The molding or overlaying of the physical world with information or other interactive elements is not new. It has been slowly encroaching on our lives, both at home and work, for a number of years. In its simplest form, augmented reality (AR) can include the humble heads up display available in some vehicles showing speed, direction, or mapping. The projection of a clock face onto a wall, the use of interactive white boards in the office, and performance sports lenses putting activity metrics into your field of vision. These are all the simplest of augmentation and are not new.
We are seeing increased automotive developments, as an example light weight gorilla glass featuring AR capabilities has been demonstrated at various events this year (2017). These advancements push more information into the field of vision for both driver and passenger alike. Automotive manufacturers are embracing this technology, with many likely to have options that include AR capable windscreens. Safety, as it has always been, will be a major driver behind this continued development. Imagine all new vehicles featuring collision avoidance by seeing beyond the headlights in the dark, or through thick fog. It is an evolutionary step before we see autonomous vehicles take over.
More extensive use of the technology has of course been in research and the military. Flight helmets, for example, have long had elements of AR showing aircraft statistics, navigation, and weapon system information. These military uses of the technology have considerably increased levels of augmentation over consumer products. These helmets are interacting with aspects of the physical environment beyond just simple information display.
Unfortunately, mass adoption of this technology as a wearable experience has been limited for one main reason—size.
Miniaturization into standard eye glasses is already occurring and it has made considerable progress
The majority of products utilizing this technology has limited its application to areas involving devices where power, bulk, and weight is not a major concern; automotive, aircraft, and high-end sports equipment to name a few.
Wearing a mixed reality (MR) capable helmet whilst riding a motorcycle might be considered suitable; after all, it will likely improve the safety of the rider through improved obstacle identification and warnings. Given the other primary safety benefit of the helmet itself, such a use therefore makes sense. Wandering around the street, home, office space, or even driving a motor vehicle wearing such a helmet is unlikely to be appealing or even permitted by law in most cases. The miniaturization of the technology will be absolutely key to widespread adoption.
Making these devices smaller is occurring however. The Google Glass prototype was an example of such a first step. Though its ability to fully augment the real world was limited due to the size of its display, Glass was mostly characterized as a tiny wearable computer as a consequence rather than a genuine AR device. The Microsoft HoloLens, albeit a might larger, is a further evolution providing more than just the simple heads up display. With the HoloLens, a true form of MR is able to be achieved where genuinely interactive elements are added to our physical world. The HoloLens is not yet small enough to be wearing it for day-to-day activities.
Miniaturization into standard eye glasses is already occurring and it has made considerable progress. Unfortunately, it will still be a number of years yet before we see the widespread availability of wearable devices as small and compact as contact lenses. The required technology in battery, or wireless power and the required computing power at such a nano-scale are all still many years of development away.
When that day of miniaturization does come, and it will come, we will be experiencing a truly augmented world, from the time we wake in the morning until the time we retire in the evening. Our knowledge of our environment will increase with data and information being visualized. Our safety will improve through obstacle or danger detection whilst walking, exercising, driving, or travelling. Our ability to recognize people, you will never forget a face again, identify facial expressions, and understand the mood or direction of interactions with others will be enhanced. We will be introduced to new data driven real-time business decision making experiences in and out of the board room.
Even the most innocuous of activities, cooking in the kitchen, hiking in the mountains, providing first responder aid in a crisis, are all examples that will be radically enhanced from the connected capability of miniaturized MR. Our beyond reality journey is just beginning.