By “All the XR” at CES we mean “all the XR we personally saw,” which was a lot, but even walking 23 miles in four days, it’s impossible to see everything. I didn’t even make it to Eureka Park, where many other XR companies were located. The scale of this show, and the massive size of the Las Vegas hotels on the famous strip, boggles the mind as it batters the feet. I simply don’t have the time or the space to write about everything.
One of the first things I noticed was the giant signs promoting TLC Smart glasses and the Sony Playstation 2 VR (PSVR) at the Las Vegas convention center. A Sony VR billboard makes sense. But TCL? I thought they made low-cost TVs. We were not the only ones surprised by this. It is part of a big story that for me came to dominate the show as I wrote this roundup.
Where the Puck is Headed
The next big thing for XR is not VR. It is using XR optics technology to create a screen extender for smartphones. This is something we call Assisted Reality, because it’s not augmenting anything. It’s a reflector of your smartphone or other devices. Yup. XR is a smartphone accessory. I’ve never thought of it that way but when you walk through the show with me you’ll see that’s where the puck is headed in 2023. Give the people what they want. Take what they’re already doing (playing games, consuming media) and make it better. Say hello to the second screen.
112,000 people attended the show this year, which was a big number considering recent Covid spikes and an economic downturn affecting tech in particular. Nonetheless, this is a hardware show, and there were dozens of XR headsets to demo. After four days, it starts to blend together, especially since most devices are running test loops for content, so you don’t exactly have the experience to remember them by.
That Much More Remarkable
Also keep in mind, as big as CES is, a lot of the big players in XR including Meta, Apple, Microsoft, and Google have their own conferences. Microsoft was showing the Surface Pro, not the HoloLens. Bytedance’s Pico VR was MIA, even though they were reportedly going to make a consumer push in the US this year. The absence of these industry leaders makes the amount of XR on the floor that much more remarkable.
Several XR-specific trends emerged from the show, the first fully in-person CES since 2020’s record-breaking crowd of 175,000. In the past three years, there has been a lot of progress in haptics, assisted reality, and wearable health tech. Waveguides and microscopic projectors are giving new capabilities to see-through smart glasses and are about to take things to the next level, or more precisely, another direction altogether.
Traditional applications for Assisted Reality smart glasses are for enterprises, providing instructions for warehouse and maintenance workers, enabling low-skilled workers to be trained on the job and even communicate with remote experts. Not anymore. Miniaturization and low-cost waveguides are now bringing this technology to consumers in a lightweight form. This application of the technology reflects the smartphone, game console, and PC screen on the glasses, which can simulate a 200-inch monitor for gaming and media consumption. XR for consumers is catching on fast, but as a smartphone accessory, not a spatial computing device. And it’s going to be big, because for a few hundred dollars it takes what we are doing all day (looking at screens) and makes it much better.
Wear it to Bed
HTC introduced its new stand-alone VR HMD, the HTC Vive XR Elite. The device, which will use software from Viveport, is an extraordinarily light 645 grams, super soft and comfortable. I wanted to wear it to bed. The most exciting aspect is the high-resolution pass-through cameras, which more seamlessly connect the physical and digital than ever before. The Vive XR Elite is $1,100 and can be pre-ordered from HTC for delivery later this month. Road to VR’s Ben Lang and Cnet editor Scott Stein raved about it. There were a number of other announcements at the annual HTC presser, including a more detailed look at the development of Viveverse.
We interviewed HTC China President Alvin Graylin, and Neal Stephenson about Viveverse, which has partnered with Stephenson’s new venture, Lamina1, a blockchain infrastructure technology for our This Week in XR podcast.
It was impossible even for the press to get an appointment to try the upcoming Sony PSVR2. The company says the Playstation 5 shortage is over which is required to run PSVR2.
Magic Leap’s booth was mobbed as well. They used a reservation system and avoided the line, but still attracted a non-stop crowd, including Senator John Warner (D-VA), himself a technology startup founder. The company got some important news on the eve of the show as the Magic Leap 2 was approved for clinical use by the FDA.
Magic Leap is all business now. Their booth demos featured enterprise applications from partners like Cisco Webex, which used Magic Leap to demonstrate its Holographic conferencing app, which we had previously demoed with HoloLens. Taqtile demoed a system that showed how to inspect an aircraft. Enterprises are looking for technology that can offer front line workers’ on-the-job training, which is especially important in operations with a high turnover of low-skilled workers. Geopogo Creative director Mike Hoppe showed me a virtual office on the Magic Leap 2, but said the real app enables architects, contractors, and clients to walk through the virtual building before it’s been built on site.
