The case for another shot

We are so close to good AR, yet so far

I suppose I could deliver this message in the form of a pitch deck or presentation, but I prefer essays, so here’s an essay.

I’ve called every errant shot taken up ‘til now. As the major players fumbled, I found myself feeling a way that we all, if we’re being honest to ourselves, like to feel: right. Vindicated may be the better word to capture my sentiment.

For years, I’ve felt a bit crazy; the odd one out, the eccentric. My ideas were so contrary to the mainstream, yet seemingly irrefutable along my personal journey to my own truth. I was not always as confident in my thinking as I am today. Ideas I’ve pushed for years, like focusing only on small field of view displays, are finally entering the mainstream amongst researchers as evidenced by numerous talks to that effect at the last Photonics West.

I stumbled into augmented reality on a naive whim. Walking through CES years ago, a transparent TV display caught my eye. In one of those moments in which the mind takes an undirected leap down a dark and winding tunnel, I got to wondering why we couldn’t just stick a transparent display in our eyeglass lenses and become the Terminator. It didn’t take long to figure out why this wouldn’t work. I put my phone screen up to my eye, and quickly realized that you can’t focus on images that close to the eye. Onto the next idea, I supposed. Yet, it didn’t end there. I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

The evidence of the obsession that followed is plentiful, from writings and talks given to the casual conversations I’ve had with anyone and everyone over the past few years. I never cared much for the MagicLeaps and HoloLenses of the world, deeming their emphasis on immersion and interactivity too far adrift from consumer reality. For them, form factor is secondary. For me, it’s everything.

Some would label my obsession ‘augmented reality,’ but my real obsession is beauty. I am, like most, vain. I appreciate beauty in myself and others, and places, and matter. Aesthetics matter to me everywhere and in everything. But I speak of beauty not of the static sort, but rather the dynamic. I do care about looking at beauty, but really matters is feeling beauty. The beauty that counts is a process, not a state.

Looking around, I found bits and pieces of my ideas. Google was on the right track with content and micro-interactions, but devastatingly off in estimating the value of form. The display one saw through Glass looked okay, but you didn’t look okay wearing it. Google’s rapid retreat from the consumer market is already a part of history, but may take on new meaning in the context of what is to come. I believe if Google had stayed the path they could have decisively won the next platform war. In hindsight, ceding that market may one day seem eerily similar to when IBM handed the personal computing market to Bill Gates. Others learned from Google’s struggles, and form factor became the rallying cry for much of the next generation.

I’ve watched them come, and go. ODG never had a chance using conventional optics that were neither here not there. That’s particularly sad, as it seems they had a real business doing consulting work and building HUDs before raising a lot of money and trying to blitz-scale R&D. Vuzix’s Blade seemed promising at first. It’s announcement and somewhat goofy product videos echoed many of my old talking points. Yet, the final product was a let down. Too much field of view and a compromised form. The Blade does look somewhat more like a pair of glasses, but is anything but beautiful. It doesn’t help that the display is okay at best. And then came North.

When I saw the North announcement, I figured the reckoning had come. They really nailed my talking points: form first, then function. Finally — someone, some team, had done it. When I learned North was really Thalmic Labs and that they had been developing their eyewear product for years, I was even more excited as I knew they had the resources to execute well on the concept. While a bit on a bulkier side in photos, North could certainly pass for beauty in form. They only needed beauty in function to round out the product that could finally unlock the market for the masses, I though — only. How could I have though, ‘only?’

For years now I have been saying that optics is constraining AR. Even to this day, most companies believe that a breadth of experience will drive adoption of augmented reality devices, whether immersive of head-up displays. I totally disagree. It’s not the breadth of experience, but quality of experience that matters. If the image doesn’t look great, no one will buy it. We live in a word of retina displays and perfect digital renderings. Anything less is unacceptable. Automotive head-up displays have completely nailed this, and the standard can be no lower for head-word devices. You probably now guess where North went wrong.

It pains me to write critically of North as I was so excited about their product. Everyone in their Brooklyn store was so nice, and helpful, and hopeful. You can tell reviewers erred on the side of generous, probably sensing the same. To their credit, I think the glasses actually look better in person than in the photos — several real life people actually thought I was just wearing a pair of high-end designer glasses. That’s a win for them in my book. But the display, oh good lord that display.

Sadly, a huge let down. After going through an endless calibration process ending in a wink-wink, nod-nod with the person fitting me that the fit and display was “perfect,” because it was clear to both the fitter and I that it was impossible to make the display “perfect,” you end up with a grainy washed out image that harkens back to the View-Master and has all sorts of fun rainbows, like those printed hologram stickers comes across often as a child. I can read all of the text and use the interface, but it just feels taxing and unrefined. A slight shift down my nose and the image disappears entirely. I could go into more detail, but I won’t.

There seem to be some fundamental constraints to the optical design North has used that make it impossible for them to deliver the sharpness and clarity of display that consumers absolutely must have. Despite a drop in price and constant software updates to improve functionality, I just don’t see it. That’s falling into the old trap. Features won’t sell a product in this space, but a quality experience without compromise in form will. I have been saying this for years, but let me now say it louder and clearer.

I have a simple ask. Someone, somewhere, some team — make one more go at this. Nobody has figured this out yet, so there’s still a chance. There are many other optical designs that are potentially viable. Trade off anything and everything and forget about interaction to achieve great form factor and great display quality. What should it do, you might ask?

Just build a f**king clock that goes on your face. Do that well. No, do that incredibly. Make it beautiful in form, and function, and feel. Make it beautiful at its core so people who wear it feel beautiful at their core. If you can show the time with beauty, you can communicate anything with beauty. If human and machine can be gently brought into harmony, the relationship will naturally only grow. The rest WILL fall into place later, if this can be done. And, it can. It will.

I’m rarely convinced that I’m right about anything, but in this case I’m quite certain. I’ve called everything that’s happened up to now, and I’m calling this as well. Someone do this, because someone will.