The next computing battleground could be on your head, with an Australian company taking on giants like Google and Microsoft with wearable computers in the form of glasses that appear to be straight out of a sci-fi flick.
After conditioning us to walk around absorbed in our mobile screens, the technologists now want to place digital information directly in front of our eyes before we necessarily know we need it.
It's known as "augmented reality" and analyst firm Juniper believes revenue from augmented-reality apps will reach $5.2 billion in 2017, up from $82 million this year.
"The natural evolution is to take those tablets and those phones out of your hands and put them up there in your field of vision," said Paul Kouppas, chief technology officer of Sydney-based Explore Engage.
Those apps were designed for smartphones and tablets but the company has spent the last two years and $2 million creating prototype smart glasses, recently demonstrating them on TV for the first time.
The company has positioned the camera-equipped glasses as a challenger to Google's Project Glass initiative, which is essentially Android-powered glasses that users can interact with by voice. Google's glasses will be offered to developers early next year for US$1500 before being made available to consumers by 2014.
But while Google may be, as co-founder Sergey Brin said, "making science fiction real", the current version of its glasses still requires users to look at a screen in their peripheral vision, rather than using see-through screen lenses that overlay the digital information directly in front of the user.
This makes Google's promo video from April slightly misleading, but Explore Engage has released its own video showing some of Google's futuristic features working on its real-world prototype. Another of its early working apps for the glasses is a version of Space Invaders.
"Because [Google] are not directly augmenting your line of sight, certain things wouldn't be possible on their glasses," said Kouppas.
Explore Engage is using crowd-funding site Pozible in an attempt to raise the money to finish the technology and mass produce it and is also seeking venture capital investment. But Kouppas warns that it is still likely a few years away from prime-time mainstream worthiness and the first applications would be industry-specific.
Kouppas said architects and engineers were a particular focus as the glasses could be used to see what a building looks like in situ before it's built or to visualise underground pipes and infrastructure.
The company is also working up navigation, education, tourism, real-time translation, home entertainment, gaming, medical and sports-event glasses apps. While Google is aiming at the mass market, Explore Engage says it is "more about particular use cases and bespoke design first, and mass marketing second".
"You could do a bit of a mashup between something like Second Life and a game like Doom, and allow them to co-exist in the real world," said Kouppas.
The next apps the team wants to make for the glasses include a CPR instructions overlay with voice prompts of what to do in an emergency and a cycling "heads up display" providing route and safety information, navigation, music and communication between riders.
Microsoft is also working on smart glasses, according to a newly published patent application, designed to be used while watching live events like sport and concerts.
Late last year The New York Times reported that Apple was also "conceptualising and even prototyping some wearable devices", but the example given was not headwear but a curved-glass iPod that would wrap around the wrist, interface with the iPhone and take commands using Siri.
Another competitor is Vuzix, which has recently launched its Smart Glasses M100 that includes a camera, GPS and motion sensors, microphone, earpiece and a version of Google's Android operating system.
It looks more like a Bluetooth headset than a pair of glasses and places a small screen in the user's peripheral vision. The device, expected to go on sale next year for under US$500, connects via wireless or Bluetooth to a smartphone and supports third-party apps.
Vuzix also offers a glasses-style augmented-reality system called the STAR 1200 that features cameras and see-through screens in each lens. The screens overlay information as though you're looking at a 75-inch flat screen from three metres away. It costs a whopping US$4999.
Kouppas said high-end smartphones with various sensors were finally unlocking the potential of augmented-reality glasses. The Explore Engage prototype still connects via a wire to a smartphone but he said this allows it to offload processing and power requirements to the phone, enabling the glasses to be more lightweight and visually appealing.
"For the consumer it's just a natural progress of how we interact with our world," he said.
- Sydney Morning Herald