Augmented Reality Headsets for Consumers

By Paul Mealy

Consumer-grade is a bit of a misnomer for most of the current augmented reality (AR) hardware solutions that you’ll find here (with notable exceptions such as Mira, ARKit, and ARCore). Most of the current generation of AR headsets focus their attention on enterprise-grade solutions. Additionally, many of the current generation of AR headsets are being sold in development mode, where preorder kits are available for developers but not at a scale for mass consumption.

Even as you read this, not all of the first generation of augmented reality hardware will have been released. It’s still very much a moving target to talk about. However, all the listed hardware devices in this section have at least reached a point in their development to be considered part of this first generation.

When researching augmented reality hardware, you may find many AR headsets released as beta or developer kits. This typically means the headsets are not currently ready for mass consumption. Hardware released in developer mode is targeted toward developers, often to create a base level of software before releasing for mass consumers.

Manufacturers know that a wide-scale release of their headsets without corresponding software would likely fail. Releasing headsets to developers enables manufacturers to not only work with and solicit input from power users of their devices directly, but also begin to build their marketplace from the ground up with apps created by the developers receiving the early releases of their devices.

AR Headsets: Microsoft HoloLens

The HoloLens is one of the higher-profile head-mounted displays (HMDs) on the market, in part due to Microsoft’s marketing clout. But marketing aside, the HoloLens has proven to be one of the most impressive first-generation HMDs and has gone a long way toward setting the standard for augmented reality headsets.

The HoloLens is a standalone headset that does not need to be connected to a desktop or laptop. Its built-in sensors map the environment around you for placing 3D holograms. It recognizes gestures and voice for user input. In the same way that visuals are overlaid on top of the real world, HoloLens has an onboard 3D speaker system instead of headphones that overlays augmented reality audio on top of real-world audio. This helps prevent the user from being closed off from the real world. If mapped correctly, the HoloLens also allows for occlusion of digital-world holograms by real-world physical objects. A holographic ball that rolls under a real-world table could disappear from sight, as if it were real.

Although the HoloLens is undoubtedly one of the benchmark AR headsets, there are still improvements to be made. The most common complaint about the HoloLens is its field of view (FOV). The tracking and visuals of the HoloLens are extremely impressive, but the smaller FOV can sometimes cut off the hologram you’re looking at, breaking immersion with the experience. FOV aside, the hardware is a bit bulky and not exactly subtle. Even with its size however, it manages to be a comfortable experience, packing an impressive amount of computing power into a wearable device.

Microsoft has loftier goals for their mixed-reality devices than most imagine. In an interview with Bloomberg, HoloLens inventor Alex Kipman claimed, “The phone is already dead. People just haven’t realized.” Kipman holds the belief that a mixed-reality device such as the HoloLens will one day replace all mobile phones. Looking at the current bulky form factor and high cost of most AR headsets, that may be a difficult future to imagine. However, with a rumored Apple AR standalone device, Microsoft’s HoloLens, and Google’s mixed-reality explorations with ARCore, that future may be closer than you think.

Looking forward, expect the next generation of HoloLens to dramatically improve the FOV. Microsoft has claimed that it already has a method to more than double the FOV of the current-generation HoloLens, putting it close to being on par with current-generation VR headsets. This will be a huge step in shoring up what many consider the current-generation HoloLens’s biggest weakness.

The future of the HoloLens may be mass consumption, but the current-generation price and FOV will be the main factors keeping it out of the hands of everyday consumers for now. However, the HoloLens is a good choice for any current enterprise-level AR experience. With Microsoft’s lofty goals, don’t be surprised by a mass consumer release of the HoloLens or similar device within a generation or two.

This image depicts a user’s visuals while inside the Microsoft HoloLens.

Microsoft Hololens
Used with permission from Microsoft
The Microsoft HoloLens in use.

 

AR Devices: Meta 2

The Meta 2 is an AR headset that can develop an environmental map of the physical world in which to display its 3D holograms. It also features hand tracking and gestures for navigation and uses reflected projections in front of a semi-transparent mirror to display holograms.

Meta broke away from HoloLens in one major category: Meta chose to tether the Meta 2 to a computer. According to Meta’s head of developer relations, this was a deliberate choice. Although this feature removes your ability to wander as freely through your environment, it offers more computing power and a larger FOV. The Meta 2 has a 90-degree FOV, almost as large as current-generation VR headsets and nearly three times as large as the HoloLens. This larger FOV helps position the Meta 2 as a device that could one day replace your traditional 2D screen.

The Meta 2 may be a good choice for your project if you require the extra power and wider FOV of the Meta 2 over the HoloLens and if your users will likely be mostly stationary (at a desk, for example). Similar to the HoloLens, the Meta 2 of this generation is considered an enterprise-level device, because not many consumers will have a Meta 2 available to them at this stage.

The image below depicts users’ visuals while working collaboratively with the Meta 2.

Meta 2 augmented reality
Courtesy of Meta
The Meta 2 being utilized collaboratively in design.

