There’s a revolution brewing in eyewear technology … and Snapchat Spectacles are just the start.
Snapchat recently announced a bold new push into the hardware business with their brand new wearable called Spectacles. It’s about what you would expect from Snapchat glasses, working video and social media into a slick, stylish product that’s well-positioned for young people — but these Spectacles are just the beginning of an oncoming wave of smart eyewear technology.
Coming on the heels of Google Glass, however, consumers and investors have been reluctant to get excited. Eyeglasses, despite being one of the oldest wearable technologies out there, just aren’t sexy, it seems. But that may all be about to change.
Since their inception, corrective lenses have had a single job, and they’ve done it well: bend light. But from the pince-nez of 19th-century France to modern lenses, innovations in eyewear have added only slightly to this core, original function. As technology for everything from cars to personal computers has leapfrogged forward, glasses have stayed, well, glasses. But a period of rapid innovation is set to change consumer eyewear in the months and years ahead.
From the front lines, here are a few key trends I see in the not-so-distant future.
Smart lenses that adjust on-the-fly: Corrective lenses are poised for perhaps the first truly revolutionary leap forward they’ve ever experienced. Soon, it may be possible to produce lenses that can change their refractive profile in response to a software-controlled electric current, adjusting their prescription on-the-fly. Such eyewear could adapt to different wearers by allowing them to input their own prescription. With advanced digital refraction technology integrated into the eyewear itself, it could also potentially watch the wearer’s eyes and reduce eye strain by subtly changing its treatment of light in response to increasing fatigue throughout the day.
These sorts of dynamic technologies turn eyewear into all-around vision technology hubs, rather than simple lens holders. By controlling the refraction through software, we can take vision far beyond its current limitations, adding features like optical zoom and low-light enhancement on a remarkably short timeline — perhaps as little as five years, with sufficient investment. And with digitally controlled refraction, new technologies — and new medical insights — could be passed along to your smart glasses through a simple firmware update.
Goodbye smartphone: Google Glass showed the potential of smart glasses, but awkward design plagued the first iteration. Still, this much is clear: The door has been opened for smart eyewear, and it’s only going to grow sleeker and more powerful in the years ahead. The first real wave will take many functions currently performed by smartphones and host them where they truly belong: as part of vision.
People with 20/20 vision could soon find themselves buying a pair of smart glasses just to keep pace with their myopic friends.
When you see a scene you simply have to post on your Facebook feed, for instance, cameras embedded in your glasses will capture it precisely as it looks to you at the time. The difference between these offerings and the original Google Glass is that they will benefit from several years of advancement in battery and display technology, allowing them to remain sleek, attractive products while integrating more and more functionality.
True transparent displays that live inside lenses: The other significant limitation of Google Glass was that it essentially consisted of a tiny smartphone display on a pair of glasses — a digital dashboard in the corner of your field of view. True electronic glasses, however, will one day layer information over your entire view of the world. These transparent displays won’t require you to look up at a separate display, but will integrate seamlessly with your normal vision.
This is where eyewear begins to take smartphone functionality to all new places. For instance, when taking a photo, your glasses might display a bounding box over your vision to show the extent of the picture at your current level of zoom. Text messages could scroll over your view of a university lecture. There’s hope that the hearing impaired could one day use their eyewear to receive real-time closed captions for the world, even if the speaker isn’t in view.
Bringing it all together with AR: Augmented reality, which analyzes video in real time so it can integrate graphical elements that seem like real parts of the world, is still very much in its video-game infancy. Pokémon GO offers a primitive glimpse of what AR can do, but the technology still has a long way to go in terms of accuracy, performance and battery drain.
What’s clear, however, is that AR will play a central role in truly next-generation eyewear. It could let you follow driving directions clearly layered over the streets as you snake your way through jumbled cities. Or it could be combined with technologies like facial recognition to create an auto-Rolodex that makes sure you never offend acquaintances by forgetting their name — and by leaving notes, you can make sure to flatter them by remembering a bit of trivia, as well.
These are the sorts of applications that a smartphone — no matter how powerful its processor or how clear its screen — could never perform from its home in a purse or pants pocket. They’re the features that will let eyewear not just steal portions of your life from your smartphone, but replace it entirely.
The big picture: Major change is coming to the eyewear space, and it won’t be short-lived. Eyewear presents an approachable — even inevitable — platform for tech development, which means that existing optical companies may well be rivaled by digital players like Snapchat or Google in the years ahead. In fact, as eyewear technology improves, people with 20/20 vision could soon find themselves buying a pair of smart glasses just to keep pace with their myopic friends.