Google will test AR glasses in public

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Next month, Google will publicly test prototype augmented reality glasses with translation, transcription and navigation capabilities.

The AR prototype looks like a regular pair of glasses, but displays digital information in the user’s field of vision. Testing will be conducted in unspecified locations in the United States using Google employees and a few trusted external testers.

“[As] we develop experiences like AR navigation, [real-world testing] will help us take into account factors such as weather and busy intersections,” Juston Payne, group product manager at Google, wrote in a blog post. “[Those conditions] can be difficult, sometimes impossible, to fully recreate indoors.”

Google didn’t divulge many details, but said the glasses would have cameras, microphones and displays built into the lens.

Keeping the glasses small and light will limit their capabilities, according to JJ Lechleiter, vice president of PTC. The Boston-based software company’s Vuforia platform helps companies use augmented reality to train workers, market products and remotely support technicians in the field.

“If they’re trying to stick with the sunglasses form factor…then there will be limitations on the type of display and the type of camera hardware in there,” he said.

Several vendors already sell AR glasses, which are less bulky than AR headsets like Microsoft’s HoloLens 2 or the Magic Leap 2. Google launched the Glass Enterprise Edition 2 glasses in 2019, and device makers Vuzix and RealWear have offerings. These glasses display text, images and videos. However, they are unable to display hologram-like 3D images that Microsoft hardware and Magic Leap can display.

Google is currently selling its Glass Enterprise Edition 2 glasses for use in manufacturing, warehouses and machine repair.

Google emphasized privacy in its test announcement, saying AR prototypes won’t allow testers to take photos or videos. The company said it would use the image data to translate menus for foreign language speakers and provide driving directions.

The device will also protect privacy by retaining only information needed for analysis and debugging. According to Google, it will erase sensitive details like faces and license plates. In addition, passers-by can ask the tester to delete the image data that captures them.

With a focus on privacy, Google seems to have learned from the backlash it received when it started selling Glass to consumers in 2013. People criticized Glass owners who used the device in public, fearing that the equipment equipped with a camera records everything around them.

In response, Google has shifted the focus from the device to enterprise use, which appears to have boosted adoption. Last December, Fairfield Market Research reported that Google held around 50% of the global AR glasses market in 2020.

While the ubiquity of cellphones has normalized the recording of public events, AR glasses still spark resentment, according to Forrester Research analyst Julie Ask.

“If someone wears glasses, I always feel like it’s more on my face,” she said.

Security is another factor Google needs to consider when testing its AR technology, Ask said. Moving around while wearing an AR device can be dangerous, as any information on the screen obstructs the user’s view. Ask uses AR swim goggles and says it’s harder to avoid other swimmers when she’s wearing them.

Testers will not be allowed to drive, operate heavy machinery or play sports while wearing the devices, Google said.

Mike Gleason is a journalist specializing in unified communications and collaboration tools. He previously covered communities in the Massachusetts MetroWest region for the Milford Daily News, Walpole time, Sharon’s lawyer and Medfield Press. He has also worked for newspapers in central Massachusetts and southwestern Vermont and served as local editor of Patch. He can be found on Twitter at @MGleason_TT.

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