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How 3 Augmented Reality Hardware Startups Are Preparing for the Consumer Market

Among the thousands of companies showing off their products at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas last week, there were also a few dozen startups dedicated to augmented reality (AR). And while a lot of the focus around AR hardware has been on enterprise use, an increasing number of companies is getting ready to sell AR glasses to consumers as well.

However, without an existing market for AR hardware, companies are left to guess what consumers actually want from these devices, resulting in widely varying implementations. Privacy issues are also still dicey, which leads some to hold back on the use of front-facing cameras. With all of those challenges, even insiders believe that it will be a few more years before average consumers begin to pick up their products as holiday gifts.

CREDIT: Courtesy of North

Focals by North

North actually released its consumer AR glasses, simply dubbed Focals, late last year. The company still used CES as a kind of public coming-out, and showed off one of the most polished takes on AR eyeware yet. Focals look and feel just like a pair of regular glasses, and even come with multiple frame designs.

Not making its hardware look like a face computer was incredibly important to the company, said North co-founder Aaron Grant. “It had to look like regular glasses. That’s easy to say and very hard to do.”

North achieved the glasses-like look by paring down its device to the essentials. Focals project a small display on top of the right lens, where it shows off condensed notifications that include calendar items, weather, directions, and text messages. The glasses also integrate Amazon’s Alexa smart assistant for voice control.

All in all, Focals are sleek and interesting — but the field of view is tiny, and doesn’t allow the screen to display more than just a few words or icons. “We don’t really need more than that right now,” said Grant. The company intentionally didn’t develop full-fledged apps for these glasses, but instead settled on simple notifications that are easily glanceable, he explained.

In many ways, Focals is an attempt to turn a device like Google Glass, which also focused on notifications, into a consumer product. For that, North ditched the front-facing camera, which was at the center of the controversy that ultimately led to the failure of Glass, with Glass owners being called “Glassholes” for their ability to take photos of others without their consent. “There will be a camera at some point,” in a future version of Focals, said Grant. “It’s just a question of when the world is ready for a camera.”

The same could be said for AR glasses, period. Focals do already look a lot like a consumer product, but Grant openly admitted that it’s too early for mass-market adoption. “It’s definitely not a mainstream product yet,” he said, adding that the company was already working on version 2 and 3 of the device. Grant said he expected AR to reach mass appeal over the next few years.

CREDIT: Courtesy of Rokid

Project Aurora

Chinese consumer electronics upstart Rokid, which is also active in the smart speaker and voice assistant space, showed off two different pairs of glasses at CES: A productized version of its first-generation model dubbed Rokid Glass, which includes a camera and offers facial and object recognition technology, and a new consumer prototype.

The company first previewed an AR headset at CES 2018, and took the feedback from the show to refocus on enterprise customers interested in facial and object recognition technologies. “After this product, we really understand the market.”

The second product shown at CES was an early prototype of a consumer AR headset dubbed Project Aurora. This headset connects to your phone, and is able to display typical Android apps and games in 2D mode without any further customization.

In essence, it treats AR as just another screen, while using the phone as the input device. “It extends your existing computing devices,” said Rokid director of product Reynold Wu. Rokid plans to further enhance this by offering app developers the ability to include a 3D mode, which will make it possible to switch to a more immersive experience.

Wu readily admitted that this was an early prototype — the company finished putting together Project Aurora a week before CES opened — and that the industry still had a ways to go before it could sell products to consumers by the millions. “For the consumer market, it’s at least another three years,” he said.

CREDIT: Courtesy of nreal

Nreal Light

Some of the biggest names in AR, including Microsoft with its Hololens and Magic Leap, were virtually absent from CES. That gave others a chance to steal the spotlight, and no other company was as successful at this than Nreal with its Light glasses. Positioned as a more stylish Magic Leap competitor, Nreal showed off an impressive demo reel of 3D AR experiences.

The company plans to release the glasses in the third quarter. It hasn’t finalized a price for the product yet, but Nreal founder and CEO Chi Xu told Variety that it was aiming for price point similar to that of a premium mobile phone. And while Nreal clearly aims to appeal to consumers, Xu sidestepped a question about the company’s target audience. “Right now, the biggest question is not enterprise or consumer. Instead, it is about making it comfortable.”

Even with a polished product like Light, Xu admitted that the company still had work to do before it could target the masses. One challenge: The glasses currently offer a 52-degree field of view. That’s more than what’s available from some competitors, but it still requires users to step back, or turn their head a lot, to fully take in bigger AR objects. “It’s not perfect,” Xu said.

So when will AR become a mass market product? “It’s closer than what a lot of people expect,” said Xu. “In my opinion, it’s definitely less than 5 years.”

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