It’s been three years since the unveiling of Microsoft’s HoloLens, and nearly five years since the release of the ill-fated Google Glass, but true augmented reality hardware remains an elusive concept. In 2018, and especially here in Las Vegas for the annual CES gadget expo, it’s evident that AR is only just now starting to pick up the same amount of steam on the hardware end that helped push its virtual reality counterpart into the limelight, during that multi-year lead up to the launch of the Oculus Rift.
Amid the new AR frenzy — which is being pushed along, thanks to powerful smartphone platforms like Apple’s ARKit and Google’s ARCore — all sorts of new startups are pushing a vision of consumer AR that’s tenuously tied to a half-working prototype. Among the new entrants to the market is Rokid, an artificial intelligence and robotics company that today announced its plans to release a pair of AR glasses called Rokid Glass. The device, a test version of which I tried in a demo here in Las Vegas, is in a rudimentary state, yet it does offer a rare glimpse at what will and will not be pivotal, make-or-break elements to the first truly breakthrough AR device.
Rokid’s planned product will be a standalone headset, meaning it won’t require you to tether to a smartphone or external PC. It will run on batteries and incorporate an internal processor for handling computing on its own, while also using Bluetooth and Wi-Fi to communicate with a smartphone for additional processing power and for connecting to the internet in areas without a strong local network. Those are all must-have features for any AR glasses maker that hopes to ever succeed in making a mainstream product.
Where Rokid’s prototype stumbles in its limited field of view, which remains only 35 degrees right now with a planned 50-degree field of view down the road, and its restriction to just one lens of the glasses. Rokid is envisioning its smart glasses as a kind of next-generation Google Glass, so it would only need to float objects and information in front of one eye, so you could still interact with the real world.
In that sense, Rokid is diverting from the vision Microsoft has of the HoloLens as a standalone computing device for games and productivity, and not something that would seamlessly integrate into your day-to-day life. But it’s hard to see that taking off versus a product that can accomplish both immersive, dual-lens AR and more limited single-lens AR in the same package.
Rokid feels like an evolution of Google Glass, but it’s not as sophisticated as HoloLens
The company does have a keen sense of where it needs to go from here, even if its prototype is still very much a work in progress. Rokid is working on integrating gesture control in addition to voice control, by way of a third-party module that sits on the top of the glasses. In my demo, the module was large and bulky, but it did work in a way similar to the HoloLens’ gesture controls. The company says it plans to shrink the gesture module over time, as well as lowering the overall weight of its AR glasses as it incorporates smaller but equally capable components.
Rokid, which started as a developer of AI software assistants for robots, also understands that AR will inevitably involve an infusion of AI, which is why the company is working on incorporating some type of voice interface to let you speak to a built-in digital assistant. Although it’s not clear whether Rokid will integrate something like Amazon’s Alexa or Google Assistant, or if it will push its own proprietary assistant.
Without killer apps, augmented reality won’t ever go anywhere
On that note, the company’s whole software strategy is somewhat nebulous. The glasses run a version of Android 6.0, but the demos available were very basic and Rokid says it plans to partner with other companies to develop more content for its platform. Without strong software support and useful apps and services, AR won’t ever go anywhere. Even VR right now, which is in a much more mature state with regards to hardware, is struggling to give users a compelling reason to buy into Oculus, HTC, and Sony’s competing ecosystems.
Ultimately, Rokid appears to be part of a broader push toward consumer AR glasses that bring science fiction concepts to life, but right now it still feels like the industry is waiting for one of the really big players to take all of these disparate hardware and software ideas and marry them together into a breakthrough product.
Perhaps it will be Apple, which is rumored to be working on such a device for release in 2019, or maybe it will be Microsoft’s next-gen version of the HoloLens. Or maybe even Google will get back in the consumer AR hardware game, as it’s already brought an updated version of Google Glass to factory floors as an enterprise product. Rokid, on the other hand, may get its product out the door later this year, but it’s not clear who will actually buy it, especially when it’s still too early to tell what combination of hardware and software will mark a winning formula when so many others have failed before.