AR and VR have different use cases, technologies and market opportunities. While VR is completely immersive, with the user entering a virtual world via a headset which cannot be seen through, AR overlays digital imagery onto the real world.
AR, when combined with wearable technology, can offer a hands-free computing environment that gives users a greater level of interaction between digital information and the real world. And AR is not just for gamers or consumers, it is aimed squarely at technical and skilled workers from engineers to architects.
AR is forecast to go well beyond ‘Google Glass’ by enabling increased collaboration between AR/VR and IoT developers. If VR is about visualisation and IoT about connectivity, AR is about blending our digital capabilities with the physical world.
Industry is already one of the strongest adopters of AR, leading to some reconsidering product plans. In fact, many businesses are expected to soon place smart glasses at the core of their IoT systems, as they look to make workers more productive and to streamline their backend operations.
Valerie Riffaud-Cangelosi, new markets development manager at Epson, says: “Deploying AR will enable more efficient processes by enhancing the reality of the user, so they’ll be able, for example, to maintain an engine or a complex electrical board in an intuitive and easy way. They’ll be able to see inside the device and act on the information there and then.
“Epson unveiled its first AR product – the Moverio BT-100 – six years ago. Today, our BT-300 smart glasses offer video and access to new AR experiences for a variety of commercial and vertical market applications.”
The Moverio BT-300, unveiled at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, 2016, employs a variety of technologies and can project in-line digital content into the wearer’s field of view.
According to Riffaud-Cangelosi, the most significant advance with the BT-300 is a proprietary micro display projection system called Si-OLED (silicon organic light emitting diode), which can produce deeper and truer black tones. That’s important because a true black projected onto lenses of smart glasses equates to the sense of colour. Therefore total transparency means the latest Si-OLED displays are able to blend projected digital content more realistically.
The glasses weigh just 60g and the use of Android 5.1 has expanded the complexity of the apps that can be written for the glasses.
AR headsets are expected to evolve from the current type of eyewear to much sleeker devices like contact lenses and, in the distant future, it could be possible to make AR implantable with apps having direct access to the nervous system.
One key technological challenge, especially for mobile AR, is packaging the components into a compact, sleek and lightweight format that people can wear comfortably all day. Additionally, AR headsets must remain cool, which brings additional power and thermal constraints.
“For a true mobile AR system, there is still not enough computing power to create stereo 3D augmented reality graphics,” argues Radhika Arora, ON Semiconductor’s IoT product line manager. “Laptops are just about starting to be equipped with the necessary graphics processing units and both sensors and haptics will play a critical role in future adoption.
“For image sensors, getting the form factor more compact will be key as well as improving their performance in varying light conditions.”
But while the future may witness fashionable eyewear, AR developers need to focus on a common interface that integrates with wearables in use today, whether that’s a pair of glasses or even a smartphone.
“AR is still very new, with limited market penetration,” says Adam Kerin, Qualcomm’s senior manager of marketing. “But as the technology advances and the form factor decreases, we can expect to see it evolving into a seamless experience that users will interact with daily.
“We’re continually adding more functionality to better support AR use cases. It is very challenging to implement because of the processing complexity and latency issues, along with requirements for improved sensors and new display technologies.
“A lot of the technologies that are relevant for smartphones are applicable for AR, whether it is computer vision, graphics, image processing, audio processing, latency optimisation or low power processing.”
As AR expands from mobile phones and tablets into wearables, it’s crucial that advanced and compute capable feature sets are retained whilst silicon area and development costs are reduced.
“Imagination’s technologies are already deployed in a range of glasses with some AR features and new technologies like our PowerVR GPUs enabling more usable and efficient future generations of wearable AR devices,” says David Harold, senior director of marketing communications with Imagination Technologies. “Beyond multimedia, another important consideration is connectivity. A lot of AR devices will incorporate wifi and companies can reduce BoM costs and power consumption by integrating this functionality onto a SoC, rather than a chipset.”
Sensors and processors will also need to be able to effectively process complex AR functions such as predictive head motion tracking and reduce ‘motion to photon’ latency.