AR at work: 5 headsets aimed at business

Augmented reality is finding a place in the office as a driver of collaboration and productivity and for front-line workers, a way to stay connected with fellow employees.

abstract virtual reality head set augmented reality headgear
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Once the stuff of science fiction, augmented reality (AR) is increasingly finding a place in the workplace as a driver of collaboration and productivity. Some companies use it as a tool for employee training, others use it to offer remote assistance to field service technicians. There are surgeons now using AR devices in the operating room. 

Though primitive AR systems date back to the 1960s, today it’s used mainly to overlay virtual objects and information onto physical environments, using either a heads-up display built into smartglasses or a smartphone or tablet camera (think Pokemon Go).

As AR has evolved, business interest has grown – a trend that’s expected to continue over the next few years. Combined global spending on AR and virtual reality (VR) hit $16.8 billion this year, according to IDC's Worldwide Semiannual Augmented and Virtual Reality Spending Guide, and is forecast to reach $160 billion in 2023. That’s more than double the forecast from Markets and Markets, which puts the AR market at $61.4 billion in 2023, still up sharply from this year’s levels.

Enterprises are expected to make up a large chunk of that spending, according to IDC, with demand coming from front-line workers who need hands-free computing devices, such as when working on the factory floor. 

For office workers, AR is seen as a boon to employee collaboration; companies such as Spatial expect the technology to allow remote colleagues to communicate "face-to-face" and manipulate 3D objects in real time.

"Augmented reality is gaining share in the commercial market due to its ability to facilitate tasks, provide access to resources, and solve complex problems," said Marcus Torchia, a research director at IDC. "Industries such as manufacturing, utilities, telecommunications and logistics are increasingly adopting AR for performing tasks such as assembly, maintenance and repair.”

“There is definitely an increase in large organizations interested and starting pilots with augmented/mixed reality solutions,” said Mark Sage, executive director at the AR for Enterprise Alliance. “The AR hardware business will continue to improve and mature, which will drive further adoption.”

At the same time, AR hardware is improving, with more comfortable designs and better performance. With that in mind, here’s a look at five of the AR systems already available to businesses.

Google Glass Enterprise Edition

Google’s smartglasses initially arrived in 2013, the first AR device to really make waves. It featured a touchpad on the side of the eyeglass frame for navigation, and a camera and display for information showing video, emails and other notifications.

Google Glass frame side Google

Google Glass

Despite the hype, Glass was considered a flop because it did not see wide-scale adoption. That’s not to say the technology hasn’t shown promise: Google subsequently scaled back its ambitions and targeted Glass exclusively at business use with the more low-key introduction of its Enterprise Edition in 2017 under its “X” moonshot division.

The idea is that that the smartglasses are better suited to workers who need hands-free computing, such as in manufacturing and logistics.

An updated Glass Enterprise Edition was unveiled last month, and the company announced it was moving development back into Google’s main business - a signal, perhaps, of Google’s intentions with the technology. 

The latest version of Glass uses the new Qualcomm Snapdragon XR1 chip, which supports machine learning algorithms on the device for improved computer vision. There are also improvements to battery life and a USB-C connection for fast charging. A full list of specs for the Glass Enterprise Edition 2 is available online. 

Google Glass is one of the lightest AR devices aimed at business users, though its functionality is more limited than some of the larger headsets on the market. It does, however, support a range of functions, including access to training videos and images annotated with instructions. It also lets workers collaborate with co-workers, connecting frontline workers with remote experts, for example, thanks to live video stream from the headset’s camera.

The devices and associated software cost $999 and are sold through partners; pricing varies, depending on customization and support requirements. 

Microsoft HoloLens 2

HoloLens, Microsoft’s mixed reality headset, has been aimed squarely at business since its arrival. Users can interact with objects projected onto its tinted visor using a variety of inputs, such as voice commands, eye-tracking and hand gestures.

hololens 2 headset Microsoft

Microsoft's Hololens 2 headset.

Microsoft announced the follow-up to its first HoloLens device at Mobile World Congress earlier this year, touting a slimmer and more powerful device that runs on Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 850 processor. It is also more comfortable to wear for prolonged periods, thanks to a more ergonomic design and carbon-fiber headband frame.

