Rokid Air this month released their long-anticipated augmented reality (AR) glasses but, surprisingly, the glasses make a far better head-mounted display even though they contain the sensors needed for AR. What makes the difference between good AR glasses and a good head-mounted display is their use. AR glasses are intended to blend virtual elements with reality so that virtual elements look like they should if they were physically in the room with you. No product does this well. Most AR glasses, at best, provide a ghost-like image of the virtual element, which is fine for training, manufacturing, and repair work, but less than ideal for entertainment. The best head-mounted displays are occluded, high-resolution virtual monitors in front of your eyes, and that is what Rokid Air’s product currently does well.
This technology can make a huge difference by eliminating traditional PC and smartphone displays and potentially changing dramatically the evolution of both classes of products by merging them.
Let’s explore how head-mounted displays could change the smartphone and PC landscape this week using these new Rokid Air AR Glasses as an example.
Sony’s Early 2000 Effort
Back in the early 2000s, Sony sent me a head-mounted display that was marketed to doctors for training and telemedicine. A doctor wearing the glasses could remotely view an operation that was being filmed and provide direction to the surgeon doing the operation or use the glasses to review the operating procedure in the moments before having to begin the surgery. These were not AR glasses, though they had the ability to change the level of transparency in the display so you could both see content and whatever, or in this case, whomever you were working on.
The Sony glasses cost over $20K, making them way too expensive for entertainment, but given I wasn’t a doctor, I used them to watch movies and play video games. While I had them, I visited a LAN Party (groups of people playing competitive video games over a local area network), and they were a huge hit. Players had to lug in CRT monitors and tower computers to play, so the concept of swapping out a monitor that could weigh upwards of 100 lbs. with a pair of glasses that weighed only ounces really excited the audience. The $20K price was a significant deterrent, however.
The display resolution was low, making them unsuitable for reading documents or doing word processing, but watching movies was great on planes. I recall a flight attendant thinking I was with the CIA, which made for a great story. Overall, I found that people liked the concept, it was useful, but the cost and performance made the glasses unable to become a true monitor replacement.
The Rokid Air glasses, costing under $500 with true HD (1920 x 1080 for each eye) performance, are far better than those old Sony glasses were. They pull power from the source, so they don’t need batteries, they have optical adjustments which should preclude the need for corrective lenses when using them, and they can push out up to 1,800 nits of light, making them useful outdoors. Text is clear, and I found I could read a book with them, though it would be nice if I could reposition the image as one of the lower corners tended to drop out of view. The refresh cycle is 60 Hz which is adequate for both work and some gaming, and like the Sony glasses, these work well for video content.
If you use the Rokid Air app, your phone turns into a big touchpad, and if you don’t, the glasses work as an external mirrored monitor. They could be ideal for use on a plane where you don’t want anyone else to see what you are doing. They do have sensors (enhanced 9-axis IMU, magnetometer) and a sensor fusion scheme (proximity sensor) for AR, but I would need an app that supports these glasses for that to work, and I haven’t found one yet (I haven’t looked that hard, though, because I’m mostly interested in these as a head-mounted display).
The screen moderately occludes in that, if you look hard, you can see through the content on the glasses around you. Typing while wearing them is a bit like wearing bifocals in that you can gaze below the displayed image and see your hands. I don’t wear bifocals, so there was a bit of a learning curve to doing real work, but they worked fine for browsing the web or using Netflix, YouTube, or Amazon Prime. They also have a noise-canceling microphone and speakers. I found that using voice commands, when those commands worked, to be a better way of inputting text than typing. This last suggests these would be far better for those using advanced speech-to-text tools.
Like many, I believe we are moving to a time when we’ll favor head-mounted displays over monitors due to their advantages in portability, privacy and their ability to provide a big-screen experience in a small package. The Rokid Air AR glasses are the best head-mounted display effort I’ve yet seen, but for them to fulfill their AR objective, they’ll likely need cameras for positioning the AR objects and an AR tool that will use them. For now, they are most useful as a head-mounted display which is where the greater need is.
We are at the forefront of a major evolutionary change in smartphones and PCs, which, I think, will be enabled by head-mounted displays. These Rokid Air glasses confirm the potential for this revolutionary evolution.
In short, this week, I saw a bit of the future for PCs and smartphones, and it is looking both bright and very different than the present, thanks to Rokid Air’s AR glasses.