No glasses can replace a smartphone

Everyone is talking about how smart glasses will replace smartphones. “Bah!” say I.

Glasses and contact lenses with a display are certainly great. Augmented reality has a world of uses, many yet to be discovered. But smartphone isn’t one of them.

Input

The first problem is input. Display shows, it doesn't ask. Touchscreen obviously isn't quite the best choice here, the accuracy is awful to say the least, especially in case of contact lenses, and glasses in particular would suffer greatly from smudges. Solutions for these two issues are not at all advisable.

Voice control never really took off, and even if it had, let’s face it, it only works well when the user is alone. Who wants others to hear their e-mail password being narrated out loud or their glasses being controlled by someone else on a packed bus? It’s also not the most welcome way to check the football scores in a staff meeting.

A commonly presented solution is to track user’s eye movements. Awesome in theory, you only have to look at the icon to select it, or perhaps “click” it by blinking at it. Except that we, or most of us at least, look throughout the day. How are the glasses to decipher whether we’re looking at an icon on the screen or are just locked in some thought, staring away without actually seeing anything? Blinking is likewise mostly an unconscious action. “Call boss” is not a shortcut to have during hay fever season or on a windy day.

One method I’ve seen mentioned a few times is a Kinect-like motion tracking system. I imagine that there are very few people willing to publicly imitate a crazed ape being attacked by a swarm of horseflies. Also, a few elephants later, porcelain shop owners would likely shoo away every near-sighted person they see entering their store.

Which leaves a touchpad device, small enough to carry in a pocket, but large enough to easily and accurately enough control the interface. A device very similar to the smartphone.

Output

I really like the screen of my Lumia 800. Colours are vivid, blacks are deep and indistinguishable from the frame, contrasts strong, and texts clear. Smudges can be wiped off easily enough. Though the shiny reflections can be annoying if I can’t angle the phone in such a way to reflect only something dark. Which is why I really don’t understand the attraction of see-through displays. Texts can be hard or even impossible to read against noisy backgrounds and photographs are at best informative, not representative. Anyone who has ever worked with user interface knows that transparencies have very limited use on a computer where both the image in the background and foreground can be controlled, let alone in the unpredictable wilderness of the real world.

And transparency is the very idea of eyewear! All of those lovely Instagram effects really deserve an opaque screen from which they can shine in all of their glory. Like the desktop monitor, but a more portable one to carry wherever you want. A phone has one of those.

And other bad stuff

A required component of any phone, smart or otherwise, is an antenna. I can just see the app ads “ScamCorp BrainWave™ boosts your IQ and improves your memory while you rest or work”, the ensuing reviews and misspelled testimonials, and scientific researches commissioned to refute them.

Weight of the battery and heat of the processor can’t be comfortable to wear on the head for long.

Then there are reasons to limit the use of such smart glasses. They are a distraction like no other, always there and always on. Keeping up with the latest Facebook updates while driving is just one of many examples of an accident looking for an intersection to happen.

What it’s good for

Augmented reality is good for augmented reality. Turn-by-turn navigation would work well in form of augmented reality. User’s manual for some device could be presented as augmented reality. A museum guide would be a great example of augmented reality. It might just work when shopping, with ratings and prices displayed besides the product. If used right, it could be an invaluable tool in some professions, e.g. for engineers, mechanics and doctors. It might also be an effective teaching method for some topics. And no doubt there are many other uses which we can’t even imagine yet.

What it isn’t

This technology is all about augmented reality. E-mail is not augmented reality. Angry Birds is not augmented reality. News is not augmented reality. Making a phone call, browsing the internet, reviewing notes and calendar, looking up information, none of these are meant to be projected straight into your field of vision. These uses would be distractions, potentially dangerous or otherwise damaging (your pet needs attention too and dinner won’t cook itself), excused by convenience. Yes, it looks cool in the movies, but movies are not a reality.

There are countless other uses for AR glasses and contact lenses, who even came up with the idea of this replacing smartphones?