Epson's retooled augmented reality glasses may transform how we do work

18th Dec 2013 | 18:49

Epson's retooled augmented reality glasses may transform how we do work

Google Glass has done good, but Moverio is here for another reason

Epson's Moverio smart glasses have undergone something of a transformation since TechRadar reviewed the augmented reality headset back in 2011.

A physical transformation, yes, but more importantly a change in purpose as well.

Then it was a quirky, dark-lens gadget for semi-isolated movie-viewing, but now Epson's intentions for the Moverio are clear: it's an enterprise device meant for "desk-less" workers ranging from couriers to those in construction.

Epson is working with software developers and smart glasses experts at APX Labs on a three-part initiative called Skylight that it hopes will help make Moverio the go-to wearable tech for businesses in the near future.

TechRadar met with Epson Moverio Product Manager Eric Mizufuka and APX Vice President Ed English at the recent Wearable Tech Expo in Los Angeles where they treated us to a few demos with the re-purposed specs and gave us the scoop on Moverio's new direction.

What sets Moverio apart

The prototype Moverio headset Epson showed us, called the BT-100, was far from complete, though it's changed quite a bit since 2011.

The new Epson smart glasses offer a true augmented reality experience, with two transparent displays allowing it to project what Mizufuka said is the equivalent of an 80-inch screen in front of your eyes. It looks just like a floating Android display. The glasses can also project interaction points in 3D space, track users' locations and head movements, and more.

What sets Moverio apart is that it's both transparent and binocular, meaning it has two separate displays that your brain turns into a single image. Mizufuka said that's unique; Google Glass, for example, is transparent, but only has a single display. Oculus Rift meanwhile is a true virtual reality experience, being both opaque and binocular.

moverio future concept

These properties give the Moverio some advantages in enterprise, like leaving users' vision intact. And it can display points in 3D space by taking advantage of users' depth perception thanks to its dual screens.

Work hard for the AR

The applications Epson and APX demoed served a variety of work-related functions. For example a warehouse worker might see a small map guiding him or her to specific items, which would then be scanned automatically by the Moverio's camera. An arrow on the map shows the users' location and moves as they move, with a 1:1 response.

It's quite neat, and the "mini-map" should look familiar to anyone who's played a video game - it's exactly like something in Grand Theft Auto or Call of Duty.

In another example, "points of interest" were arrayed in 3D space around the room. Focusing a floating, circular reticle around them using head-tracking caused various information - from business hours to wind speeds - to be displayed. Even videos, like of hypothetical traffic conditions on the Golden Gate Bridge, could be summoned on command.

These applications are mere examples developed by APX Labs to show off what the headset is capable of. APX previously developed smart glasses tech for military use, including something English called "Terminator vision." Like its cinematic namesake, it scans faces in a crowd and identifies threats.

He also described another program that helps combat medics in the field communicate with doctors.

These applications are currently used in real-life scenarios, but the potential for reaching a much broader audience is there.

"There's a million more valuable things you can do for delivering real-time information overlay to people who need to work hands-free," English said. He and Mizufuka call these applications "solutions for desk-less workers."

"Using the military glasses was great, but they were not available, they were expensive. They weren't fit for widespread adoption for enterprise customers. And that's when we came across Eric [Mizufuka] and Epson," English said.

APX was impressed with Epson's original BT-100 prototype and has been working with Mizufuka and Epson for over a year since. Mizufuka said APX "just got it" from the very beginning.

Through the Skylight

The culmination of the collaboration is Skylight, a platform that Epson and APX hope will propel Moverio to the forefront of enterprise technology.

Skylight is comprised of three parts. The first piece is the client component that manages the user experience on the device itself, keeping track of users' locations, rendering data on the glasses' display, and running various algorithms. It's the user experience on the headset itself - like a phone maker's Android overlay, such as HTC Sense for Android.

Moverio

Second is the server, which allows the headset to communicate with other Moverio users and other devices and systems, and tells the headset where it is so that location-specific data can be displayed.

The third component is a dashboard for remote interaction with the glasses. In English's example of a military field medic, for instance, the dashboard is what the doctor back at headquarters uses on a computer or other device to interact with the glasses remotely. Workers' supervisors can monitor their activities, offer help and more using the dashboard.

"We really kind of took a step back and looked at the product and were looking for where are the interesting pockets where we could play," Mizufuka said. "[The first time TechRadar saw the Moverio] it was more about consumer applications and what you could do with that existing product.

"What we did was built a developer's program and started to work with developers like APX and really started to say, 'Here is the interesting vision we have for smart glasses. Let us work with you to move the product in this direction.'"

About that other pair of smart glasses...

Mizufuka also addressed the inevitable comparisons to Google Glass, which weren't a problem back in 2011 before Glass was unveiled.

"It's been just a real blessing for us that Google has gotten into the category, has gotten a lot of buzz and built a lot of awareness, so now we no longer have to explain what a transparent display is," he said. "But the other thing is that in concept, we're very different."

"Google Glass is a completely different use case," he continued. "It's always on, and it's more pop-up information. We're differentiating in the respect that our lenses are in the middle of your field of view. It's takeover. So we envision very different use cases."

Imaging Moverio's future

More than anything Mizufuka and English stressed the possibilities of the Moverio hardware and platform.

"The interesting thing about smart glasses and this space is that we're so early in the hardware development cycle that people are thinking through all of the [user interface and user experience] challenges and opportunities," Mizufuka said. "What's the right mix? Is it voice? Voice obviously doesn't work in a lot of scenarios where it may be loud or where you want some privacy. Touch, you know, it's not optimal."

Individual developers will be able to come up with their own solutions, but what APX has built so far relies mainly on head-tracking rather than voice, touch, gesture, or other types of input.

"The thing about your head is that it is extremely accurate and stable, even in chaotic conditions like work, if you're moving around," English explained. "With subtle head movements you can do a lot of things, and it only takes a second to learn it."

Moverio

He said the only reason people still type most messages is because that's what they're used to. But a future where everyone is wearing a Moverio is one in which a worker who finishes a task can simply and effortlessly send a video of their completed work directly to their boss.

English did admit there are situations where having a phone, laptop or other device connect with Moverio to handle actions like typing might be preferred. After all, part of Skylight is that remote dashboard, and the headset runs on Android. It's not difficult to imagine a smartphone companion app, or even another device similar to Samsung's Galaxy Gear smartwatch, pair up and cover for Moverio's weaknesses.

Mizufuka hinted that the Moverio, being an Android device, could even include phone functionality.

"The design is to keep it Android, keep it open, so that it be compatible with any number of Bluetooth accessories or things people want to put on," Mizufuka said. "There are definitely developers who've done such things."

Eventually the hope is to open Moverio development up to all comers, even envisioning a consumer-facing app store with things like entertainment and augmented reality games.

"Longer term, once we do get the size and weight down and as some of those killer apps are built, we're definitely looking to work with developers to get some unique smart glasses-optimized content in there," Mizufuka said. "We're completely open … we're looking to really get it out there."

Epson isn't sharing any release info, but we'll be keeping an eye out for the next iteration of the Moverio hardware - maybe at CES 2014 in January?

smart glasses smartglasses Epson wearable tech wearable computing Google Android APX Labs enterprise Moverio Moverio BT-100 TRBC
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