Saturday, September 23, 2023

Oppo’s Air Glass Is An AR Experiment With One Great Idea

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Shreya Christina
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“Normal-looking glasses” are the holy grail of augmented reality. Major tech companies like Google and Intel have joined startups like North and social media giants like Snap to design something that people can wear over their eyes without feeling like a total freak and, more importantly, without making those around them uncomfortable. to feel. No one has cracked this code after nearly a decade of concerted effort – but at least Chinese phone maker Oppo is having some fun with the challenge.

Earlier this year, Oppo launched the Air Glass, a glasses-based heads-up display for the company’s smartphones. Oppo has no plans to launch the Air Glass outside of China, and it’s only selling in “limited quantities” there, where Oppo already plans to replace it with a next-gen version. It’s quite expensive at 4,999 Yuan (about $745), and like almost all consumer-oriented AR devices, it’s still more of a demo than a product.

But while many AR experiments focus on pushing pure technical possibilities, the Air Glass accepts some clear hardware limits to play around with an interesting form factor. After getting a set of glasses and a compatible phone to try out, I found a design idea so obvious I’m surprised I haven’t seen it more often, executed with a roughness that shows how much work is left .

AR glasses with a holographic square in the middle.

Oppo’s waveguide projects any LED color you want, as long as it’s green.
Photo by Adi Robertson / The Verge

AR is a spectrum, and the Air Glass falls way back on the “simple notification engine” side, not the realistic holograms you’ll find in products like Microsoft’s HoloLens. The device is a single lens equipped with a monochrome Micro LED projector and a waveguide that projects its light, plus a plastic stem with a small speaker and a trackpad that accepts swipes, taps and presses.

But instead of being permanently built into glasses, the Air Glass offers a two-piece design. The system described above has a shallow magnetic groove that loosely resembles an Apple MagSafe port halfway up the stem. To use it, put on a specially designed metal glasses frame with a matching magnetic stud on the temple. The frames are regular glasses, but fit into the lens system on the right, and you have a monocular AR display similar to Google Glass. When you’re done using the AR component, use that magnetic divot to snap it against a curved charging case that looks a bit like a shoehornwhich in turn charges via USB-C.

When you pair the Air Glass with an (again, only in China) Oppo phone via Bluetooth, you get a green heads-up display that takes up a small but significant portion of your view – about the size of my palm for me. a foot away from my right eye. The virtual overlay looks like something a cyborg killer would use in the dystopian future of 1995, but in a mostly good way: it’s high-contrast, fairly visible in anything but bright sunlight, and doesn’t feel like a faded phone screen. some full-color AR screens do. I kept the clock display lit continuously for nearly three hours with no battery drain, and the charging case should hold a charge closer to 10 hours, although I never managed to fully charge it and then drain it in one go. .

I love the theory behind Oppo’s design, as it’s a strong tactic of offering plenty of style options while reducing the perennial AR creepiness factor. Nine years ago, Google Glass used to put an expensive camera and projection system in front of the wearer’s eyes, something that felt clunky at best and presumptuously invasive at worst — remember that. no glass rods in San Francisco? By putting them on, you became not only a person who owned an electronic device, but also a Google Glass carrier, to use the more polite version of the term. Companies like North have been building more subtle goggles since then, but they still go with the idea of ​​having electronics on your face full-time.

A set of Oppo AR glasses broke from their frame

The lens snaps off the frames like a MagSafe charger.

A side view of Oppo AR glasses

A metal stud on the frame keeps the lens in place.

The Air Glass, on the other hand, is more of an earplug for your eyes. The low-tech magnetic studs fit snugly into the frames and seem like they can be easily added to different styles. The magnetic grip between the 30-gram lens device and the frame is pretty solid, but it’s trivially easy to remove the AR part and insert it into the housing, even if you wear prescription glasses full-time, to make it clear that you don’t have a secret screen stuck on your face. It’s a solution that takes people’s concerns about privacy and distraction seriously rather than simply trying to hide what they fear in a smaller package. It also helps that this generation of Air Glass doesn’t have a camera, although Oppo says it won’t rule out the option for future versions.

Oppo’s AR interface focuses on simple widget-like applications in the form of “maps”, which you manage from the companion smartphone app. When you ‘open’ a card it launches into the goggles and you can swipe between the cards with the trackpad on the side or toggle the goggles display on and off by tapping it. You can also long press the glasses for voice commands or gestures with an Oppo smartwatch, which I didn’t have.

