Imagine the apps from your phone floating in front of you, reacting to your gestures as if you were Tom Cruise in Minority Report. You tap the map icon, and a translucent line zigzags through the streets ahead, directing you to your destination. Social media profiles hover above passers-by, and a video screen appears in your peripheral as your friend video calls you—they wish you a happy birthday, and hundreds of virtual balloons appear and lift into the air around you.  

Following the 2016 success of Pokemon Go, and the popularity of 3D avatars in smartphone video, Augmented Reality (AR) and Mixed Reality (MR) are driving the development of smart eyewear. AR and MR are two of the three Extended Realities—Virtual Reality replaces our view of reality, AR overlays our view with virtual graphics and information, and MR interweaves the virtual with the real world so they seem as one.

But how will smart eyewear change our lives? Six emerging trends show us what’s ahead.

1. Invisible Assistant

For everyday use, there are already many options to choose from that offer a choice of style, as well as being adaptable to prescription lenses, and aren’t too intrusive or distracting. Some, like Amazon’s Echo Frames, don’t have AR and simply provide information through sound and an integrated AI assistant, like Alexa. But AR-enabled eyewear, such as North’s Focal from Canada, offers a smartwatch experience in your view by displaying basic information like weather, messages, and notifications. The eyewear is controlled by voice, a touchpad on the arm of the eyewear, or an accompanying device, like the Focal’s control ring.

2. Task-specific

Rather than offering all AR features, task-specific eyewear focuses on one activity, from running or cycling or droning. The Raptor, by Everysight, offers video recording as well as personalised displays of maps and stats such as heart rate and speed. The Raptor also makes cycling more socially competitive by sharing stats between cyclists as they ride.

For drone enthusiasts, there’s the Moverio BT-300 drone edition, which displays the drone’s footage so you can keep it in sight while you control it with a companion handheld device.

3. Experimental

Snapchat’s Spectacles, from the UK, are in a class of their own. Although Spectacles don’t display AR elements, they focus on capturing memories as you experience them, recording 3D video and photos that you then add MR effects to, before sharing on Snapchat. While sharing is limited to Snapchat, Spectacles do give us a vision of what artists and storytellers might do with smart eyewear that allows AR experimentation.

4. Enhancing

From Zhongguancun, the Silicon Valley of Beijing, comes Nreal Light, a spatial computer utilising AI, and an industry-leading field of view, to provide a Mixed Reality experience. They’ve developed controller-free hand-tracking that allows you to interact with virtual objects. Enhance your reality by playing with 3D models, see how new furniture will look in your home before you buy it, or load up a floating browser to enjoy videos and social media. And by offloading the processing to a linked smartphone, Nreal claims it’s lightweight enough to be worn all day.

5. Enterprise

Two U.S. companies are investing in more practical applications for the business sector. With prices at over AUD$3000, their devices are pushing the boundaries of augmented living and working.

Microsoft’s Hololens is heavier than other eyewear with its inbuilt processing power, but the weight is balanced ergonomically, so it’s worn like a visor. Magic Leap’s wearable MR computer consists of bug-eyed goggles connected by a cord to a power pack worn on your belt, and a hand-control that allows the goggles to track your hand.

Both Magic Leap and Hololens track your head, hand, eye, and position, as well as real-world mapping, to create the most immersive experiences available, like having meetings with 3D avatars of remote participants while they all interact with the same virtual elements floating between them.

Google is also still in the game. After public resistance to the ‘privacy invasion’ of the in-built camera in its 2013 Glass eyewear, Google pulled Glass back into development and has since relaunched it as the Glass Enterprise Edition.

6. Gaming

Integrating the real world with virtual game elements unleashed from the phone screen will create a whole new gaming paradigm that will take gamers outside and have them interacting with things no one else can see. Imagine ninja assassins ambushing you on the way home from work, fire-breathing dragons plunging from the sky, and zombies crawling out from the ground. Augmented gaming is going to be ‘game-changing’.

What’s next?

With technology shrinking, more apps being developed, and companies like Apple and Facebook developing their own devices, AR/MR enabled smart eyewear could eventually replace smartphones, impacting every aspect of our lives from shopping, dining, traveling, dating, to medical and more. Combined with the development of smart lenses by companies like Mojo, the future of smart eyewear looks bright.

Or does it?

As with any new advancement in consumer technology, the hype and development of AR/MR are outpacing any research into potential effects on the mind or vision from prolonged exposure. When it comes to memories, the brain doesn’t differentiate between the virtual and the real. So, if the end goal for both business and consumer is to make the virtual as real possible, we might find ourselves struggling to discern reality from illusion. And the hyper-personalisation of our world view augmented by uber-realistic filters could exaggerate the tunnel vision and silo-thinking already exasperated by today’s social media.

Will smart eyewear and its extended realities open our eyes to a better world, or will it blind us to the real one? For now, we’ll just have to wait and see.

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Damien Lutz

Senior UX/UI Designer at Vodafone

Damien Lutz,
Senior UX/UI Designer at Vodafone

Damien Lutz is a Senior UX Designer for Vodafone and a contributor to Red Wire. He has published two science fiction novels, and his short stories have been included in several anthologies. Damien writes about future tech to explore its potential and pitfalls, and so he might design better human-machine experiences today.