What Are Smart Glasses and Are They Still Happening?
Many gadgets nowadays come in a “smart” variety. Whereas the concept of a smartphone used to be novel and strange, today devices like smart TVs, smart watches, and even smart fridges are commonplace.
When the concept of smart glasses started to gain footing in the technology community, it seemed like a natural progression. Despite the efforts of many major companies, however, smart glasses have never enjoyed mainstream adoption. Though the devices themselves have a lot to offer, a lot of people have been left wondering what the devices actually do and whether or not they add functions that smartphones and smart watches do not.
Let’s take a look at the history of smart glasses, from their virtual reality origins to the challenges and opportunities of the present day.
What are smart glasses and how do they work?
Although the term “smart glasses” is somewhat broad, there are certain features that unite these devices across a range of price points. Smart glasses are a form of wearable technology, similar to a smart watch, that aim to integrate your digital world with your real-world environment. For some companies, the goal is to get users to be more present in the environment they’re interacting with rather than looking down at their phone or tablet.
Smart glasses can contain a variety of different features that serve this purpose. Smart glasses, for example, often contain a miniature screen that displays digital data while not obstructing your view of the environment around you. They may also have an audio playback function, which works not through your ears but through the novel method of bone conduction. Voice control, available on some smart glasses, allows you to search for information, navigate around a city, or control audio playback hands-free.
While some models of smart glasses are prescription-based, others are not. Just as smart glasses come at price points of a couple hundred to several thousand, they also come in different varieties to suit both those who wear glasses to aid their vision and those who want a pair of smart glasses just as an accessory.
A brief history of smart glasses
Like many great inventions, smart glasses were imagined in science fiction before they became a viable technology. Looking back to the VISOR (Visual Instrument and Sensory Organ Replacement) device of Star Trek fame or the augmented reality universe in William Gibson’s Neuromancer, it’s clear that the idea of wearable technology to improve and expand one’s vision is not a new one.
As for the technology that proceeded smart glasses, there are a couple of pioneering examples that demonstrate the idea’s development. Often named as the first virtual reality headset is the Sword of Damocles, a device developed by Ivan Sutherland and his student Bob Sproull.
Its design is heavy and clunky by today’s standards, so much so that it is less a pair of glasses than a helmet that hangs from the ceiling, but it was innovative in producing 3D graphics. The KARMA system developed at Columbia University in the 1990s represents another step forward, being the first headset to overlay graphics on a real-world environment.
The first pair of smart glasses as we understand the term today, however, would be Google Glass, first launched in 2013. Other tech companies soon followed Google’s lead and launched their own pair of smart glasses, leading to Microsoft’s HoloLens and Meta smart glasses.
Challenges and opportunities: the future of smart glasses
As visionary as smart glasses were, they brought with them some unique challenges inherent to their utility and design. As a wearable device meant to rest on a person’s face like a regular pair of glasses, smart glasses must be light enough for comfort throughout the day.
This factor conflicts, however, with the need to include as large and powerful a battery as possible to power battery draining tasks like real-time navigation. Because of this tension, smart glasses tend to have a battery life problem. For most users, a device’s utility isn’t worth much if it can’t go the entire day without being charged.
The tension between lightness and battery power also tends to leave an important aspect of design overlooked: aesthetics. For a device intended to be worn on a regular basis, it has to be aesthetically pleasing to convince people to use it. In that department, a lot of smart glasses have struggled to find a balance, though collaborations like Meta’s partnership with Ray-Ban for their Meta smart glasses have indicated that things may be moving in the right direction.
Another challenge for companies who sell smart glasses is marketing. Some consumers have complained that they fail to see the difference between smart glasses and a smart watch, for example, a device that is significantly less of a nuisance to wear all day. Google recognized this by launching a new product, Google Glass Enterprise Edition, which aimed to reach a target audience of manufacturing, logistics, and healthcare professionals.
Despite their best intentions, it seems that they were unable to capture the right niche, as the Glass Enterprise Edition stopped being sold in March 2023 and lost official Google support in November 2023.
The best pair of smart glasses should balance a long list of competing priorities, including battery life, weight, and aesthetics. This is much easier said than done, given the inherent difficulties present in the technology.
However, if a company manages to ace its product design and market it to just the right consumer, smart glasses may one day become the ubiquitous device techies have dreamed of for decades.
There are still a lot of opportunities to improve upon the technology and expand its appeal. The OPPO Air Glass is a great example of what could be, with its simultaneous translation function that permits real-time interpretation between Mandarin Chinese and English.
With updates intended to support Mandarin Chinese-Korean and Mandarin Chinese-Japanese in the future, the OPPO Air Glass is stretching the boundaries of smart glasses and adding useful functionalities that truly attract users.
The example of Snapchat’s Spectacles is also instructive. In the age of TikTok, a device that caters and markets to content creators on the platform could be a major hit.
In the end, the device that makes its way into the mainstream will be the device that knows its audience and is bold enough to cater to it.
Matthew is a freelance content writer whose work has previously appeared in well-known language-learning blog Fluent in 3 Months and The Happy Self-Publisher. His creative work has also appeared in Otoliths, CafeLit, and the Eunoia Review. He is currently based in Taipei, Taiwan, where he is studying for a master's degree in Chinese Literature.