Augmented reality (AR) is on the rise, with its hooks in everything from advertising and retail to education and gaming. Apple has shown a growing focus on AR with its release of the ARKit framework and a number of AR patents. Android has done the same with ARCore 1.0, and Amazon has launched its own AWS Sumerian service to assist AR and virtual reality (VR) application development.

But even as tech leaders predict that AR will one day be an integral part of our everyday lives, it has yet to become truly mainstream. Limitations such as hardware and processing requirements make it difficult to strike a balance between form and function, just one thing that’s added friction to widespread adoption. Also, its applications need to provide real value to users for the tech to be less of a gimmick and more second nature.

So how can tech companies make AR meaningful enough for mainstream consumption? Wearables are looking to be a natural first step. Although still in its infancy, this play to bring AR to personal devices—specifically, glasses and headsets—is starting to make moves. But will these products be usable enough to replace interfacing with a smartphone?

Let’s take a look through the lens of smart glasses and VR headsets at the future of AR wearables.

A Quick AR Refresher

AR vs. VR: What’s the difference? You’re likely familiar with virtual reality—the totally immersive artificial environment that transports us with sight and sound to a three-dimensional alternate sensory reality. Pulling it off requires users to wear a headset that entirely covers their field of vision. It’s excellent entertainment, but it’s less practical for everyday use.

Augmented reality, on the other hand, is enhanced reality, adding a digital overlay to environments, objects, and people around us. AR is a middle ground between real life and VR and has greater potential for real-life applications such as collaboration, location-based marketing, navigation, and superimposition (e.g., seeing how a piece of furniture would look in a room). All it requires is a visual interface such as glasses, a tablet, or a smartphone, making it much more versatile.

AR is already widely used in manufacturing, science, and retail, but more-personal day-to-day use may be the more challenging market to break into.

The Technology That Makes AR Come to Life

Even though AR interfaces can be less bulky and impractical than VR headsets, they still require a good bit of hardware and software to work. These requirements for AR can include:

  • Adequate battery life
  • Memory
  • Processing power
  • Object recognition software
  • Network connectivity
  • Cameras for detecting surroundings and taking high-resolution images and video
  • High-resolution display big enough to provide an immersive experience
  • Microphone
  • Speaker
  • Internal sensors such as GPS, gyroscopes, magnetometers, and accelerometers

Naturally, the smaller you try to make AR-enabled devices for everyday life—say, wearable eyeglasses—the more design challenges you face with ergonomics, wearability, and style. Other variables include how immersive the wearable will be, how stationary the user should be, and how powerful the processing. In order not to sacrifice too much in the way of functionality, some items end up a bit bulky. Alternatively there are options such as Magic Leap’s Lightwear, which will connect to a box worn on a belt for more power without the bulk.

Headsets worn around the house for entertainment or on the manufacturing floor are one thing. But for consumers to replace interfacing with their phones with technology they wear on their face, wearability is key—and it has to look good!

Smart Glasses vs. AR Glasses

While smart glasses and AR glasses share a lot of the same functionality, they’re fundamentally different. Lumping them together would be like using the terms “computer” and “game console” interchangeably—while they’re both computers and share common functionality, they ultimately have very different use cases. The most important commonality of smart and AR glasses is that they shouldn’t require you to look away from what you’re doing, which is why they’ve been given the name of heads-up displays, or HUDs.

Smart glasses …

  • Can include AR capabilities
  • Allow you to continue seeing the unaugmented world around you by using a transparent display
  • Project helpful information on the display but don’t necessarily augment reality
  • Let you keep track of notifications, texts, heart rate, incoming calls, directions, and more, hands-free
  • Examples: Google Glass, Intel Vaunt, Vuzix Blade AR, Garmin Varia Vision, Solos Eyewear

Smart glasses use cases: Glasses that show tourists nearby landmarks with directions and distances; glasses that display information to cyclists who want data-based training assistance.

While AR glasses…

  • Don’t necessarily need a transparent display but likely will for versatility
  • Actually change what you’re seeing
  • Present information as if it were real life
  • Examples: Google Vuzix, Microsoft HoloLens, Epson Moverio BT-300FPV Drone Edition, Meta 2, Cast AR headset, Moverio BT-200

AR glasses use cases: Translating text in real-time when in a foreign country; giving a drone pilot an immersive view from the drone’s perspective; labeling parts of a car engine for a mechanic; having facial recognition technology tell you who someone is when you meet in person.

Some of the best smart glasses out there manage to stay lightweight and ergonomic while also looking stylish. AR glasses will likely be similar but also need to be reality-altering computers, requiring a lot more hardware and larger screens to provide that immersive field of vision. Keep an eye on this trend as it continues to evolve.