There's a simple reason why we don't have immersive augmented reality displays in the form of sunglasses yet: it's impossible. Our eyes are not designed to focus on things that are as close to them as sunglasses are, and if you put a display at that distance, it'll be blurry.
Typically, the way to deal with this is to insert a bunch of clunky optics in between your eye and a display to allow your eye to deal with something that close, which is what a system like Google Glass does. But as you increase the display size and field of view (a requirement of truly immersive augmented reality), the amount of optics required to make it work increases geometrically, and eventually you'll end up with something very immersive but very gigantic like the Oculus Rift. Realistically, the widest field of view you'll be able to get in a compact wearable display is probably 25 or 30 degrees; Google Glass is just 13 degrees, and the much more chunky Epson Moverio only manages 23 degrees.
These compromises are not the future that we've been promised by science fiction and Google Glass concept videos—glasses with integrated wraparound high-resolution transparent displays that makes AR seamless and effortless. Fortunately, there's a way to solve everything to make immersive AR in a pair of glasses work, and it's easy: modify the eyeballs.
Innovega has been at CES for the last few years, developing their iOptik platform for high resolution augmented reality displays with enormous fields of view that fit into a pair of slightly hacked Oakley sunglasses. Basically, Innovega is everything that we've ever wanted, and all it takes is a slight eyeball hack in the form of a specially designed contact lens:
The lens consists of three primary components: two filters, and one lenslet. Most of the lens is covered by a filter that blocks out three very narrow bands of red, green, and blue light. Not coincidentally, these are the bands of light emitted by the transparent RGB displays that Innovega is using. This filter makes sure that you can see normally while making the displays invisible, which is important, because your eye can't naturally focus on the displays at that distance. Without the filter, you'd just see a blurry mess all the time.
The only part of the lens that isn't covered by the display-blocking filter is the very center, which is a tiny lens. This lenslet refocuses the light coming in from the display so that you can see it even though it's so close, while a filter behind the lenslet blocks all wavelengths of light except for the three narrow bands emitted by the display to keep you from getting a blurry spot in the middle of your vision.
The upshot of all this is that with Innovega's iOptik contact lenses in, your vision is completely normal, but when you put on one of their immersive wearable glasses displays, it's magically in perfect focus. More importantly, the display and the rest of the world is in focus at the same time, which is a necessity for augmented reality.
Innovega's eyeball hack allows for some seriously impressive displays. Since the focusing bit is in your eye, and not in the display itself, there are only minimal restrictions on what sort of hardware you can use. If you can cram a transparent, 8K, 120-degree field-of-view, wafer-thin display into a pair of glasses, an iOptik lens can make it work. By way of comparison, this is approximately equivalent (in field of view, at least) to the display you'd get sitting in an IMAX theater.
At CES, Innovega was showing off several concepts and a functional prototype:
The prototype was a "glanceable" display (like Google Glass), where you can look slightly upwards or sideways to see a display that won't otherwise block your vision. Innovega's current glanceable display has 40x the screen area of Google Glass with 6x the resolution, and Innovega's demo had it hooked up to an iPhone and displaying a smartphone-sized version of Google Maps at 720p.
In about a year, the prototype should look more like this, with all of the electronics integrated into the frame itself:
The glanceable screen will have a 60 degree field of view, and a resolution of 1280 x 1024 at more than 2000 DPI. Innovega is also experimenting with integrated cameras, GPS, accelerometers, and audio, to really unlock the potential of AR.
In about three years, we'll be looking at something even more futuristic: a dual-eye, transparent, wearable display in 720p at 800 DPI with full left and right eye overlap allowing for 3D effects:
By now, you've probably picked up on the major disadvantage to the iOptik system, which is that it won't work unless you're wearing contact lenses. For many people, this won't be an issue, since iOptik lenses are easy and cheap to make and can incorporate any prescription. For those of us who aren't used to jamming things into our eyeballs every day, we're just going to have to suck it up and deal, but hey, it'll be worth it!
In order to get an iOptik system into the hands of consumers, Innovega will have to get their lenses past the FDA, which may take a little while. Fortunately, this is the last big hurdle to commercial availability. It probably won't surprise you to know that Innovega has funding from DARPA, but we found out this year that an unnamed (but major) electronics manufacturer is getting in on the action too, meaning that not just the military should be getting the AR that we've been dreaming of.
For more from CES, check out our complete coverage.
Evan Ackerman is the senior writer for IEEE Spectrum's award-winning robotics blog, Automaton. Since 2007, he has written over 6,000 articles on robotics and emerging technology, covering conferences and events on every single continent except Antarctica (although he remains optimistic). In addition to Spectrum, Evan's work has appeared in a variety of other online publications including Gizmodo and Slate, and you may have heard him on NPR's Science Friday or the BBC World Service if you were listening at just the right time. Evan has an undergraduate degree in Martian geology, which he almost never gets to use, and still wants to be an astronaut when he grows up. In his spare time, he enjoys scuba diving, rehabilitating injured raptors, and playing bagpipes excellently.