Epson_Moverio_BT-200_2

Wearable devices have reached a fever pitch here at NGRAIN. Our Vancouver office is starting to look a bit like a scene out of a sci-fi R&D lab – add our new Epson Moverio BT-200 glasses (or “see-through mobile viewer,” as Epson calls them) to Google Glass, Oculus Rift, and other wearable displays we’ve been working with over the last year, and the only missing pieces are the white lab coats (we prefer t-shirts and jeans).

Though we use them for R&D, many of us (me included) always take new devices home over the weekend just to see how well they work under extended use (my inner geek approves of this). It definitely keeps us honest about what will make these devices and others like them effective as we bring them to our customers for augmented reality across industrial or enterprise settings. Here are some of the things we’ve learned:

1. There’s nothing “smart” about “smart glasses” out of the box

The popular press has coined the term “smart glasses” to refer to just about any portable see-through display. In reality, “smart glasses” are just displays like miniature computer monitors or mobile screens. Some will have cameras and tilt sensors, but all of them as of right now are only capable of displaying over a limited field of view with limited display resolution. With the exception of being hands-free, your mobile phone or tablet can do everything smart glasses can, only better. To be clear, I’m not saying wearable displays aren’t viable yet – just that expectations have to be managed accordingly. Taking hardware like the BT-200s and transforming them into deployment devices worthy of use in an industrial or enterprise setting is not yet an “out-of-the-box” experience.

2. “See-through” is a relative term

There isn’t yet an operational definition for what it means for a wearable display to be “see-through.” Some wearable displays, like Google Glass have displays that are designed to be offset from your principal field of view, so you only look at the display when you need to interact with it and it otherwise “gets out of your way” so-to-speak. Others, like the BT-200 sit squarely in the middle of your field of view, so whatever is being displayed is always front and centre. Wearables can be monocular (like Glass) or binocular (like the BT-200). The right choice for your workforce will likely come down to your use cases, the nature of your working environment, operational considerations, as well as personal preference. It could be distracting to not be able to “see through” what is being displayed if you work in an environment where you need to be fully aware of your surroundings.

3. Wearable displays are not “one size fits all” devices

One thing with the BT-200 is how it accommodates side-by-side display across two eyes. Inter-ocular separation, or the distance between the left eye and right eye can differ significantly from person to person. In the case of the BT-200, it looks like the hardware was designed with an “average” separation distance in mind. For me personally, the display separation is too wide, leading me to see frame distortions from the left eye projection and only a limited view from the right eye display. Knowing that such differences could be common among your workforce is something to consider – you may want hardware that can be adjusted, otherwise a significant portion of those using the device may find it more annoying than useful.

4. Today, smart glasses are really intended to be “occasional wear”

Check out any number of reviews on the Web, and battery life will inevitably come up as a discussion point. On a good day, Google Glass might last 3-4 hours before needing a recharge. The Epson BT-200s are rated to last a full six hours, but this is also dependent on the brightness of the screen and how resource intensive your apps are. Even if battery life is set aside, it can be outright uncomfortable to wear glass displays for an extended period of time. They often weigh significantly more than a pair of sunglasses (think more like goggles, not including whatever the glasses might be tethered to for actual computing), and can run uncomfortably hot if they are being used to their fullest or happen to embed a wireless antenna of some kind. At least for now, glasses may need to be thought of as technology that is “worn as needed,” much in the same way that mobile phones or tablets are used.

5. Apps and content will be what ultimately make smart glasses invaluable

Many signs indicate that software and platforms could be even more important than the evolution of hardware in the adoption of wearable technology across the enterprise. With access to the right data and capabilities to visualize that data in real-time, we see enormous opportunities to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of people, industrial machinery, and the interactions between them. Smart glasses and wearable displays, like any other mobile technology, are just one part of an entire ecosystem of interconnected technologies that has to be designed and implemented to meet business needs. Our customers are constantly telling us that what excites them most about AR is not (just) the technology, but the vision for putting data and content in the hands of people at the right time and place so decisions can be made on-demand.

It’s also worth pointing out that not every “wearable display” is truly capable of augmented reality. In its current form, Google Glass really is more of a “wearable computing experience” than it is an “augmented reality experience,” though sometimes the two are used interchangeably. A critical element of AR is combining computer graphics content with the real world, such as overlaying 3D models on top of a real world piece of machinery. Keeping up with the latest on Twitter on a wearable device isn’t really AR, and we’ve found Glass to be limited in its ability to render graphics in real-time.

Where does that leave those of us who are looking to create immersive next-gen AR experiences for the enterprise? There are a couple of reasons to be upbeat and excited for this wave of wearables: first, the technology is evolving really fast. For example, the BT-200s are 60% lighter than the BT-100s from just a year ago, and they include an integrated camera and sensors, all of which didn’t exist in the previous year’s edition. Second, much of the software and tooling necessary to create enterprise apps and content already exists, and much of that leverages existing platforms. At NGRAIN, we’re able to leverage our core 3D platform, which enables straight-through deployment to mobile devices and tablets to create AR experiences for wearables without writing any code and deploying it out with a single click.

Here at our office in Vancouver, it’s really exciting to see how AR is getting more accessible each and every day. I can’t wait to see what’s next.

How do you see wearable augmented reality fitting into your business? Let me know @barryp on Twitter, or drop me a line!