A lot of people make fun of Google Glass. Some of them think wearing Glass makes you look like a hipster cyborg.
Others object to the built-in spy camera, which is a screaming privacy violation and a good way to get yourself punched in the nose.
But not many people criticize the actual technology of Glass (which is generally excellent). They talk instead about the social problems of wearing Glass.
My guess, therefore, is that Google Glass will never become a popular consumer item. It will settle into niches where having a hands-free camera and screen make sense: extreme sports, aircraft maintenance, surgery, and so on.
That’s why Epson is so smart to target its new Moverio BT200 smart glasses ($700) at niche uses from the outset.
“We don’t believe the world is ready for an always-on use case,” the product manager told me. Translation: Nobody is going to wear smart glasses around town. They’re for special cases, especially augmented reality (where you see text and graphics overlaid on the world around you) and virtual reality (where you can look around inside imaginary worlds).
With that understanding, Epson’s designers were freed from many of the constraints that Google has faced in making its smart glasses. For example, Epson’s designers don’t have to care much about fashion.
Which is lucky, because Epson’s glasses look ridiculous.
Unlike Google Glass, which places a single screen above your right eye, these are true glasses. They have actual lenses, which you’re supposed to look through. (These new BT200s are much smaller, lighter, and better successors to an earlier Epson product, the bulky BT100s.)
What it comes with
Epson includes a handy carrying case and two clip-on “sunglasses” attachments, for use when it’s very bright outside. You even get a clip-on frame that you can have outfitted with prescription lenses. You can also wear the BT200s over your existing glasses, if you don’t mind looking even sillier.
Epson has harnessed its projector technology for these glasses. When you look through them, you see a big, sharp, colorful screen floating 16 feet away. Incredibly, that image is being reflected from miniature projectors in each earpiece into two semi-transparent mirrors in your field of view: one for each eye.
(It’s a challenge to represent this virtual screen in a review. Epson provided me with a rig that fixes a small camcorder behind the glasses, so that I could record what your eye would see. I used this setup to film the video that accompanies this review. Unfortunately, the camcorder captures only a vague, washed-out suggestion of what you see with your eye. The real image is much more solid, sharp, and colorful.)
Anyway, the point is that Moverio glasses offer translucent, binocular (both-eye) screens. Supremely responsive motion sensors detect the movement of your head, making these glasses a natural for virtual-reality games and other apps. And, oh yeah: These glasses fold up for storage, a trick Google’s glasses haven’t mastered yet.
A black, sometimes fussy cord connects the glasses to the control unit, which is something like an Android phone without the phone. Inside, there’s 8 gigabytes of storage, WiFi, Bluetooth, and a six-hour battery; on the outside, it’s a big plastic touchpad.
As you look at the virtual screen floating before you, you move a cursor around by dragging your thumb on the touchpad.
You tap the pad to “click.” Unfortunately, this touchpad doesn’t actually click — no surface moves when you press it. A physical click, like the one on a mouse or most laptop trackpads, would have helped a lot.
With practice, though, this arrangement is fairly usable. You see pretty much what you’d see when using an Android phone: scrollable home screens full of app icons.
The Moverio glasses cannot, however, access the standard Android app store. Epson intends to build a custom app store just for Moverio apps. In the meantime, you can “sideload” Android apps — that is, get them onto the Moverio by (for example) emailing them to yourself, rather than downloading them using Google’s Play store.
Some apps make sense when viewed through glasses, and some don’t. The important thing to remember is that what you see through the Moverio glasses combines the virtual screen with what’s in the real world around you. And that’s where things get really exciting and the potential for smart glasses suddenly leaps out.
For example, Epson loaded my control unit with several apps that show off how these glasses might be useful in real-world work situations:
JB Knowledge’s SmartReality. You look at a blueprint lying on the table (Epson supplied a couple of examples printed on regular paper).
When you wear the glasses, open the SmartReality app, and download the corresponding file, you see a model of the finished building, extending upward from the lines of its footprint on the drawing. This is amazing augmented reality: As you walk around the drawing or lean over it, your perspective on the model changes as though it’s a physical object that’s really sitting there. (This image doesn’t do it justice; when you’re wearing the glasses, the walls sprout directly up out of the corresponding blueprint elements.)
WiPro Planogram. In theory, this app lets a worker glance at a shelf full of products and find out instantly if everything is in the right order and what is missing. For demo purposes, Epson gave me color printouts of two grocery-store shelves — one sorted correctly, one incorrectly. Sure enough, the app drew virtual checkmarks over the proper products and X’s over the wrong ones.
Psyclops. As you look all around you — up, down, left, right, behind — you see aliens approaching. You can blow them up by tapping the trackpad. It’s a simple illustration of the glasses’ virtual-reality potential.
Aero Glass. I couldn’t try this app in an actual plane, but the promo video looks amazing. It’s for pilots. Colored lines indicate your “highway in the sky” — your corridor of flight. Pop-up labels identify other aircraft around you, even when they’re taxiing on the ground.
Bublcam. You can look around inside spherical photos that have been taken with a “bubblecam,” giving you a much better sense of a place.
DJI Phantom Vision. Right out of the box, Epson’s glasses work with DJI’s popular Phantom Vision quadcopter drones. Ordinarily, when you’re flying a drone, you split your attention between the drone in the air and the phone clipped to your remote control; the phone shows what the Phantom’s camera is seeing and shows you all the flight details (altitude, battery, position, and so on).
But when you’re wearing the Moverios, the live image from the drone’s camera is fed into the glasses. So you can keep your head up at all times. You can see both the drone and its camera view and telemetry data at once.
It’s a thrilling idea, but it’s balky in practice. I had to experiment with different variations of the Moverios’ “sunglasses” lenses, and even then I never got both the real-world view and the camera’s display both at the right brightness. And of course you have to use the Moverios’ trackpad to change settings (like the drone’s camera angle), which is a fairly indirect procedure.
Netflix. Yes, you can watch good old Netflix on these glasses — might be a good option for a plane ride, although of course you’re no longer exploiting the glasses’ ability to show you the real world simultaneously. Note that the glasses have no speakers, so apps with sound require you to plug earbuds into the already tangly cord between the glasses and the control box.
So, yes, the Moverios are a little clumsy, and not stylish in the least. But what’s so likeable about them is that they have no pretensions to changing the world or becoming the next iPhone.
Instead, they’re humble. They know their place. They do a quiet, professional job in certain niches, most of which are workplace-related.
They seem to say: “It’s too early to say exactly what smart glasses are. Google has one definition. We have another one. Let’s see where things go.”
In that regard, Epson has nailed it. No, you probably won’t buy the Moverios. But you should be aware of them. Your next employer, or your child’s, may someday hand over a pair on the first day of work.
You can email David Pogue here.