Unveiled as the first major product of the highly secretive "Google X" laboratory, Project Glass stole the show at last month's Google's I/O conference thanks to a live demonstration of the technology. It displayed skydiving, biking and rappelling down the side of the building, all using the live streaming feature from Google Hangouts to share the wearers' first-person perspectives with the world. Thanks to a YouTube hookup, audiences around the world got a great idea of what Google's Glasses can really do in the wild.
Google's "Project Glass" is incredibly ambitious, but it appears that Google is no longer alone in exploring the realm of wearable tech solutions. Apple was reportedly granted a patent on Tuesday in relation to "peripheral treatment for head-mounted displays."
Of all the companies to build a Project Glass rival, Google should worry most about Apple.
While Google Glass places a piece of smartglass right above the user's eye, Apple's solution uses two peripheral lights to show two different images to each eye "to create an enhanced viewing experience for the user." Apple's patent also attempts to address the biggest problems with head-mounted displays (HMDs), which have yet to gain traction in the consumer market for several reasons: They're too bulky, the tech and battery life aren't quite ready yet, and they're not fashionable enough for people to want to wear. At least not yet.
Apple outlines the applications and benefits of HMDs in its patent filing:
"Some HMDs can be used to view a see-through image imposed upon a real world view, thereby creating what is typically referred to as an augmented reality. This is accomplished by reflecting the video images through partially reflective mirrors, such that the real world is seen through the mirrors' reflective surfaces. The augmented reality can be combined with the stereoscopic images in various types of applications. Some examples include applications in surgery, where radiographic data, such as CAT scans or MRI imaging, can be combined with the surgeon's vision. Military, police and firefighters use HMDs to display relevant tactical information, such as maps or thermal imaging data. Engineers and scientists use HMDs to provide stereoscopic views of CAD schematics, simulations or remote sensing applications. Consumer devices are also available for use in gaming and entertainment applications."
Apple hopes to solve many longstanding issues with HMDs, particularly the general risk of eyestrain that could be caused by the difference in distances between the wearer's field of vision and the peripheral display itself. Essentially, Apple's technology dynamically matches the color images being transmitted with either LED, OLED or lasers, which are converged stereoscopically to reduce the "tunnel effect" experienced in many of today's HMDs.
"Various embodiments of the invention allow users to customize different viewing parameters of the head mounted displays to accommodate for variation in the individual users' eyes," Apple wrote.
Apple's solution takes separate bits of information from the two incoming images -- the first image is broken down by the device's processor into a plurality of regions, colors and signals, while the second image is projected for the second eye to see -- to create a viewing experience that is significantly more comfortable than conventional HMDs, which "may also lead to a smaller likelihood of the user experiencing 'motion sickness' phenomena during extended viewing."
Apple says its technology can do many things with the data collected by its HMD, including storage, transferral, combination, comparison and other forms of manipulation used to produce, identify, run, determine, compare, execute, download or detect.
iGlasses: Coming Soon?
Google said that it would exclusively release an "Explorer Edition" of Project Glass to developers next year for $1,500, but Google says the augmented reality headset will ship to consumers less than a year after the developer release, which means we will likely see Project Glass released before the end of 2013, probably just in time for Christmas.
Nobody outside of Cupertino knows how far along Apple is in developing its own AR headgear, but it's likely nowhere near where Google is right now. For the past several months, Google co-founder Sergey Brin has been much more visible with Project Glass, donning the glasses in more interviews and opportunities to put Project Glass out in the world.
Apple filed its patent in 2006, but that doesn't mean the company has been working on this project in that time. Patents are filed and granted for technologies all the time, simply because companies don't know which ideas to pursue and which to shelve for later. There's no way of knowing if Apple truly wants to build headgear with virtual capabilities, but given that there have been no rumors or reports from Apple's loose-lipped foreign supply chains, we can presume that Apple is still far from the prototype stage.
If Apple wants to build this patent into a viable, wearable solution, iGlasses would not likely be ready for a few years. Apple is likely waiting to see how the public takes to Google Glasses, at which point it will decide if it wants to compete. Apple typically doesn't enter markets where companies are currently succeeding (e.g: the search game), but the company will move on this if they can feel their product would offer something different and valuable.
Assuming Apple's iGlasses could do everything Project Glass can, it would be great to take pictures and videos with our eyes and transmit those videos to our iPhones, iPads and Macs via iCloud. With the new Maps application coming in iOS 6, we could get turn-by-turn directions with real-time traffic information while never having to take our eyes off the road. Apple users could set reminders, learn about places and things by looking at them, and of course, ask questions with Siri and use FaceTime to chat. If Apple can create this type of hands-free high-tech, it will effectively free the iOS platform for real-world applications. If iOS applications can escape the iPhone, and the virtual market can blend into the real-world market, Apple may see that $1 trillion market cap sooner than we think.
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