Nascent technologies are sometimes described as solutions in search of a problem, and that’s certainly something that could be said for AR glasses right now. AR glasses have been positioned as everything from phone replacements to sports goggles to entertainment devices to work tools, but they are still far from mainstream in any one area.
That last value proposition is what Toshiba is going for with its new dynaEdge AR Smart Glasses, a new head-mounted display tethered to a PC pocket pack. The PC maker is launching the product today, starting at $1,899, and it’s aiming it straight at business users.
To call this product AR Glasses is a little bit of a misnomer; it’s not so much augmented reality as it is a heads-up display. Toshiba says it considers it more “assisted reality” than augmented. And the “glasses” part is really a single arm that can be attached to different form factors, whether that’s glasses, safety goggles, or a hard hat. All of the processing power happens on a Toshiba dynaEdge mini-PC that’s tethered to the display arm via USB-C. (Something like Microsoft HoloLens, on the other hand, is an entire Windows 10 PC sitting on your head.)
But Toshiba’s goal is to sell something that lets workers view documents and PDFs, record and send photos, and even launch remote video chats directly from the headset, all without having to use their hands.
The dynaEdge Mobile Mini PC actually launched last August, so that part isn’t new. The configuration I demoed briefly was running on Windows 10 and had an Intel Core M processor, 6GB of RAM, 512GB of internal storage, and is supposed to last up to six hours on a single charge. The mini PC also has a cluster of five physical buttons on it, but again, the whole idea is to not have to manually control the PC.
Instead, you’re supposed to use a touch-sensitive swipe pad or voice control on the head-mounted display arm, the “glasses” part of the equation. The arm also has a proximity sensor, ambient light sensor, LED light, GPS, a compass, a gyroscope, camera, speaker, microphone, and, of course, the display, a 640 x 360, quarter-inch-sized display.
Not all of the functions were working on the pre-production unit I tried, including the swipe pad and voice control. So I mostly navigated the tiny Windows desktop in the upper corner of my eyesight by using the buttons on the mini PC in my hand.
I also didn’t find the dynaEdge AR glasses to be super comfortable in the short time that I wore them. It was challenging to really see the display in a way that didn’t make me feel a little cross-eyed. Fortunately, the display arm is adjustable and can be switched to the left side of the face for people who are left-eye dominant. Once I did that, they felt slightly more comfortable. (Attaching the arm to a more stable hardhat, instead of a pair of flimsy frames, also helped.)
I was able to make a test phone call over Wi-Fi, using a Toshiba app built on top of Skype For Business. I called a “remote colleague” — really a representative from Toshiba sitting across the remote — and sent a photo to him from my headset, which he was able to mark up. This is something Toshiba envisions will be used for remote troubleshooting. I could also view a PDF of various parts of a jet engine, the idea being that a worker would be able to quickly confirm the name or placement of an engine part.
These kinds of work-centric use cases for face computers might not be as exciting as drone-flying apps or live-streamed volumetric basketball games, but Toshiba’s hardly alone in thinking that workplace apps might be the fastest route to widespread adoption. If that does turn out to be the case, then it all comes down to execution: how well the product works, and whether its app will be janky, shrunken versions of desktop apps or intuitive new apps that people will actually want to use.
But that future, for now, is about as clear as a tiny Windows desktop hovering above the corner of your eye.