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Could smartwatches finally make augmented reality attractive?

By Joe Levi July 15, 2014, 10:03 am
augmented reality smartwatch

It seems that every time we hear about “augmented reality” (AR) it’s from someone who has a new product they’re trying to peddle, which usually takes the form of some hideous looking piece of headwear. Recently, however, consumers are turning to smartwatches rather than eyewear. This is evidenced by the number of available apps for Android Wear compared to Google Glass, especially considering the latter has been available for so much longer. That’s what one company is banking on: an augmented reality smartwatch.

According to most definitions, “augmented reality” is a technology that superimposes a computer-generated image on a user’s view of the real world, turning it into a sort of composite view. This simply cannot be accomplished without some kind of camera and display screen. An AR headset is the most obvious way to accomplish this, but Google Glass certainly fits the bill as well. Even a smartphone or tablet, utilizing various sensors inside the device, can overlay information on a real-time display being fed by the camera.


Both of these solutions aren’t particularly pretty, however an AR or “virtual reality” headset looks much more goofy. Even the most slick looking product to-date, Google Glass, isn’t all that appealing to the masses. Instead, vehicle-based heads-up displays and backup-cameras with sensors and “virtual guides” built-in are the closest that most of us will come to AR these days — and those are still in the “early adopter” phase.

We’ve spotlighted a couple augmented reality apps for your smartphone here on Pocketnow, and some of them are better than others. The common thread is that all of them use the large display on your device, and the camera on the back of it to present the augmented information to you. This not only looks goofy, but it doesn’t work out all that well in practice for the same reasons that taking pictures with your iPad is still not a good idea.

What we need is a commonly worn device into which we can get augmented information. This device has to be something that we already wear, not a big VR headset or even Google Glass. It’s got to be something small and inconspicuous enough that it won’t get in the way (or attracted confused stares from irritated onlookers). Does such a device exist today? Ironically, yes, and we’ve been using them for decades!

I’m talking about the wristwatch.

The “watch” already augments our reality by providing us with the time of day and day of the week. Some tell us more than that, others tell us less. I know, it doesn’t sound cool and new, but it does technically fit one definition of “augmented reality”, though it doesn’t fulfill the “composite display” portion we mentioned above. Now that watches are getting “smarter”, that “composite” part may be getting closer to being accomplished, though it may not need to.

Last week a company called Metaio announced “the first ever object recognition solution for smart watches”. Combined with the camera on compatible Samsung smartwatches, Metaio’s tech lets you snap pictures of the objects around you, and lets you take action based on the objects in those pictures. In its video, Metaio shows a user snapping a picture of her breakfast, which is then recognized and a prompt presented so she can log the meal into her health-monitoring app. Cool? Yes. Augmented reality? Sort of.

Again, this is a case where we need to re-evaluate the definition of “augmented reality” to using technology to help us recognize and/or interact with objects around us in the physical world.

So far this has absolutely nothing to do with Android Wear, Pebble, or other smartwatches for obvious reasons: they don’t have a camera built-in. However, the kind of “augmented reality” we’re picturing isn’t limited to devices with built-in cameras. Google is already taking the first step. We’re told that smartphones and tablets will be “automatically unlocked” when their users are wearing a paired Android Wear smartwatch and a compatible version of the Android OS. We’re already reminded of upcoming appointments, allowed to answer or dismiss phone calls, send emails and text messages with our voices, reminded when we need to leave for an appointment, and quite a bit more.

As new apps are being created, and old apps and services are being retooled, we’re seeing a whole new set of interactions, features, and functionality being brought to our watch. Here’s a short list of what I’m talking about.

  • When I leave my house, a geo-fence rule can be triggered to set my thermostat to “away” mode.
  • If someone enters my house, disabling “away” mode, an alert can be sent directly to my watch.
  • When I tell my smartwatch to “Navigate home”, a similar rule can automatically run to turn “away” mode off, and start conditioning my house for my arrival.
  • I can tell my watch to turn the lights on, or turn them off.
  • With the press of a button on my watch I can take a picture with the camera on my phone  — and can almost instantly proof that picture on my wrist, so I know if I need to snap another one.
  • I can set up a rule to send a message right to my watch reminding me to take an umbrella if there is rain in the forecast, or to cover the tomato plants if there’s going to be a hard freeze.

Right now the list is fairly short, and what I’ve mentioned is nowhere near what you can already do today. As time goes one we’ll be able to do even more. No, this isn’t technically “augmented reality”, but in my opinion it’s much more useful, and may finally make augmented reality really attractive!


Image credit: Metaio


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