2018 will see the introduction of a number of ‘smartglasses’. Initially, very few of these products will be capable of augmented reality, but many of them will be (or already are being) conflated with AR. So here’s a quick guide to understanding what augmented reality really is so that you don’t get mixed up by a hodgepodge of confusing marketing terms.

What Are Smartglasses?

Image courtesy Google

Smartglasses are to glasses as smartwatches are to watches—that is, they’re a wearable device capable of presenting useful information to the user. Much like a smartwatch, that information could be a text message, your heart rate, the name of an incoming phone call, turn-by-turn directions, etc.

The benefit of smart glasses is not needing to take your eyes off of what you’re doing to see the info. In that regard, smartglasses primarily function as a head-mounted ‘heads-up-display’ (AKA HUD). This video offers a great breakdown of how information commonly presented through smartglasses:

Most smartglasses achieve this by using some type of transparent display that allows you to see a small floating screen, but simply projecting information onto a transparent screen doesn’t mean that the information is ‘augmenting your reality’, as people often conflate; in fact, many approaches to augmented reality don’t rely on transparent displays.

Examples of Smartglasses:

What Are Augmented Reality (AR) Glasses?

Image courtesy Microsoft

AR glasses go much further than simply being a head-mounted HUD; their primary function is as an augmented reality display. Augmented reality is when digital information is presented as if exists in reality. That means that smartglasses don’t become AR glasses until they’re capable of sensing the world around you to present information in such a way that it feels like it’s actually present in your reality, not simply projected onto a transparent screen. This video shows how an AR headset does more than just show static information, and actually presents what you’re seeing (in this case, a game) as if it’s actually exists in the world around you:

The reason that AR glasses are today more commonly referred to as AR Headsets is that, in order to achieve a relatively wide field of view and gather enough information about the environment to enable AR, they require significantly more complex hardware onboard (and are thus much larger). The hope of course is that AR Headsets will eventually shrink enough to be rightfully called AR glasses, but in the meantime, don’t let anyone try to sell you “AR glasses” which are really just smartglasses.

Examples of AR Headsets:

Why All the Confusion?

From my observations of AR and VR since I started writing about the technologies six years ago, there seems to be two major factors contributing to the confusion between smartglasses and augmented reality: the introduction of Google Glass, and several companies trying to redefine AR for their benefit (though both are a symptom of the simple fact that AR is difficult to envision if you haven’t actually seen it in action for yourself).

For one, AR is a feature and not a product. In fact, some smartglasses actually do have very limited AR-like functionality. Even Google Glass, one of the earliest consumer-focused smartglasses, had an app which could translate video footage of written text into different languages in real-time. Alas, even Google never called Glass “augmented reality,” since the headset was just too limited for AR to be a primary feature.

But that didn’t stop media and the public at large from calling Google Glass ‘AR’, since almost no one at the time (and many still) had a bar for what AR actually looked like in use, or realized that there’s a very complex set of challenges that need to be solved to cross the gap from smartglasses to AR glasses. Many people latched onto the term because it seemed to describe the kinds of things that Google Glass might one day do, but actually never achieved. That’s all well and good, but now that we know better, it should be quite clear that Google Glass doesn’t fall into the AR glasses category.

In many ways it was the introduction of Google Glass and its popular conflation as AR that led to much of the current confusion about the difference between smartglasses in AR. Looking to avoid rather than correct that confusion—while arguably only adding to it— some companies have repurposed other terms to describe AR. Popular among those are are ‘holographic’, ‘mixed reality’, ‘merged reality’, and we’ve even started hearing ‘extended reality’.

But unless you want a future where we’re all using different terminology for the same things, I recommend we stick to augmented reality and encourage companies adding to the confusion to do the same.

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Making the distinction between smartglasses and AR glasses is important because the use-cases are fundamentally different. It’s the same reason we call game consoles and computers two different names; even though they’re both technically computers, they’re made to serve entirely different primary functions—making a definition so broad to encompass both is often useless to discussion except in special circumstances.

