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Despite a market strewn with the frames of prior failures, Lenovo on Sunday introduced smart glasses that can make spreadsheets and PowerPoint presentations seem like they’re hanging in the air.
The company, which is pitching the new device for both business travelers and remote workers, hopes to have finally cracked the code for smartglasses. Many companies have tried to develop the sci-fi technology over the years, but none have made much of an inroad because of clunky designs, poor displays, high prices, and privacy concerns.
Most famously, Google’s debuted its Glass project in 2012 with a pair of glasses that included a camera and a small projection area in the lens for messages and notifications. But consumers were outraged over the privacy implications of glasses that could surreptitiously record video.
Google ended the consumer effort in 2015, though it continued the project in a more limited fashion aimed at corporate users.
More recently, startup Magic Leap spent a decade trying to develop a set of augmented and virtual reality glasses. But the company failed to find much of a market for its $2,300 goggles and laid off half its workforce last year as founder and CEO Rony Abovitz departed.
Lenovo’s glasses, unveiled during the annual CES electronics show, held online this year, feature speakers and a microphone so that users can talk with coworkers or ask for information from a digital assistant. They also have a camera to transmit video.
In terms of style, the glasses look pretty nerdy. Their thick black rims are chunky and heavy compared to ordinary glasses at almost 5 ounces.
Lenovo dubbed the new glasses ThinkReality A3, a nod to the company’s popular ThinkPad line of laptops. They’re supposed to go on sale sometime mid-year at an undisclosed price.
Connected to a Windows PC or a mobile phone by a USB Type C cable, the A3 glasses can be used to project up to five virtual screens that can only be seen by the user. A user can work on a spreadsheet or watch YouTube videos on a Windows desktop seemingly floating in front of them in midair. They would still need a mouse, trackpad, or keyboard to control items on the virtual screens.
The glasses at least initially only work with Windows computers and Lenovo’s Motorola mobile devices, and not Apple’s line of Macintosh computers or iPhones.
In 2019, Lenovo entered the smartglasses by introducing a much bulkier standalone model called the ThinkReality A6, which doesn’t require an attached PC. Then last year, the company introduced a virtual reality headset called the Mirage VR 3 that is similar to Facebook’s Oculus Quest 2 or HTC’s Vive.
Lenovo’s original aim with the A3 was to provide a virtual workspace for on-the-go business travelers. But it shifted focus a bit during the pandemic, which has shut down most travel. “A year ago, we were targeting business travelers,” said Mike Lohse, Lenovo’s senior product manager for commercial AR and VR. “But it’s also very useful for the work-from-home folks who cannot set up two or three big monitors on their kitchen table.”
By connecting to a mobile device, the A3 glasses could become more useful as superfast 5G mobile networks spread. Such networks let users transfer data up to 100-times faster than an average 4G connection, perfect for providing virtual reality images to someone wearing Lenovo’s new smart glasses outside.
Perhaps trying to avoid some of the privacy worries of its predecessors, Lenovo describes the A3’s main camera as being for “remote expert use cases,” emphasizing sharing the wearer’s view with another person not on site–and not for taking embarrassing videos of unsuspecting bystanders.
Despite the failure of smart glasses by other companies, Lenovo executives argue that their new glasses are both more capable and more useful. The A3 has a Qualcomm processor built in, but it also relies on additional computing power from the connected PC or mobile device, said Nathan Pettyjohn, commercial AR/VR Lead at Lenovo.
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