Although there are improvements over the first iteration, HoloLens 2 is not without its own limitations. In his take on the device for Computerworld, analyst Rob Enderle noted that the occlusion – the ability to hide virtual objects behind real things - is still far from perfect.

HoloLens 2 will support a variety of Microsoft apps. The list includes its Dynamics 365 business software, with companies such as oil giant Chevron using Dynamics 365 Remote Assist to connect employees. Guides, which helps employees learn with step-by-step training, and Layout, a 3D design tool, are also supported.

Microsoft appears to have had the most success in terms of customer deployments. It reportedly beat rival Magic Leap to a $480 million U.S. Army contract that could see up to 100,000 adapted HoloLens 2 headsets deployed to troops for training and combat.

Microsoft has yet to give a firm release date for HoloLens 2, though it is expected to be available later this year. HoloLens 2 will be less expensive than its predecessor, but it’s not exactly cheap: the latest device on its own will cost $3,500 at launch. More pricing details are available online.

The original HoloLens - initially priced at $5,000 - now costs $3,000, though Microsoft’s online store is out of stock.

Lenovo's ThinkReality A6

Lenovo’s AR device takes its design cue from HoloLens, with a “heads-up, hands free” mobile visor that overlays 3D graphics onto real-world environments.

Lenovo thinkreality a6 Lenovo

Lenovo ThinkReality A6

The 13-oz. ThinkReality A6 headset is designed to be lighter than other options, Lenovo said. (Weight can be a drawback for many AR and VR devices.) Removable 6,800mAh batteries can be swapped out to keep the device in action for extended time periods; each battery lasts around four hours. 

It’s not Lenovo’s first foray into VR devices. A mixed-reality Windows headset was launched last year, for example, as well as the standalone Mirage Solo. The ThinkReality A6 is the first Lenovo headset designed specifically for the enterprise, however. 

Like the HoloLens 2, Lenovo’s device supports a range of input commands, including  hand gestures, voice and eye-tracking. It uses a Qualcomm Snapdragon 845 chip, which has a slightly lower clock speed than the chip in Microsoft’s device.

Launched alongside the ThinkReality headset is a device-agnostic software platform that supports AR and VR apps across a variety of operating systems.

Pricing details haven’t been announced.

The Vuzix M300 and M400 

Founded in 1997, Rochester, N.Y.-based Vuzix has a long history of creating VR and AR devices for business use. 

Vuzix M300 Vuzix

Vuzix M300XL

Its core range of smartglasses follows the same path as Google’s Glass, with compute, microphone, camera and display hardware mounted on the frame. The Vuzix M300 arrived in 2017 and is, like most of its smartglasses, geared toward industrial use. The company sells a range of accessories for the M300, including a safety glass frame kit, hard hat mount, and an external battery for extended use.  An updated M300XL arrived in 2018 with an improved 16MP camera, longer battery life and improved optical stabilization.

Already on the way is the next iteration, the M400. Like the latest Google Glass, the M400 will use Qualcomm’s Snapdragon XR1 – the first chip tailored to VR and AR applications. The new device, announced at MWC, will also be substantially lighter and more powerful than its predecessor. 

The M300 is now sold out on Vuzix’s website, though the XL version is still available. The M400 will cost $1,799 as part of an early adopters program.

Magic Leap's Leap One glasses

The AR startup has attracted a staggering amount of investment in recent years - $2.6 billion to date - despite only recently bringing its first “creator” edition headset to market. 

Magic Leap Magic Leap

Magic Leap's Leap One glasses

Magic Leap’s steampunk-inspired Leap One glasses are built for consumers first, but the company has indicated it will target businesses, too.

To that end the company acquired AR “co-presence” firm Mimesys. The Belgian startup’s video conferencing technology lets a Leap One headset-wearer see a 3D representation of a person during a video call. Unlike the simplified and cartoon-like Avatar Chat app that Magic Leap already offers, Mimesys creates avatars that actually look like the people they represent. That would make virtual business meetings more lifelike. 

The Magic Leap One Creator Edition costs $2,295 but is available only in parts of the US where Magic Leap can arrange setup and delivery: Chicago, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, San Francisco and Seattle.

Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.

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