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Ben is the world's most senior professional analyst solely dedicated to the XR industry, having founded Road to VR in 2011—a year before the Oculus Kickstarter sparked a resurgence that led to the modern XR landscape. He has authored more than 3,000 articles chronicling the evolution of the XR industry over more than a decade. With that unique perspective, Ben has been consistently recognized as one of the most influential voices in XR, giving keynotes and joining panel and podcast discussions at key industry events. He is a self-described "journalist and analyst, not evangelist."
  • dk

    one is a smartwatch for your face …and the other actually looks like a hologram/virtual object sitting in space to someone using it

    • Kathryn

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  • ima420r

    Smartglasses should all have AR. I like the idea of a HUD on my glasses, but if I can’t do thinks like play pokemon go type games with them, I don’t want them.

  • Google Glass sure was described as augmented reality glasses by every media out there back in 2012:

    Plus, didn’t everyone agree last year when Pokémon Go was called AR that “alright, but since it’s really only a dumb graphical overlay on reality (in other words, just a glorified HUD) it’s only augmented but not fully MIXED reality”?

    How is Google Glass and Vuzix different from Pokémon Go? And if they aren’t, then why can’t they all be AR?

    Apple are rumored to do “simple smartglasses” as their first iteration of their AR-glasses device. If so, wwho will stop anyone from calling them AR?

    And YES, MR is still a hugely problematic term, signifying on the one hand “specific subsets/phenomena within VR and AR, respectively” and on the other being the umbrella term, as in “the mixed reality spectrum/continuum”.

    • NooYawker

      I wonder if there’s any article where Google trys to correct anyone saying this isn’t AR. I doubt it.

    • benz145

      A lot of people can say the same thing and still be wrong. Because of the way that Google announced Project Glass, where they were coy initially about what it could do, it seemed like it was being made for AR. We also called Google Glass AR back at the initial announcement because that’s how it seemed to be presented (and thus, we were mistaken). Once people started to understand what the device could actually do, and it’s limitations, it became clear that it wasn’t an AR headset.

      Same for Pokemon Go. Lots of people called it AR, but that doesn’t make them correct. I explained why Pokemon Go wasn’t AR (at the time of launch):


      Since launch however, the game has incorporated some proper AR elements.

  • Lucidfeuer

    These are more marketing (but failed market’s) bullshit dichotomies. There’s no such things as “smartglasses” or “AR glasses” devices today, and the quasi inexistence of these markets as well as the absence of actual usage is enough of a proof.

    In clearer terms: these are non-products, they sell less that some of the biggest product failures (Palm, Virtual Boy, name it…), because they don’t fucking make sense today and at the current technological availability.

    The only device susceptible to become a real practical product is Virtual headsets, not VR, not AR, “Virtual” as in the logical and intuitive continuity between a partially augmented environment and a completely projected one, also headsets, not glasses, because at the current state of research headset is the only suitable and realistic format to have such a product, glasses with lightfield lenses is like trying to sell quantum computer to domestic consumer, the technology is not close to be usable for a device.

  • 144Hz

    Which one will play vr porn? I don’t care about the other stuff.

  • Charlie

    Go to vuzix.com if you want to see the latest in smart glasses and where AR is going

  • WyrdestGeek

    I predict that smartglasses that do not do AR are going to tank as much as Google Glass before them even if they don’t have cameras.

    I further predict that their existence will confuse the issue for the average user and slow/drag down the smartglasses market overall.

    Because, honestly, wtf is the point of a mere HUD if you have to wear a special pair of glasses just to have it?

    Ok. I guess I could see a few special case industrial uses– that is in the short term.

    In the long term the people making those glasses, if they know where the money is, will just have their glasses gathering data from the industrial employee the whole time that will eventually be used to train an AI to replace the worker.

    Welcome to the future!

    Furry cows moo and decompress

  • Oleh Koval