After years of seeing promising augmented reality (AR) demos, I feel a bit like the boy who cried wolf each time I come back impressed and convinced the technology is about to go mainstream. The good news is that it’s getting closer. In particular, I saw impressive, consumer-focused demos from two companies with radically different histories and strategies at this year’s Augmented World Expo. I got extensive hands-on time with Meta’s new Virtual Workspace environment, as well as ODG’s R8 and R9 untethered, cinema-grade AR wearables. Here’s what I found.
Two contrasting approaches to wearable AR
Phone-based AR is getting a lot of attention recently, based on the publicity around Google Tango, Apple’s ARKit, and the success of Pokémon Go. Truly immersive AR demands a wearable solution. ODG has been selling untethered glasses that provide augmented experiences for several years now. They’re in broad use across many industries, but have been a little too clumsy and expensive to attract a broader audience. Now, with its new R8 and R9, ODG is hoping to deliver on its vision of a freeform mobile augmented world.
Meta is taking a nearly opposite course. Its headset is tethered, and designed to replace your computer monitor with a science-fiction-like virtual workspace for use at your desk. With a beefy enough laptop, it could also work in a hotel room or airport. But it certainly isn’t trying to be any type of mobile device.
ODG: Personal cinema, VR, and a sprinkle of AR
Despite being labeled as an AR device, the leadoff demos for the consumer-targeted ODG R8 mimicked those typical of VR devices — immersive experiences and cinematic quality 2D and 3D videos. ODG brings a lot to the party though. First, the R8 is incredibly light at under 5 ounces, and more comfortable than any VR headset on the market. Second, you aren’t isolated from the world around you. You can still see around the video, or even through it depending on how you have set its brightness, and your ears aren’t covered by its speakers.
Finally, the R8 is completely un-tethered, so you can use it for a few hours between charges wherever you are. Because it’s not isolating or tethered, I could easily see using it to watch movies on an airplane or a train. The 40-degree field of view of its 720p display isn’t nearly as wide as a VR headset, but it’s a lot better than HoloLens, and it is enough to mimic a big screen TV a few feet away. Yes, the R8 runs Netflix, and other video services that ODG can get to work with its open-source version of Android.
The R8 has a fish-eye camera that, coupled with its Snapdragon 835 processor, does a reasonably good job of tracking your position. Applications can create objects that are stable in your field of view, but this is one area where the R8 is behind the much beefier and more expensive HoloLens. The R8 also features a pair of 1080p cameras so the user can record 3D video. That sounds pretty cool, but I wonder whether the increased cost of adding them is worth it for most users.
The R9 loses the stereo cameras. But that model has a 50-degree field of view, 1080p displays, and a special I/O port for additional sensors or other accessories.
You can control the R8 and R9 on the headset itself — having used the controls on Google Glass and Gear VR, I suspect it will work, but feel pretty awkward — or from a smartphone or Bluetooth-connected controller. ODG is planning to ship both models this year, with the R8 expected to cost about $ 1,000 and the R9 about $ 1,800.
Meta finally begins to deliver on its vision
When I finally got to demo a Meta 2 last month I was really disappointed. What I experienced was nothing like the gee-whiz version that CEO Meron Gribetz showed on stage. The company promised to fix that at AWE, though, and they did. Here, I was transported into a futuristic world where I could create virtual monitors at will, pull videos off my phone and stick them to my virtual walls, and grab 3D models from a shelf to manipulate them using simple gestures. All of this was happening on the 90-degree-field-of-view, 2560 x 1440 resolution Meta 2 AR headset.
One nice touch is that Meta has integrated the use of a physical mouse with the virtual environment, so you don’t have to mimic an orchestra conductor to get work done. The end result is that, for 15 minutes at least, I could imagine myself working in that environment instead of at my traditional multi-monitor desktop setup. More importantly, I can envision setting up an external GPU on my laptop on the road and having my entire office appear in front of me at will.
The promise of the Meta Workspace is clear. Whether the $ 949 Meta 2 will deliver on it when it ships later this year remains to be seen. A 15-minute demo is one thing; a device you not only can live with, but choose to use day-in and day-out, is another.
Comparing ODG’s R8, R9, and Meta 2 with Microsoft’s HoloLens
For me, both ODG’s and Meta’s newest offerings place them far ahead of Microsoft’s HoloLens as products. The tragically small field of view of the HoloLens, coupled with its brutal $ 3K price point, make it a non-starter — except for deep-pocketed developers betting on Microsoft’s even deeper pockets to spur innovation and deliver a next-generation version that addresses both of those issues.
Picking between ODG’s R8 and the similarly priced Meta is an apples-to-oranges comparison. I could easily see using an R8 to watch movies on airplanes, and run some limited (for now at least) AR applications. Potentially, the R8 would also be a good solution for flying my drones, but that would depend on how the control integration works. The R8 is super-cool, but you need to have an extra $ 1K to spend for something that certainly isn’t essential.
Likewise, I am tempted to believe that Meta’s Workspace really is (or at least is becoming) an alternate work environment to my monitors. Because it’s tethered, and doesn’t have the same third-party support as many of its competitors, its success will almost entirely depend on whether it can deliver that vision all the time, and not just for 15-minute demos.
I look forward to doing some extended field tests of both devices when they ship later this year, and reporting back on how they deliver on their potential.
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