When Google officially unveiled Project Glass — the company’s bid to develop Terminator-style augmented-reality glasses — we saw a provocative glimpse of the future. The video Google released yesterday showed us the point of view of someone wearing the glasses, with icons, maps and other graphical overlays appearing over the user’s complete field of vision.
Accompanying photos, meanwhile, showed us how the new glasses might look — but the glasses weren’t really glasses. Instead, we saw a system that lacked full lenses, and included just a small, rectangular pieces of glass hovering over the wearer’s right eye.
If anything, the system in the photos looks similar to what Recon does with its head-up-display snowboarding goggles: Data overlays don’t consume one’s entire field of vision. Rather, small bits of data appear only in one’s peripheral vision.
So where is Google really going with Project Glass? The hardware that appears in the photos doesn’t appear capable of delivering the augmented-reality experience we see in the video. Is Google working on two different delivery systems? Or is the company going with a Recon-style approach, but released a video that over-reaches?
We asked Google for specifics, and were told in an e-mail, “We aren’t prepared to put additional information on the record at this time.”
However, according to Pranav Mistry, an MIT Media Lab researcher and one of the inventors of the SixthSense wearable computing system, “The small screen seen in the photos cannot give the experience the video is showing.”
Blair MacIntyre, director of the Augmented Environments Lab at Georgia Tech, concurs: “You could not do AR with a display like this. The small field of view, and placement off to the side, would result in an experience where the content is rarely on the display and hard to discover and interact with. But it’s a fine size and structure for a small head-up display.”
Mistry does point out that the Project Glass demo is a concept video. But MacIntyre believes Google may have set the bar too high for itself. “In one simple fake video,” MacIntyre told Wired, “Google has created a level of over-hype and over-expectation that their hardware cannot possibly live up to.”
“Some of what I find a little annoying about the video is that they staged all these things such that as when these notifications come to the middle of the screen, the person is looking at the thing it’s referring too,” MacIntyre said. “Is it augmented realty, or is it location-based notifications? It’s going to generate ideas in people and expectations that just might not match.”
Even if Google is able to deliver the goods, says Mistry, we won’t see the glasses on the market for at least two years. Most of this has to do with limitations in current mobile display technology. “Current HUDs utilize a fixed lens distance of two feet,” he says. “For true augmented reality, the display would have to dynamically focus, which would require additional hardware on the glasses to read your eye.”
MacIntyre brings up another issue. He’s found that in his own Georgia Tech research, it’s difficult to create a transparent display that renders viewable overlays both indoors and outdoors. “The brightness difference between inside your bright office and outside on a bright day is multiple orders of magnitude,” he says.
In other words, a display bearing overlaid graphics that performs well indoors would be washed out when the user encounters the brightness of the outside world. Because of such huge differences in ambient lighting, MacIntyre says creating a display that can handle multiple environments will be difficult. “You wouldn’t be able to accomplish it by just changing the brightness,” he says.
Google’s public posting on Project Glass couches the technology in incredibly vague terms: “So we took a few design photos to show what this technology could look like and created a video to demonstrate what it might enable you to do.” Nonetheless, if Google is unable to deliver on most of what the video shows, all the research in the world won’t stop consumers uttering the worst word in the technology world: vaporware.