Rokid Air’s AR glasses are the best head-mounted display yet

Rokid Air released its long-awaited augmented reality (AR) goggles this month but, surprisingly, the goggles do a much better head-mounted display even though they contain the necessary sensors for AR. What makes the difference between good AR glasses and a good head-mounted display is their use. AR glasses are meant to mix virtual elements with reality so that the virtual elements look like they should if they were physically in the room with you. No product does it well. Most AR glasses, at best, provide a ghostly image of the virtual item, which is fine for training, crafting, and repair work, but less than ideal for entertainment. The best head-mounted displays are high-resolution virtual monitors occluded in front of your eyes, and that’s what Rokid Air’s product currently does well.

This technology can make a huge difference by eliminating traditional screens from PCs and smartphones and potentially radically altering the evolution of the two product classes by merging them.

Let’s explore how head-mounted displays could change the smartphone and PC landscape this week using these new Rokid Air AR glasses as an example.

Sony’s effort in the early 2000s

In the early 2000s, Sony sent me a head-mounted display that was marketed to doctors for training and telemedicine. A doctor wearing glasses could remotely view an operation that was being filmed and give directions to the surgeon performing the operation or use the glasses to review the operative procedure in the moments before the operation began. They weren’t AR glasses, although they did have the ability to change the level of transparency of the display so you can both see the content and whatever it is, or in this case, the person on which you were working.

The Sony glasses cost over $20,000, which makes them way too expensive for entertainment, but since I wasn’t a doctor, I used them for watching movies and playing video games. While I had them I visited a LAN Party (groups of people playing competitive video games on a LAN) and they were a huge hit. Gamers had to carry CRT monitors and tower computers to play, hence the concept of replacing a monitor that could weigh over 100 pounds. with a pair of glasses that weighed only a few ounces really got the audience excited. The $20,000 price tag was a significant deterrent, however.

The display resolution was low, making them unsuitable for reading documents or word processing, but watching movies was great on airplanes. I remember a flight attendant thinking I was with the CIA, which made for a great story. Overall I found people liked the concept, it was useful, but the cost and performance made the glasses incapable of becoming a true monitor replacement.

RokidAir

The Rokid Air glasses, which cost less than $500 with true HD performance (1920 x 1080 for each eye), are much better than old Sony glasses. They draw power from the source so they don’t need batteries, they have optical adjustments that should rule out the need for corrective lenses when in use, and they can put out up to 1,800 nits of light, which makes them useful outdoors. The text is clear and I found I could read a book with them, although it would be nice if I could reposition the image as one of the bottom corners tended to disappear. The refresh cycle is 60Hz, which is plenty for work and some gaming, and like the Sony glasses, these work well for video content.

If you use the Rokid Air app, your phone turns into a large touchpad, and if you don’t, the glasses work as a mirrored external monitor. They might be ideal for use on an airplane where you don’t want anyone else to see what you’re doing. They have sensors (enhanced 9-axis IMU, magnetometer) and sensor fusion scheme (proximity sensor) for AR, but I would need an app that supports these glasses for it to work, and I don’t haven’t found any yet (I didn’t search that hard, though, because I’m mostly interested in those head-mounted displays).

The screen is moderately obstructed in the sense that if you look closely you can see through the contents of the bezels around you. Typing while wearing them is a bit like wearing bifocals in that you can look under the displayed image and see your hands. I don’t wear bifocals so there was a bit of a learning curve to do real work, but they worked well for browsing the web or using Netflix, YouTube or Amazon Prime. They also have a microphone and noise-canceling speakers. I found using voice commands, when those commands worked, to be a better way to enter text than typing it. The latter suggests that these would be much better for those using advanced text-to-speech tools.

Wrap

Like many, I believe we are headed for a time where we will favor head-mounted displays over monitors because of their advantages in portability, privacy, and their ability to deliver a big-screen experience in a small housing. The Rokid Air AR glasses are the best head-mounted display effort I’ve seen yet, but for them to fulfill their AR purpose, they’ll likely need cameras to position AR objects and an AR tool who will use them. For now, they’re most useful as a head-mounted display, where it’s needed most.

We are at the forefront of a major evolutionary change in smartphones and PCs, which I believe will be enabled by head-mounted displays. These Rokid Air glasses confirm the potential of this revolutionary evolution.

In short, this week I saw a bit of the future for PCs and smartphones, and it looks both bright and very different from the present, thanks to Rokid Air’s AR glasses.


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