Intel's Vaunt smart glasses are real (and real discreet)

Intel's Vaunt smart glasses aren't Augmented Reality, they're not entertainment-changing Virtual Reality, and they're definitely not Google Glass. What they are, we've discovered today, is a set of spectacles that look pretty much like regular eyeglasses. That's entirely by design, and Intel's Vaunt team has apparently worked hard to pare back the tech glitz in order to hit some essentials.

It's easy to get caught up in the science-fiction hype around smart glasses. Augmented Reality, where digital graphics are overlaid on top of the real world – and can even interact with it – is the stuff not only of movies but several projects around the world. Magic Leap's Riddick-esque goggles, for example, promise an immersive world where CGI and reality blend almost seamlessly.

Unfortunately, as Google discovered with the ill-fated consumer launch of Google Glass, the reality is something a whole lot different. Try to put high-resolution, full-color displays into a headset – and, more ambitious still, try to make them transparent for AR – and suddenly you need a whole lot of power. You also need a capable CPU and GPU, which then introduces bulk. Want to make the wearable a standalone device? Somehow you have to fit in a control pad, or a microphone and speaker, or maybe even a camera.

As The Verge discovered when they played with a prototype Vaunt set, Intel has gone back to extreme basics. That involves dropping the whole AR thing, too: the Vaunt smart glasses projects a single-color, super-low-power red laser onto your retina in one eye. It's designed to tether via Bluetooth Low Energy to your smartphone, which does all the heavy processing, leaving the glasses to beam simple notifications into your eye-line.

The result, Intel says, is a headset that can last up to eighteen hours on a single charge. The electronics are squeezed into a package small enough to fit into half of each arm of the glasses, importantly the part closest to the hinge so that the remaining plastic can be flexible around your head, just like regular eyeglasses would be. No camera, or speaker, or even a microphone – though the latter might apparently change, if the decision to support a voice-controlled assistant in the vein of Alexa is made – and no vibrations or bone-conduction "new message" pings.

Instead, you look down around 15-degrees from your usual line of vision, and see a little red notification pane. It's more like a head-up display, though its roughly 400 x 150 resolution only appears when you look down, not glance up. Because of the laser projection system, the graphics are never out of focus, work with both clear and prescription lenses, and only require knowledge of the wearer's pupillary distance – the distance between their two pupils – to be set up.

As a report last week suggested, Intel isn't looking to go it alone with Vaunt. The company isn't really interested in selling smart glasses itself, but it would definitely be interested in selling the chips that power smart glasses to other companies making the wearables. If it can find some capable partners, spin out Vaunt, and see the company's glasses as both a reference design for customers and a source of income on the side, all the better.

Of course, that also leaves one of the big problems for someone else to address. Just having notifications replicated from your iPhone or Android device's screen in your glasses is fairly underwhelming; what Intel envisages for Vaunt is a sort of Artificial Intelligence that would not only tell you who is messaging you but give information and updates that are contextually related to where you are and what you might be looking at.

Using the accelerometer and digital compass the Vaunt team managed to find room for – despite the sub-50g weight – the smart glasses know in which direction you're looking. Combine that with GPS from your phone, and you could have apps that spot potential coffee shops of interest, or bus stops, and beam vouchers or schedules into your line of sight. If that sounds easy, though, it's absolutely not.

Indeed, it's the AI-blessed, intelligent world that Google promised would be possible with Google Glass, and then singularly failed to deliver. Google Now was meant to be the engine for a new age of assistant technology that could whisper algorithmic magic in your ear: your nearby friends, your flight delays, your impromptu gigs. Actually making that work, consistently, without terrifying people with the privacy implications, or burning through your smartphone's battery in an hour, or forcing them to wear a face-computer, turned out to be much, much harder.

Intel's relatively hands-off approach with Vaunt seems in part calculated to allow them to avoid that. Actual smart glasses-makers can deal with the software headache; all Intel needs to worry itself about is the low-power chipsets that will run this mysterious, unfinished software experience. Yet it's definitely a problem Intel needs to concern itself with, since without a compelling use-case there's not much point to buying smart specs like Vaunt in the first place.

There's at least a little recognition of that at the chip maker. Later in 2018 it plans to launch an early access program, so that developers can get their hands on the glasses and start cooking up apps. It's unclear at this point how much they'll cost. Down the line, the hope is that smart glasses like Vaunt will share shelf-space with traditional prescription glasses in stores. When – and if – that might happen remains to be seen.

[IMAGE The Verge]