Making AR a Reality: Four Hardware Roadblocks to Overcome to Enable Truly Augmented Reality Products
Ryan Moore | February 12, 2021
Reality as we know it is steadily getting an overhaul. IDTechEx predicts the augmented (AR), virtual (VR), and mixed reality (MR) market to be over $30B by 2030. This growth is driven by a perfect storm of evolving technology and the demand for limiting physical interaction in a post-pandemic world. Of these three technologies, augmented reality promises the closest connection to the physical world, improving the availability of real-time data and information for those who seek it.
However, the issue remains that users are limited to the augmented reality they can explore within the limitations of today’s hardware offerings and its technological tethers. The ability for these roadblocks to be overcome will be a game-changer for the AR market and for how we interact in our personal and professional lives.
What is Augmented Reality?
Augmented reality (AR) consists of ‘augmenting’ the world around us with real-time data and information concerning our surroundings through a virtual lens. Unlike virtual reality (VR), which involves complete immersion in a virtual world or mixed reality (MR), which combines real and virtual objects seamlessly, AR keeps the real world central but layers additional digital details or information to supplement the surrounding environment. Imagine going to the grocery store and having your AR lens pointing out the ripest apples to purchase, reminding you of the name of a person you run into down the canned goods aisle, or even calculating the change you should be receiving back when checking out. This, and so much more, is the vision of AR.
The State of AR Today
The only problem with the grocery store example above is that, unfortunately, it just isn’t a ‘reality’ yet. Researchers and brands are getting closer to the vision above in terms of software and AI, but mainstream AR execution is limited to the hardware we have on hand – or in hand – with our smartphones and tablets. Where are the sleek horn-rimmed frames projecting information on its lenses as we see portrayed in science fiction films? Well, this is obviously the vision, but the industry is limited by the technologies available today. There are significant roadblocks impeding hardware progress – four in fact – that need to be overcome to enable AR hardware to catch up with its software.
Augmented Reality Device Roadblocks
With most augmented reality information being shared visually, AR’s ideal form factor is in the form of glasses, lenses, or goggles. Data being shared to your eyes immediately without the need to constantly hold your phone up to the world around you is an infinitely better solution. To be effective, however, the headset must be powered on while the user is using it, not hindering their day-to-day movement with bulk or weight, able to resist harsh environments including water, sweat, pollution, or corrosive liquids, and be consistently connected. This goal translates into four roadblocks to be overcome: battery life, bulk & weight, ruggedization, and connectivity.
1. Battery Life
With the average person being awake for 15 to 17 hours a day and the current AR headset’s battery life ranging from 2-8 hours, there is an obvious delta to be made up for consistent use. Battery life is a struggle for most of today’s mobile products, whether it be laptops, phones, or electric vehicles. Part of this struggle is due to lithium-ion battery technology’s limitations that have been the go-to source for power packs for almost 20 years. Researchers are making progress with new battery solutions, including lithium-sulfur batteries with early testing powering a smartphone for five days. The future looks bright for all-day battery capabilities for AR devices.
Simply put, electronics and corrosive liquids of any kind don’t mix. AR glasses and headsets of the future must be protected against the harsh environments their users find themselves in, or else they simply won’t be adopted. Being caught in the rain is for those that like piña colada, not those wearing unprotected electronics. Sweat from a workout, spills, pollutants, and more can quickly cause catastrophic damage to an AR headset and cost the user downtime and replacement fees with the manufacturer handling liability and warranty claims. Thankfully, there are protective solutions available that design teams can choose from, including thin-film and nano coatings applied directly to the glasses’ PCBs, bringing peace of mind to the user and the brand. These coatings can repel and safeguard against any liquids or gases an AR headset may encounter.
3. Bulk & Weight
As Moore’s Law continues to enable smaller and faster electronic designs, reality headsets still have a way to go. The average weight for VR headsets is between 380 to 600 grams (around one pound), while eyeglasses have an average weight of 25 to 50 grams. For AR headsets to be adopted for all-day use, they must be light and thin enough for the user to wear with little to no discomfort. The bulk and weight of headsets can be reduced with alternative material selection. For example, graphene can replace heavier plastics and metals while microns thin Parylene coatings can be utilized instead of mechanical seals to keep water away. These improvements will significantly cut down on the weight of the product and fatigue of the user.
Uninterrupted connectivity is crucial to the functionality of augmented reality products. With 5G and the IoT slowly rolling out, consistent connectivity is becoming a possibility for the next generation of AR devices. The ability to truly blanket the world with connectivity, however, is the next step. Solutions such as Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites promise to offer just that, dispersing the internet to every square foot of the globe.
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Making AR an Outdoor Reality
Because of the roadblocks mentioned above, any sort of AR headset usage today is limited to indoor applications, where the wearer must be tethered to power and connectivity in a non-hazardous environment. Thankfully, these roadblocks are being overcome as technology moves forward. The opportunities of identifying rare flowers with AI while hiking in remote humid jungles or getting player’s stats while coaching your daughter’s football team in the rain are slowly becoming a reality.
Are you developing the next generation of AR headsets? Let us know, and we’ll show how you can ensure your glasses will function as intended, regardless of the environment.
There are significant roadblocks impeding hardware progress – four in fact – that need to be overcome to enable AR hardware to catch up with its software.
Director of Marketing
Ryan is a 9-year veteran to the world of protecting electronics from harsh environments and a lover of all things technology.