FOV & Loathing
Ant-Reality’s newest 120-degree field of view (FOV) AR optics for see-through smart glasses was one of the best things XR I saw at the show. Ant calls its optical solution a “Mixed Waveguide.” Three lens and projector sets were presented in their CES booth: 56-degree Type-A for AR Gaming, an 80-degree Type-B for daily life, and 120-degree Type-C for AR & VR hybrid use. The Type-C provides an AR FOV from 56 degrees up to 120 degrees with slim 6mm to 10.5mm lenses. Even the 56-degree lens seems extraordinarily bright and wide. Ant says their new technology also produces the lenses for around $30 each, a very accessible price for equipment manufacturers. There were over fifty people in line to demo the glasses and try on the reference design Ant created for their Crossfire Type-C lenses.
There was an abundance of Waveguide optics companies in addition to Ant-Reality, including Lumus, Digilens, and LetinAR. Each of these companies has remarkable new optics and projector hardware to make low-cost see-through AR displays possible.
The Israeli-based augmented reality (AR) company Lumus introduced the 2nd generation of its 2D waveguide architecture at the show, unveiling Z-Lens waveguide architecture.
Chinese AR glasses company Nreal’s new spatial computing glasses, the Nreal Light, was the hottest thing in XR at the 2020 show. Last year the company introduced a new device, the Nreal Air. These Assisted Reality smartglasses look and weigh the same as regular glasses, but reflect your PC or smartphone as a 200” screen. The Nreal Air ($379 on Amazon) is used primarily as a second screen for consuming media and playing games, or any smartphone content.
Nreal CEO Chi Xu was at CES this year for meetings, but his company was not exhibiting. We met for breakfast, and he told me the Air is outselling the Light, and will be a focus for his company going forward. It may be that see-through spatial computing glasses like Magic Leap and Nreal are too much technology and too much money for consumers for too few applications. Media consumption, on the other hand, has been improved dramatically, with low cost and low friction. Assisted Reality devices like the Air take what people are already doing and make it much better.
Get the OLED Out
TCL Introduced the $399 NXTWEAR S “wearable display glasses.” The consumer XR glasses present the user with an equivalent 130-inch, high-definition screen that appears four meters away from the wearer via dual 1080p Micro OLED displays. Like the Nreal Air, and the Vuzix Ultralite design, this is a lightweight, head-mounted virtual display for your smartphone, tablet, PC or portable gaming console. The TCL NXTWEAR S will be available at the end of Q1.
TCL also presented a second, much more powerful device, TCL RayNeo X2, which it will make available to select developers shortly. TCL RayNeo X2 AR smart glasses use binocular full-color Micro-LED optical waveguide displays powered by the Qualcomm Snapdragon XR2 chipset. The device’s external cameras make it SLAM-capable, and can be operated by gesture recognition. The cameras are also very good for taking pictures in low light. The company video features wayfinding and real-time translation. No pricing or delivery date on this one. There is a third one, too, that looks more like a traditional VR HMD.
At a Price
Vuzix introduced an ultralight weight (32 grams) reference design for wearable display glasses as well. Miniaturization has finally allowed components to fit in normal glasses. Vuzix projectors are tiny, require little power, and can run for two days on a single charge. The company is shipping the prototype to manufacturers who will build the glasses, which would be the first time the company licenses its technology to third parties.
I also got my first look at the 2022 CES innovation award winner Vuzix Shield, which was introduced and the end of 2021. These glasses are an iteration on the Vuzix Blade that uses binocular displays to create a much brighter and crisper image. This is far beyond what a consumer company like TCL could deliver in terms of brightness, but quality comes at a price (~$2,500).
Enterprise assisted reality HMDs feature more sensors, better cameras, thermal sensors, lights and, in the case of the new Realwear 520, incredibly sensitive audio for voice control – even in the loudest, most challenging conditions. Unlike their consumer cousins, these don’t rely on smartphones, but are all-in-one, or standalone.
In Russia, VR Headset Wears You
A number of new haptics companies have finally joined stalwart HaptX, which makes $80,000 gloves for enterprises with full hand sensitivity (you can feel raindrops) for operating robots and other industrial applications. Force feedback, like holding a cup or a gun, requires not just programming but strong actuators and cables. Psychologists have proven that every bit of additional reinforcement further fools the brain if it is synched up in simulation. Bhaptics offers a haptic vest that can deliver more of a punch, and OWO offers a low-cost, lightweight shirt that uses electrical pulses to stimulate feeling on the skin. OWO’s pricing is quite reasonable. Diver-X showed lightweight data gloves.
Breyleon showed off the magic of circular screens, turning them into a headset that wears you. There is more than one way to achieve full immersion. Imagine the windows of a self-driving car simulating a headset, now think about it as a monitor.
What Happens in Vegas
Last, but surely not least, is a company we first met in 2020, Dimenco, which makes interactive screens that simulate 3D without glasses by mounting sensors facing the viewer of the device or TV screen. Three years ago, there was only one model, and it was over $25,000. Today, they have partners like Asus, Acer, Phillips, and ZSpace making laptops and flat-screen TVs. After OLED and QLED, 3D TV without glasses, what Dimenco calls “Built on SR” technology could be a thing. The kind of thing you can only see at CES.
Charlie Fink is an author and futurist focused on spatial computing. A version of this post first appeared in Forbes.