Style for Another Reality: How AR Eyewear Has Evolved Over Time

Augmented Reality glasses have changed the way we see the world. Let's see how significantly the style of AR eyewear, such as Google Glass, Microsoft Hololens, etc., has evolved over the last 20 years.

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Although it may not seem like it, augmented reality eyewear is actually older than the internet. This means we’ve been blessed with many different approaches to styling out AR glasses that have been bold, impressive, and altogether outlandish. 

As we know it today, augmented reality was introduced in 1968 by a Harvard professor, Ivan Sutherland. Ivan teamed up with his student Bob Sprowle to create a head-mounted display dubbed ‘The Sword of Damocles.’ In doing so, they created the forerunner of the cutting-edge AR eyewear that has become increasingly prevalent today. 

Let’s explore how the style of augmented reality eyewear has evolved from those early days into more sophisticated constructs in recent years: 

New Beginnings (1968)

‘The Sword of Damocles’ was created by Ivan Sutherland. Capable of superimposing computer-generated graphics into the environment viewed by wearers, this powerful headset was able to help wearers to improve their sensory perception of the world around them.

However, the sheer volume of computing power required to deliver augmented reality at the time meant that The Sword of Damocles was less akin to a piece of eyewear and bore a closer resemblance to something fresh from the book, A Clockwork Orange, which had been published a few years before in 1962.

Although Sutherland’s creation represented a significant step in the development of sophisticated augmented reality hardware, it was clear that we were many years away from seeing the technology mature to the point where it could be adopted throughout a range of industries–but in the 1990s, these breakthroughs began to take place: 

The First Emergence of AR (1990s)

Crucially, the expression AR was first coined in 1990 by Boeing researchers T. Caudell and D. Mizell, who developed a head-mounted display for aircraft construction called ‘Augmented Reality’. 

The next big breakthrough for augmented reality came in 1992 when Louis Rosenberg created ‘Virtual Fixtures’ for the US Air Force. 

Virtual Fixtures were born out of necessity due to the difficulties in generating 3D graphics for practical use at the time. The technology was delivered through the use of a full upper-body exoskeleton worn by the user, and virtual overlays in the form of simulated physical barriers, fields, and guides were used to assist the user in performing physical tasks. 

Once again, Virtual Fixtures formed an essential stepping stone in the emergence of AR, and represented the beginning of augmented reality’s emergence in more everyday use cases.

In the wake of Virtual Fixtures, the 1990s saw a flurry of AR applications in the field of entertainment. For example, writer and producer Julie Martin created an augmented reality theatre production called ‘Dancing in Cyberspace’. At the same time, augmented reality also added a visual dimension to sports analysis. The NFT implemented the technology in 1998 as an overlay for broadcast stills to provide greater insight.

AR Hardware in Entertainment (2000s)

Augmented reality hardware took the significant step of entering the gaming world in 2000 through the release of ARQuake. ARQuake is a system that relied on a head-mounted display and an entire backpack of hardware and cables–in a look that could make the wearer appear more likely to be mistaken for a Ghostbuster than a gamer.

Significantly, 2000 was also the year that ARToolKit was founded, becoming the first open-source software library for developers. The technology became available on browsers by 2009, paving the way for webAR, and the rapid evolution of the technology throughout the 2010s. 

The Era of Google Glass (2014)

Although it never quite lived up to its lofty expectations, Google Glass represents the first evolutionary step in confining AR technology into traditional eyewear. 

Google Glass worked via the internet and voice control, and presented users with a heads-up display that was connected to a variety of Google apps–meaning that it was possible to take pictures, access directions, and run internet searches without having to reach for a smartphone or even break your stride when out and about.

Stylistically, Google Glass was a technological feat that was a little peculiar for consumers to get to grips with. The eyewear didn’t actually feature any lenses, and instead broadcast its overlays on a discrete screen in front of the wearer’s right eye. 

Despite Glass not entirely taking off for consumers, it still operates as something of a blueprint for modern iterations of augmented reality eyewear. 

One iteration of Google Glass that did fare better was its ‘Enterprise Edition’ counterpart, which helped users from a range of industries to perform administrative or complex tasks in a safer and faster manner. 

Significantly, Google Glass Enterprise Edition 2 adopted a more traditional look and feel while retaining its all-important glass screen. Taking the form of a range of best new brand frames like those of Lucky Brand, we can see that AR eyewear style appears to be stronger when adopting traditional glasses themes. 

Building Bulkier with Microsoft Hololens (2016)

Packed with more advanced features than Google Glass, Microsoft’s Hololens was a more functional, if not bulkier, piece of hardware than Google’s earlier effort. 

Despite looking like a glasses and virtual reality headset hybrid, the Hololens was popular enough on a consumer and enterprise level to spawn the Hololens 2. There’s even a third iteration of the line in the works, according to reports.

Looking to the Future of AR Eyewear

As we can see from Google’s and Microsoft’s AR efforts, some work still needs to be done in encapsulating the heavy computing power of augmented reality into a traditional pair of glasses.

Until this can be achieved, mainstream adoption will likely be some way away. Although Meta has begun partnering with Ray-Ban to introduce its own ‘Stories’ smart glasses, the tech giants consciously avoided packing AR into its design to keep their eyewear practical.

With more than half the population of the planet experiencing eye health issues, the future appears to be bright for augmented reality eyewear. While the 2020s have been relatively quiet for consumer AR developments, the latter half of the decade will likely bring more ambitious attempts to unite the technology and style. 

With this in mind, it’s worth watching this space–in the near future, you might see a 3D computer overlay filling it with information.


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