Next month, Sony is releasing the SmartEyeGlass, Internet-connected specs that will let you surf email, snap photos, and get directions without reaching for your phone. They’re far from the only company wrapping the Web around your eyeballs. Last week, Intel bought $25 million worth of stock in Vuzik, a smart eyewear maker, and, in December, announced a multi-year partnership with another similar company, Luxottica, to make high-end Net glasses. Also last month, Microsoft announced that it was releasing holographic head gear, called Hololens.
But the news comes at an tricky time. Just a few weeks ago, Google abruptly stopped selling its $1500 Glass specs, the sleek eyewear that was supposed to usher in the dynamic new age of wearable computing. Though Google is reportedly developing the next iteration of Glass, competitors like Sony and Intel will need to overcome the one challenge that no one has mastered yet: how to make high-tech glasses that don’t look and feel stupid on your face. It’s a problem unique to augmented reality specs, which are meant to be worn during your daily routine, unlike virtual reality goggles, which are worn to escape from it.
The Face Race started when Google co-founder Sergey Brin wore Glass to a San Francisco charity event in April 2012. For tech lovers, the new accessory seemed to deliver on the great geek promise of digital reality—a dream of technologists since at least 1932, when Aldous Huxley described a cinematic medium called “the feelies” in Brave New World. The feelies were “dazzling and incomparably more solid looking than they would have seemed in actual flesh and blood,” he wrote, “far more real than reality.” Sci-fi writers (and not to mention Hollywood) went on imagining this virtual world for decades: Ray Bradbury in the short story “The Veldt” (1950). William Gibson in Neuromancer (1986), and Neil Stephenson in Snow Crash (1992).
But modern-day Huxley’s shouldn’t expect that level of emersion from Google or Sony’s new products. Sony plans to deliver VR through Project Morpheus, a headset [in development?] for PlayStation 4. Facebook spent $2 billion on VR start-up Oculus. Samsung has the upcoming release of Gear VR, which will transform the company’s Note 4 phone into a virtual reality display. Google, for its part, is investing $500 million in Magic Leap, a Hollywood, Florida VR firm.
With low production costs and powerful software, alt-reality devices will be the most transformative new medium since the Internet. At Vienna University of Technology, medical researchers are using VR to train prosthesis patients. Elementary school students in Ireland created a virtual version of the Clonmacnoise monastery for a history project. As for entertainment, Steven Spielberg put it best when he recently said that “we’re never going to be totally immersive as long as we’re looking at a square, whether it’s a movie screen or whether it’s a computer screen. We’ve got to get rid of that and put [you] inside the experience, where no matter where you look you’re surrounded by a three-dimensional experience. That’s the future.”
The problem is that the future has long been unwieldy. As a writer who covers digital culture, I’ve had to strap a lot of weird gear to my face. It goes back at least to 1991, when the first virtual reality game, Dactyl Nightmare, hit the arcades. It set the pattern that would foreshadow Glass. First, the hype. When the game started appearing in Chuck E. Cheese and other arcades, the lines snaked far past the Space Invaders machines. Then, the awe. Put on the helmet, and you felt like you were inside some strange geometric playground, with blocky pterodactyls swooping overhead. Then came the disappoint. The dino-birds were sluggish, the helmet, heavy, and the experience not worth another pocketful of tokens.
Hoping for an improvement, I went down to Google’s offices in the Chelsea Market last year, and got to try out Google Glass on my own. It was as if I’d just taken a spin on an early Segway, something that was kind of fun but better suited to tourists and UPS workers. I almost walked into a manhole, distracted by the swiping and tilting. It wasn’t just the look of the eyewear that was a problem, it was the clunky reality of navigating while wearing them around town. Sony’s SmartEyeWear isn’t much more promising. The thick-black frames attach to a clunky black “smart puck” wearers clip to their shirts. It looks like something out of Weird Science. Virtual reality specs have a lot more going for them for one simple reason: you’re not going to be wearing them all day. They’re more likely to be adopted sooner for this reason. But until someone figures out how to transform your Persols or Ray Bans into augmented reality specs, don’t expect to be wearing them anytime soon.