In their most basic form, maps display information such as the time or the weather. More complex maps open up step-by-step walking routes using Baidu Maps, display near-real-time language translation, or load text files to create an AR teleprompter. Since the teleprompter basically just displays whatever text you want, you can also use it more creatively – I cooked dinner one night by writing the recipe in a Word document and using the glasses as a hands-free display.

A side view of the Oppo Air Glass trackpad

The trackpad switches between maps and switches the display.

It’s a good set of features that run at a high level intuitively, but the average experience is still very rough – and for anyone who doesn’t speak Chinese, only about half usable. Turn-by-turn navigation tools and voice commands aren’t implemented in English, so I dug through them using Google Translate and my half-forgotten language studies in college. (Within my very limited capabilities, both seemed functional but clunky.)

Machine translation is limited to English and Chinese, and it’s not as seamless as, say, those vaporware goggles Google asked us to introduce back in May. You can press a button to have one person speak with one language into the paired phone and see it translated into the second language text on the glasses, then have the wearer speak and see the results in text in the same way. to have the phone translated. There is also an option for two sets of glasses, but I haven’t been able to try it.

Using the translation system by talking to myself in both languages, the phone tended to time out or fail to recognize that I had spoken after pressing the button. It took a few seconds to transcribe and then translate even short messages from my native English or my very rusty Mandarin – which isn’t a problem unique to Oppo, but it’s a reminder that real-time translation still has real limits.

Also, the fact that Oppo’s non-AR frames are quite normal (albeit without glass for me, making me look like an insufferable hipster wearing them in public) doesn’t make the overall package any less ridiculous. The lens-over-lens design of the glasses looks uniquely silly, especially since the frame and waveguide are completely different shapes, despite Oppo designed them to work together. From specific angles, the glasses will clearly and brightly reflect what’s on your screen to the outside world, enhancing their retro-sci-fi vibe. The design is barely heavier than wearing large sunglasses, but it does tilt to one side – not enough to disturb me as a wearer, but enough to stand out from the outside. It’s intuitive to imagine eyewear designers building compatible magnetic studs on different types of frames, but it’s not clear whether the lens would perform equally well on different shapes and sizes.

And worse, I had ongoing, albeit minor, comfort issues with the optics. In my first few hours with the glasses I got a little motion sickness and got a headache within minutes of putting them on. The discomfort seemed to get better over time, but my eyes still feel tense after wearing them.

Oppo Air Glass glasses in their charger

The charging case connects via USB-C.

An inside view of the Oppo glasses in their charger

It is not clear why the housing does not cover the lens.

I asked Oppo about the issue and spokesperson Krithika Bollamma noted that monocular screens such as Air Glass and Google Glass can cause headaches for some buyers. Via email, AR optics expert and KGOnTech author Karl Guttag agreed that the single lens — with a focal length effectively focused at infinity — could be the culprit. “You might end up with a conflict between one eye focused on infinity and the other eye focused on the real world,” Guttag said, suggesting I could confirm it by trying to keep my other eye focused on the distance.

This ties in with my casual experience, where doing close-range tasks like cooking or looking at a monitor tends to make you sick, while walking around with turn-by-turn directions doesn’t. (On the other hand, I’ve used Google Glass in similar ways without any discomfort.) Guttag also suggested that the flickering of the Micro LED could cause illness for some people, though he said I’d probably have a problem with the HoloLens 2 noticed. also something that was not a problem in the past.

A front view of the Oppo Air Glass

The windows look normal. The monocle on the frames… not quite.

I’m not sure how widespread my response is; my husband wore the Air Glass eyepiece for about 15 minutes, a period long enough to give me a headache, without incident. I’m not even sure what causes it as I’ve worked fine with headsets with similar designs. But it’s an example of the complications AR hardware adds to computing and the kinds of things that hold AR back: the risk that physical pain is a deal breaker for many tech consumers.

Oppo seems to envision the Air Glass as one of the possible head-worn devices that people could buy. It doesn’t replicate all the features of something like Nreal’s smart consumer glasses, which let you watch streaming video and even play Steam games. Future versions should have support for more colors, but the goal isn’t an all-in-one computer package. It looks more like the glasses equivalent of a smartwatch.

But even with all these caveats, including the fact that I’ll almost certainly never see one for sale in America, using the Air Glass is a weirdly cool experience It’s a form factor that higher profile players like Apple and Meta don’t seem to be seriously exploring, which clears up some of my biggest concerns with AR as a platform. And while the entire field of consumer eyewear is one big experiment, there’s plenty of room to get weird.

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