Buried among the vocal criticism and glut of vapourware reported from CES, the world's biggest consumer electronics show, held in Las Vegas earlier this month, a few stories emerged where augmentation in several forms seemed to be inching closer to becoming more useful and, well, 'real'.
Heads-up display eyewear
When Google launched Project Glass, its HUD glasses represented a significant foray into wearable tech. While the project is clearly more than just a set of breathless concept videos, however, little has been given away in terms of what to expect. Indeed, the glasses won't be available to developers until later this year (at a hefty $1500) and no one knows what the price will be once they are available to the public.
So there was some delight when Vuzix unveiled its 'Smart Glasses' (pictured) at CES: a lightweight display that fits over one eye and connects to the user's smartphone, 'offering a wearable visual connection to the Cloud'. The bonus of this product is that, presumably, it will let the user watch where they are walking with the other eye.
While it's not stealing Google Glass's thunder wholesale, Vuzix is - theoretically at least - making this kind of augmentation a reality a lot sooner than anyone expected.
In another corner of CES, Panasonic showed off headphones that vibrate sound by being placed against the skull, rather than inside the ear. The advantage of this is that the wearer can hear ambient noises: perfect when walking to work or out for a run, for example.
It's not the first of its kind (check out AfterShokz - see box, right), but is wireless and drip-proof. The only issue is whether the sound quality will turn out to be better than earlier models.
So what do these tech hardware developments mean for marketers?
Utility and simplicity always win
Wearing any kind of headset may not be everyone's cup of tea, but when something finally starts to become useful and simple to operate, that's when it takes off (remember the first-generation mobiles we all laughed at, before buying the less clunky second-generation versions?)
The barrier to overcome here is a fear of augmentation equalling distraction. The hardware unveiled at CES starts to show how it could become frictionless.
The mobile market changes. Again.
What happens when 'mobile' doesn't mean a smartphone in your hand or a tablet in your lap? 'Mobile first' is already moving from a design principle to core marketing strategy. What are the possibilities for brands when reality is augmented seamlessly at eye-level?
Mel Exon is co-founder of BBH Labs. Follow her on Twitter: @melex
Vuzix Smart Glasses
Available from this summer (Android-only), these wirelessly display text, video, email, mapping, audio - in other words, all we have come to expect from a smartphone, right in front of one eye. http://goo.gl/vkk2l
Announced last year and currently in prototype development, these smart glasses provide a see-through HUD (heads-up display). It's not clear whether Glass will make your smartphone obsolete or simply augment it, like Vuzix. Watch videos of the womenswear designer Diane von Furstenberg and a team of skydivers trialling a prototype here: http://goo.gl/ub6fD
Panasonic bone-conduction headphones
Also showcased at CES but not due to launch until autumn. Read a review here: http://goo.gl/JUJe4
AfterShokz bone-conduction headphones
Cheaper and earlier to market than Panasonic's offering, AfterShokz will also produce a wireless version, which will be available to order in the US within the next month or so. Read more on them here: http://goo.gl/psZkH
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