Augmented Reality Devices: Features

By Paul Mealy

Unlike virtual reality, where manufacturers have generally been building toward a single form factor (a headset that covers the head/eyes, headphones, and a pair of controllers), augmented reality is still trying to find the form factor that suits it best. From glasses to headsets, from large tablets to mobile phones to projectors and heads-up displays (HUDs), augmented reality is available today in a number of different forms.

It’s entirely possible that any or all of these form factors will work well for augmented reality executions. It’s also possible that none of these is the right form factor for augmented reality, and that some other execution will be released and reign as the “best” way to experience it. (Augmented reality wearable contacts, perhaps?) Only time will tell, but in the meantime, users can evaluate some of the more popular executions available currently.

Because of the variety in augmented reality form factors, augmented reality experiences can’t be clearly separated into high/middle/low-end experiences. The current augmented reality experience is vastly different across each form factor, and each form factor serves a different market.

Augmented reality: Mobile devices

Although arguably on the low end of augmented reality experiences, mobile devices currently cover the largest market segment for augmented reality. Applications such as Snapchat, Instagram, Yelp, and Pokémon Go have all offered rudimentary forms of augmented reality for some time now, though most users may not have realized it. Every time you found yourself adding bunny ears to your image on Snapchat or found Pikachu cavorting in your local park, you were using a primitive form of augmented reality on mobile. The image below displays a user video (the real world) augmented with a digital overlay within Instagram.

augmented reality Instagram
Augmented reality at use in Instagram.

Though building augmented reality experiences on mobile devices was possible in the past, the release of ARKit and ARCore made doing so much easier for developers. ARKit and ARCore are the underlying development packages for building AR-based applications for iOS and Android, respectively. They have a similar feature set focused around making the digital holograms placed into a user’s environment simple for developers, and making these holograms appear more real to the end user — features such as plane detection (to allow objects to be placed correctly in space) or ambient light estimation (which detects the lighting of the real world and allows developers to mimic that lighting on their digital holograms).

ARKit and ARCore are not hardware devices; they’re software development packages that developers use to write applications for specific hardware. They interact with iOS and Android devices, but neither technology is hardware itself, and that’s a good thing. Instead of having to purchase a separate device to experience Apple’s and Google’s augmented reality mobile implementations, you can experience it using your existing mobile device, provided it meets ARCore or ARKit minimum technical requirements.

Augmented reality headsets

Mobile is the entry point for many augmented reality users, but it offers arguably the lowest-end experience. The form factor of mobile can make for an awkward user experience. A user is required to constantly hold a device and capture the image of the physical world, onto which the digital augmentation is overlaid. Plus, the form factors of current mobile devices provide only a small window (the size of the screen) into the combined real and digital world, far smaller than a user’s full field of view.

A headset can provide a much more immersive user experience for augmented reality applications. Some examples include the Microsoft HoloLens, the Meta 2, and the Magic Leap. This brings us to the first hiccup regarding augmented reality headsets — and speaks to just how far behind augmented reality headsets are in their development cycle compared to VR headsets as of this writing.

Although those three devices are probably the three most well-known augmented reality headsets, none of them is truly a mass consumer device just yet. The HoloLens is available now, but it’s marketed to businesses and enterprises, not consumers. The Meta 2 is available now, but only as a developer kit, not a full release. And though much has been made of Magic Leap and its impressive team and investor group, as of this writing, the Creator Edition of its headsets have yet to ship to developers (though Magic Leap has announced a ship date of 2018).

Meta 2 augmented reality
Courtesy of Meta
A user navigating Meta 2 digital holograms via hand gestures.

At a high level, many augmented reality headsets appear to be taking the form of large headbands or helmets with a translucent visor attached to the front. The headset projects images onto the surface of the goggles to overlay reality with digital content. The Magic Leap One takes a slightly different approach; the form factor of a pair of goggles and light fields to display content to its users.

Some headsets (such as HoloLens) are entirely self-contained units, offering much more freedom of movement at the cost of processing power. Others (such as Meta 2) keep you tethered to a computer to power the experience, sacrificing movement for the processing power a desktop PC can offer. The Magic Leap One exists as a bridge between the two, requiring tethering to a Lightpack (a small wearable computer) to power its Lightwear goggles.

Windows Mixed Reality headsets could be an interesting addition to this group. With its approach to virtual reality and augmented reality, Microsoft seems to be pointing to the belief that the experience of virtual reality and augmented reality will eventually blend together. Instead of projecting onto a translucent lens, as the HoloLens and Meta 2 do, the current Windows Mixed Reality headsets include front-facing cameras that could conceivably function as a pass-through for an augmented reality experience.

However, such functionality is not yet in place. As of this writing, the Windows Mixed Reality headsets function only as VR devices, with no augmented reality features. Microsoft’s naming and positioning seem to signal that these devices will eventually function as more than just virtual reality headsets, but only time will tell if that is, indeed, the case.

The table below compares the “big three” headsets in augmented reality. As you can see, there currently aren’t hard specs for Magic Leap’s final form factor versus the more established headsets of Microsoft and Meta.

Augmented Reality Headset Comparison
Microsoft HoloLens Meta 2 Magic Leap
Platform Windows Proprietary Lumin (proprietary)
Standalone Yes (wireless) No (wired to PC) Requires wearable Lightpack computer
Field of view Unknown (35 degrees) 90 degrees Unknown
Resolution 1,268 x 720 2,560 x 1,440 Unknown
Headset weight 1.2 pounds 1.1 pounds Unknown
Refresh rate 60 Hz 60 Hz Unknown
Interaction Hand gestures, voice, clicker Hand gestures and positional tracking sensors, traditional input (mouse) Control (handheld 6DoF controller), others

The current generation of augmented reality headsets offers the best augmented reality experience available at the moment, but they’re interim solutions. No one is quite sure what the end form factor of augmented reality will look like. That title could perhaps belong to a combined headset, as Windows hopes with Windows Mixed Reality, or perhaps a form such as augmented reality glasses.

Augmented reality glasses

In the near future, the best way of experiencing augmented reality may be a simple pair of glasses. Both HoloLens and Meta 2 are currently more along the lines of large visors; there has yet to be a convincing release of augmented reality glasses. Magic Leap One gets us closer, but it’s still a fairly bulky pair of goggles. Google Glass and the recently released Intel Vaunt are the best-known examples of a simple augmented reality glasses execution.

However, the current execution of glasses such as Google Glass are little more than a wearable HUD. They lack the large field of view, graphical capabilities, and ability to “place” digital content in the physical environment, and they have extremely limited resolution and very little interactivity. The image below depicts someone using the touchpad on the side of his Google Glass to swipe through a timeline of content displayed onscreen, contained in the small mirror in front of the user’s eye.

Google Glass augmented reality
Courtesy of Loic Le Meur under a Creative Commons license
Google Glass Explorer Edition.

Although interesting in their own right, HUDs like Google Glass are often not considered true augmented reality devices. With the release of ARKit and Apple CEO Tim Cook’s praise of augmented reality as the future of technology, speculation abounds about Apple’s plans to produce its own pair of augmented reality glasses. This has yet to be confirmed by Apple. For the time being, augmented reality content availability is limited to mobile-device augmented reality and a small number of augmented reality headsets.