On July 19, 2022, Google announced testing for new smart glasses with augmented reality technology. Inevitably, the question that has been rising in the tech industry since 2013—when Google launched their first smart glasses—returned: Will smart glasses replace smartphones?
Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg believes that smart glasses will replace smartphones by 2030. The inventor of the Microsoft Hololens, Alex Kipman agrees, and tells Bloomberg that “smartphones are dead,” but people don’t know it yet. Even top smartphone makers agree that something big is inevitably coming.
Nokia’s CEO Pekka Lundmark speaking at the World Economic Forum in Davos, said that 6G will be a reality by 2030, but users will not connect to it with their smartphones, they will connect with smart glasses, CNBC reported.
Glasses like Toshiba’s dynaEdge, Magic Leap One, Microsoft Hololens and Google’s Enterprise Glass Edition, have sold and performed well but mostly target the industrial and business sector. They are used in smart factories, to train technical workers, conduct inspections, run digital twins and are even worn by NASA Astronauts.
On the other hand, smart glasses that target the mass consumer public are slowly gaining traction. Glasses like the Lenovo ThinkReality A3, Amazon Echo Frames, Bose Frames, Snap Spectacles 3, Nreal Air glasses and the Oculus Quest 2—produced by Meta—are promoted as the gateway into the Metaverse. However, there are several technical and legal reasons why smart glasses have not been fully embraced by consumers.
Smart Glasses: Technical and Legal Challenges
Mounting a fully operational microcomputer on a pair of glasses is a journey filled with technical challenges. The processor chip and the hardware must be smaller than those inside a smartphone, yet stable and powerful enough to provide the data-heavy consumption features of augmented reality that even smartphones do not offer.
Additionally, battery size and duration, control options, connectivity, sound, video and especially microdisplays, prove to be main barriers holding back the tech from taking off.
On the other hand, smart glasses for personal use, have triggered controversies due to personal data tracking and abusing individual privacy rights by recording video, taking photos, or grabbing audio and other data without consent.
SEE: Artificial Intelligence Ethics Policy (Tech Republic Premium)
In September 2021, Meta’s Rayban smart glasses were flagged by the Italian and Irish privacy watchdogs DPC and Guarantor. The DPC and the Italian Data Protection Regulator demanded Meta to demonstrate how the smart glasses notify other people when it captures audio and video.
Amazon, Google, Meta and even Apple, have historically faced lawsuits due to privacy and data management. Legal processes in Europe have the power to pause or modify new products or services. Tech companies may even be ordered to cancel the launch of the product in the region.
Data and privacy policies continue to be in high demand by global consumers and there are several regulations in place to guarantee them. Companies developing smart glasses must meet the requirements set by laws like the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), an important European data protection and privacy law. And in the US they must also comply with federal and state data and privacy laws.
These complex technical, ethical and legal issues, are without a doubt putting a break on the massive adoption of smart glasses globally. It could also be one of the reasons why Apple has not yet revealed its smart glasses yet. The company from Cupertino could be perfecting its product to meet these challenges.
Google’s Metaverse: Reality versus Virtuality
Unlike Apple, Microsoft and especially Meta, Google’s Metaverse project has historically kept a low profile. However, recently the company began taking on a more aggressive approach to building the hardware and software behind their immersive reality experiences.
In December 2021, Google hired Mark Lucovsky—former Oculus-Meta OS general manager—as the senior director of the newly created operating system team for augmented reality. The team was built to develop the OS for what Google described as an “innovative augmented reality device.” Fast forward eight months and Google announced the testing of a new smart glass technology.
“Augmented reality is opening up new ways to interact with the world around us,” Google said in their announcement blog post. Google’s vision for the metaverse is one where “technology helps people conduct everyday tasks”.
Wearing these new smart glasses, users can get instant real-time translation when they have conversations in the real world through text overlaying in their line of sight. Google is also testing augmented reality navigation features for their new smartphones, and translating text apps, for example when a user reads a menu.
SEE: Metaverse cheat sheet: Everything you need to know (free PDF) (Tech Republic)
The new Google smart glass prototype is neither bulky nor heavy. It looks like normal glasses with an in-lens display and visual and audio sensors. The smart glass prototype is moving from lab testing to real-world testing to determine the limitations it has. Google also wants to know how real-world factors like weather or busy streets affect its AR experience.
A few dozen Googlers and trusted testers were selected for the small-scale testing. The prototypes include in-lens displays, microphones and cameras, but do not film, record or take photographs to avoid privacy issues linked to smart glasses.
Google explains that most images used during the experience are later deleted. Some image data may be stored for analysis and debugging, but sensitive content like faces and license plates are scrubbed. Like Meta’s Rayban smart glasses, this new Google prototype warns other users that the camera is active through a visible LED indicator mounted on the glasses’ frame.
Google seems to be moving toward an augmented reality metaverse, building digital features functional for everyday life on the foundations of reality. This sober metaverse vision contrasts heavily with the colorful virtual reality vision that Meta, Roblox, Decentraland and Microsoft, to name a few, are developing. If smart glasses are to replace smartphones they will surely have to provide the real-world functions that smartphones provide today, this gives augmented reality glasses a clear market advantage over virtual reality headsets.