pilot’s helmets, which alone makes them worth watching. Plus, it gets points for commitment: GlassUp has been in development since before Google ever announced Glass. What’s taking so long? Well, for one GlassUp isn’t rich: All its development so far has been funded by a $100,000 IndieGoGo campaign.
When finished, the company says its device will project social media updates, directions and emails from (you guessed it) your mobile device to your center of vision. The one thing it won’t do is take any kind of video. That’s right, there’s no camera, which might set GlassUp apart as the “non-intrusive smart headgear.” On the other hand, in a jostling market where, for some, cameras are just about the only feature (see below), that could be a downside, especially once people get used to being filmed all the time. If GlassUp can ever cross the finish line, and people decide that they don’t need an onboard camera, the final product could be a cheaper option ($400) for people interested in wearable tech.
Preferring style over substance, Epiphany decided to make a pair of Ray-Bans for Facebooking. Other than providing an app that lets you stream video to social media social, these glasses offer little more than a camera and ‘state-of-the-art’ lens-darkening. Epiphany’s creators may think they’ve found a way to capitalize on the popularity of photo-focused social apps like Vine and Instagram, and this could prove true. On the other hand, who wants to pay $399 for an app?
The AtheerOne is another crowdfunded darling. Its IndieGoGo campaign, which started in late December, has raised over $112,000 and counting. This is, of course, in addition to the $1.5 million in startup capital it recently raised (with another $4.6 million reportedly on the way).
AtheerLabs seems to be using one of Apple’s strategies: Attract developers early and corner the market with apps. Even without a product on the street, it already claims to have over 1 million apps. In reality, these are preexisting Android apps that will sync up once the final product is ready. Still, the company has been aggressively courting developers.
The glasses look like the roll-up visors your optometrist gives you after your eyes get dilated, and like most of the other offerings, they’re tethered (either by Bluetooth or USB cable) to your Android phone. Besides its decent price ($350), AtheerOne’s biggest draw will be its viewshed; according to the company’s website, using a pair of AtheerOnes will be like having a 26″ Android tablet hovering a foot and a half from your face.
Unlike Google, which has defined its market as “everyone!”, Recon’s Jet (warning: bad autoplay music) is aimed at athletes, and mostly cyclists. It’s also different because 1) It’s actually being sold in stores and 2) more cheaply ($599).
Recon Jet is a smart, lightweight and rugged tool. It has a 2-core 1Gz processor, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, GPS, HD camera and five sensors. The monocle is attached to a pair of sport glasses, but the weight is evenly distributed to both sides of your head. It’s not the most modest design, but cyclists tend to have a pretty high shame threshold, so that shouldn’t be a problem. Recon Instruments has gotten Intel to invest in it, and has alluded to some kind of deal with Apple. This could be significant, since Apple has been so far been poker-faced about its plans for wearables.
Besides Epson, no legacy tech company has announced a pair of smart glasses. The company’s BT-200 is a huge improvement over the BT-100, which looked like SkyMall’s knockoff of the Oculus Rift. The Moverio has a bunch of sensors (gyroscope, compass, accelerometer), a camera, Wi-Fi and onboard processor and memory, all of which give the Moverio the appearance of a bonafide augmented reality (AR) device.
However, it seems like Moverio’s engineers really just want you to sit there and watch movies. Maybe it’s the 960×540 HD resolution and Dolby Plus sound, or the MP4 playback support. But it’s probably more the fact that a remote control (which looks like a smartphone, but it’s not) controls all its functions. The point Epson missed is: If you have to look at your hands to use the computer on your face, then you don’t need to be wearing a computer on your face.
If XO Eye is right, the future of wearable tech isn’t in social networking; it’s in plain old working. Their safety glass-inspired device has all the same features as the other top-tier competitors (video, audio, network uplink), but all specifically geared for hands-on technical labor, in-field diagnostics, and clearer communications. XOne also runs a custom version of Linux—most smart glasses use Android—that will integrate better with the firewalls and protocols inside most business networks. The frames are sturdy (ANSI-certified) and stylish, and the processor is a step up from Glass. XOne should start shipping in the spring, and will cost between $400 and $600, with a $199 monthly fee.
XO Eye has zoomed in on a narrow, practical market, and this might be what ushers in the age of wearables. The biggest thing holding back smart glasses is that they are a major fashion risk. And people are more likely to take fashion risks if they can tell themselves that it’s for work.