Augmented Reality has been in development for decades. From a computer and gyroscope in a backpack in the 2000s to Snapchat filters of today, AR has advanced quite a bit. Recent advances in different technologies promise a future where AR can be a part of everyday life.
The term Augmented Reality refers to any interactive experience where the real world is enhanced with virtual information. The cat ears filter on social media is an AR experience we all know of. While the current popular use remains in social media and gaming, the technology is also being used by military, industrial manufacturers, architects, educators and many others. As the development of a wearable device with mass appeal becomes a priority, laser technology might be the key for the future of AR.
Like any new technology, AR has been through its ups and downs over the decades. The advances during the 70s until 90s finally created the first functional AR system in 1992 at the US Air Force Armstrong Laboratory. With the crucial breakthrough achieved, private players entered the scene and came up with their own AR experiences for entertainment and gaming industries. The AR experiences provided during these times weren’t up to the mark and didn’t perform well in the market.
AR saw a rise in interest again when Google came up with its Google Glass in 2014 but again the bulky wearable wasn’t able to find buyers. Intel’s Vaunt glasses in 2018 did better on this front. Using VCSEL, a low-power laser projection system, Vaunt was more of a proof of concept than a marketable product. While it had plans to develop Vaunt further, it ended up shutting the whole project down citing market dynamics. One more big player had given up on AI. Focals by North were the best of both worlds when they started serving people in 2019. They looked like normal glasses and even had a UI integrated with Alexa but the high-level of customization was an issue. North is now under Google’s tent.
The advances achieved by Google, Intel, North and all other companies have played a big role in furthering AR technology. Although these products failed to find enough consumers to succeed, the reason was comfort and not the AR experience. Creating AR glasses that are comfortable, ready-to-wear, and feature loaded is the goal in front of the companies and innovators.
The failures of many AR glasses projects haven’t stopped companies from investing in research and development. Glasses, projection systems and hardware for the overall system have been improving and becoming smaller over the years. Focals by North is a good example of how close AR glasses tech is to becoming an everyday wearable like the Apple Watch. Many companies have released AR audio glasses which might be a great step that can act like a bridge to the full-featured AR glasses.
The current visual AR glasses use LBS (Laser Beam Scanning) projection which uses low power and has a small size. LBS projects high-quality images and remains the most suitable tech for AR glasses. To develop LBS for AR systems a group of European companies have founded the LaSAR alliance. The alliance has already created a working proof of concept with multiple companies contributing to the system. Keep an eye out for the next stages of this project as this might prove to be revolutionary for Augmented Reality.
Better LBS projection, optics and overall systems are promising but AR revolution will be far until they are perfected. This remains the major challenge in front of AR glass makers. LBS also has issues like aberrations, speckle, unwanted polarization, flicker and clipping. These issues are being solved with high-speed lasers, shorter cavity lengths, multi-ridge channels and improved packaging.
While the technology is being worked on, companies will also have to make sure the price tag on new AR glasses doesn’t scare people off. Today, the wearables market is highly competitive and AR glasses will have to challenge the smartwatches. To be competitive, companies will have to use global supply chains. AR’s future will have to be one where a small startup sources the LBS projection system from OSRAM, optics from EKSMA Optics and outsources the manufacturing to China.
From a realistic point of view, mass production of AR glasses might still be years away if not more than a decade. Still, technology develops at exponential speeds, and companies have all the reasons to be optimistic about it. Better AR technology can change how multiple industries operate. The multiple challenges might prove to be opportunities for companies. If the advances keep taking place regularly, consumers won’t have to wait too long before wearing AR glasses and see more than what is out there!
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