AR Devices: Magic Leap

Magic Leap has long remained in the shadows of the AR world, emerging now and again to drop an impressive new teaser video of its technology. The company’s products have been hidden from sight for seven years, and in that time Magic Leap has shown enough to investors to raise around $2 billion in funding and amass a company value of almost $6 billion. However, little was known about the final form factor of its product until the end of 2017, when Magic Leap revealed the Magic Leap One Creator Edition.

The Magic Leap One is composed of three separate components:

  • Lightwear: The display goggles worn on a user’s head
  • Lightpack: A pocket computer to power the visuals and accept input
  • Control: A six-degrees-of-freedom (6DoF) controller to allow input and haptic feedback to and from the system

The Magic Leap One is a standalone device that can be worn freely (like the HoloLens), but still needs to be tethered to its Lightpack computer (like the Meta 2). However, the small size of the Lightpack makes it clear that the Magic Leap One is intended for a more standalone, mobile experience than the Meta 2.

Similar to the HoloLens and Meta 2, the Magic Leap One has a number of onboard sensors to detect surfaces, planes, and other objects to allow for digitally mapping your physical environment. This should allow for robust object interaction with your environment (digital balls bouncing off your physical walls, virtual robots hiding under physical tables, and so on). Input is offered through the Control, but the Magic Leap system reportedly also supports a number of input modes such as voice, gesture, and eye tracking.

Owing in part to its computing brains being worn on a user’s belt or in his pocket, the Magic Leap One headset is smaller than either the HoloLens or Meta 2. Visually, it appears closer to the simple glasses many people imagine when they think of “future AR technology,” though the size is still bulkier than standard glasses. The FOV of the Magic Leap likely will fall somewhere between the smaller FOV of the HoloLens and the larger FOV of the Meta 2.

The Magic Leap system should be available to developers in 2018. Without a released product, it’s difficult to determine just what market the first-generation Magic Leap One may be appropriate for. However, if you’re consuming or developing for AR devices in 2018, the Magic Leap is a device not to overlook.

AR Devices: Mira Prism

The creators of the Mira Prism are taking a different approach to offering an affordable AR experience. Eschewing other AR headsets’ inclusion of an onboard computer to power their glasses, the Mira Prism instead will utilize a mobile device to power the AR experience. All you need is a compatible mobile device and the Prism headset, and you’re good to go.

The Prism is a clever solution to the cost problem that plagues many existing AR headsets. Most consumers are not comfortable spending upwards of $3,000 on a first-generation AR device with little consumer content available. Because the Prism is powered by your mobile device, the developer kit pricing for the headset hardware is only $99, a cost much more palatable to everyday consumers.

Many of the first-generation VR headsets approached this problem in the same way to great success. Google Cardboard, the Samsung Gear VR, and the Google Daydream are all examples of VR headsets that provide low-cost headset hardware that can be powered by a mobile device. The sales numbers of Cardboard, Daydream, and Gear VR far outstrip those of their more powerful but more expensive counterparts.

Mira looks to fill the market space between a mobile-device-only AR experience and the high-end standalone AR headsets. That market clearly existed for the VR world; Mira hopes to prove that the same market exists for AR experiences.

This image depicts the Mira Prism in use.

Mira Prism
Courtesy of Mira
The Mira Prism in use.

Apple ARKit and Google ARCore

Although not the sci-fi glasses most people have in mind when imagining the AR of the future, the way most users will experience AR for the first time is through their mobile devices. ARKit and ARCore were Apple’s and Google’s AR platforms targeted toward their iOS and Android base, respectively.

The baseline features of both ARKit and ARCore are similar. Both ARKit and ARCore provide motion/positional tracking for their digital holograms, environmental understanding to detect things such as horizontal planes in a scene, and light estimation to detect the amount of ambient light in a scene and adjust the visuals of their holograms accordingly. ARKit 1.5 updates include support for vertical surfaces (walls) and 2D images as well. ARCore is looking to follow suit. These features all work together to allow 3D holograms to be placed in space in a room and treated as if they exist within the environment with you.

Placing a virtual chess piece on the real-world table will make it appear (when viewed through your mobile device) as if the chess piece is on the table. Walk toward it, away from it, all around it — the virtual chess piece will still appear as if it is on the physical table.

Many current AR headsets use a type of projection for their visuals. This can lead to holograms that are never fully opaque but instead appear slightly transparent to the viewer. Because ARKit and ARCore are delivered integrated into the video feed of your mobile device, full opacity of your holograms is allowed. However, unlike many headsets, neither ARKit nor ARCore support a deep understanding of your environment. Occlusion is possible on these devices, but it’s far from perfect and it takes extra work to achieve.

Due to its tight control over both the hardware and software, ARKit may have some advantages between its hardware and software integration. Meanwhile, ARCore has shown a bit of an advantage in its environmental mapping. ARCore manages to store a much larger data map of its surroundings, which can lead to more stable mapping.

Deciding between ARKit and ARCore likely comes down to the hardware either you or your target market prefers. The features and limitations of both ARKit and ARCore are similar enough that neither has a distinguishable advantage over the other currently. If you or your market prefers Android devices, ARCore is the way to go. If you lean toward Apple, ARKit is your best solution.

The image below shows what a user sees in real life and in AR, with the app ARCore Solar System running on a Google Pixel device.

ASCore Solar System
ARCore Solar System on a Google Pixel.