Vuzix, a Rochester, New York-based display provider, has been trying to resurrect the promise of Google Glass for years now, but this year’s iteration finally feels ready. The company’s new product, called the Vuzix Blade, was unveiled at CES this week in Las Vegas. It’s a pair of augmented reality smart glasses that float a screen in the upper right corner of your vision. But unlike previous iterations, in which the technology protruded in ugly and apparent fashion, the Blade is the first device Vuzix has developed that contains nearly every aspect of the display and its power source within the eyewear frames.
The company has partnered with Amazon to bring Alexa integration to the device, making the Blade the first pair of AR glasses to make use of Amazon’s voice-based digital assistant. And the glasses are not just a prototype. Vuzix plans to deliver a developer version of the product in the next few months, with a consumer version coming in the second quarter of this year. The price right now is $1,000, but Vuzix hopes to bring it down to less than $500 with future generations.
In a demo on the show floor, I was able to give the Blade a try. I can confidently say that the glasses are the real deal: the Blade provides all the benefits Google Glass provided, but better. The display is larger, clearer, and in full color. It can be moved around your vision by toggling a slider up and down in the settings of the device itself. The glasses themselves are prescription ready and weigh less than three ounces. (As for aspect ratio and resolution, Vuzix says it’s still finalizing details.)
The Blade works as a standalone headset and can be connected to the internet via Wi-Fi, but it can also be paired over Bluetooth with an iPhone or Android device to mirror notifications and display photos and videos. It has a battery life of anywhere from two to 12 hours, the company claims, depending on whether you’re using it mostly for notifications or for more intensive applications like accessing the web via Alexa, playing games, or using the front-facing, 8-megapixel camera. To maneuver the device’s interface, you can use an internal voice control system that’s separate from Alexa, or you can use a series of multi-fingered swipes on the right side of glasses frame.
One critical difference, and what makes it such a noticeable leap over Glass and other failed attempts at AR, is the design. The Blade, while aesthetically the same as a clunky pair of oversized sunglasses, looks and feels closer to a standard non-computerized accessory than anything we’ve seen before. That doesn’t mean you don’t look goofy wearing them (you do), or that it’s not clear there’s a bit of extra junk built into the frames (there is). But beyond the soft glow of bluish white light an outside observer may notice pulsing behind the right side lens, you’d have to get up close and personal to tell a user was wearing a computer over their eyes.
On one hand, that helps the Blade overcome one of the primary pitfalls Google Glass faced five years ago, when it became apparent that any wearer of the device was using a bizarre brand of wearable tech that made them look pretentious and out of touch. On the other hand, the “Glasshole” gibe that became commonplace in the Bay Area for adopters of Google’s $1,500 notification machine was mostly about the device’s ability to surreptitiously record people. Vuzix avoids some of the aesthetic mistakes of Glass, but it cannot reasonably skirt accusations that wearers of its device are spying on people in plain sight. Google’s flashy foray into AR hardware was doomed before it had officially left beta because of a combination of all these factors. So Vuzix will need to stay ahead of the obvious criticisms that come with this type of territory.
Beyond design, the other big differentiator for Vuzix is that its product actually works. In my time with a developer unit on the CES show floor, the device never once stuttered, suffered a hiccup, or needed a restart. The experience was smooth, the interface was responsive and easy to use, and the product was immensely comfortable when compared to other bulky AR glasses, many of which are floating around here at CES.
Granted, I couldn’t try the Blade’s general voice control or its Alexa integration given the copious amount of noise around us and the shoddy ballroom Wi-Fi. But Vuzix representatives were confident in saying that in any other setting, the device’s voice and AI assistant features work as advertised. That marriage of voice-based artificial intelligence, even in a low-key personal assistant form, to a hands-free wearable with a heads-up display feels closer than ever before.
Now, the Blade isn’t quite as sophisticated as you might be hoping. It isn’t capable of the same caliber of AR as Microsoft’s HoloLens. It doesn’t make use of object recognition, spatial mapping, and other software tracking features to analyze your surroundings and blend them with virtual objects. This isn’t so much AR as it is a heads-up display.
The HoloLens is particularly impressive because it’s able to take regular everyday objects like walls, floors, and tables and incorporate them into AR games. This is because the HoloLens has the appropriate cameras and sensors to let the device identify its surroundings, measure the depth between a user and objects in a given environment, and blend all of that together with software for use with advanced AR applications.
The Vuzix Blade, on the other hand, is more focused right now on bringing standard smartphone functions to a floating screen that’s viewable through transparent lenses. That doesn’t mean that it’s not capable of performing some of the same feats as the HoloLens. Vuzix’s Chief Operating Officer Paul Boris says the current Blade design and current components allow for things like gesture control, so you could interact with the virtual screen in front of you and potentially with virtual objects that are placed within that screen. He says the Blade could also do object recognition, like identifying products and overlaying data like price tags. But it’s clear these glasses won’t be running Pokémon Go or the Windows Holographic version of Minecraft any time soon.
“Magic Leap, Microsoft HoloLens, Meta, Daqri, etc. — these are not smart glasses the way Vuzix defines smart glasses … actually I don’t think any of them call their own devices smart glasses either,” Boris said in an email to The Verge. “They call their devices ‘holographic computers,’ ‘mixed Reality Headsets,’ and ‘AR platforms.’”
Boris says it’s clear those companies’ products are geared more toward developing potential successors to desktop and mobile computing, and not just trying to take existing technology and make it more accessible in a different form. “We are not disparaging any of them. Quite the contrary, these companies are investing money and resources that will drive the future of AR and the software platforms to make this a reality. We all need them. It’s just not what Vuzix does.”
Boris added that “in order to deliver these experiences, these holographic computers are large devices, far from fashionable, too heavy and not practical to wear all day, and many have external cables, processors, and hand gesture devices.” In order to avoid making the Blade as cumbersome as a mixed reality headset or the HoloLens, Boris says Vuzix had to focus on a more narrow set of functions that would allow it to miniuratize the technology and make it fit into a standard pair of glasses.
Yet regardless of its limitations compared with the HoloLens, the Blade still feels like a turning point. In a sea of half-finished prototypes and semi-earnest attempts at sci-fi-style “smart” glasses, the Blade stands out as a polished product consumers might actually buy. Even if the AR vision most consumers appear to want won’t materialize for another three or five or maybe even 10 years, the attempts from companies like Vuzix show that we are, in fact, making progress. Google Glass may have set the AR industry back a bit, just as half-baked video game fantasies like the Virtual Boy made VR feel like a played out fad in ‘90s. But we’re slowly and surely making sound steps into the future, and Vuzix has taken a surprise step out in front of the pack.
Of course, at $1,000, the consumer version of the Blade coming out later this year won’t be ready for mainstream consumers. You probably won’t even see the most cutting-edge early adopters sporting these any time soon, unless you happen to hang out around the San Francisco Bay Area or among optics and AR aficionados. Vuzix has up until now mostly served the enterprise, selling its glasses to employees of big industrial companies to use in the workplace. The Blade is no different in that respect, and it will likely find its home on factory and warehouse floors sooner than city sidewalks.
Still, that the device works this well and feels this comfortable is a good sign for consumer AR hardware. We’re sure to see more companies match Vuzix in quality and comfort, including big tech industry players. Rumor has it Apple is working on AR glasses, and it’s not far-fetched to think Google could parlay its more measured approach with Glass 2.0 in the workplace into a more refined and focused consumer product. There is of course Magic Leap, the secretive Florida-based startup that’s raised nearly $2 billion over the last seven years and only just unveiled its first-gen product last month.
But here at CES, a company most people have never heard of is closer than any of them at shipping something actually usable. I probably won’t purchase it, and you and even your most gadget-obsessed friend probably won’t either. Not this version, least. But another iteration or two down the line — when the technology is even smaller, more advanced, and more subtle and when the device itself looks imperceptible from a standard pair of shades — Vuzix may have a real hit on its hands.