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Unlike virtual reality, augmented reality (AR) and mixed reality (XR) are evolving down two distinct paths: AR for social applications and collaboration technologies for professional consumers keen to optimize and reinvent work. This list is all about the latter. Mixed reality for savvy professionals is an emergent technology that is cresting an exciting development curve. It is increasingly becoming attractive to a variety of users, especially professionals for whom field service and design collaboration are critical.
The technology is undeniably having a moment in the spotlight, particularly as consumers figure out innovative ways to use headsets for the new post-pandemic work paradigm. One of the key uses of pro-level XR headsets by consumers is to eliminate the pain points of working remotely. If you're a professional in a field like design, field service, or any other highly collaborative and primarily visual field, these headsets could completely change how you work while freeing you to work from virtually anywhere.
Also: Best VR headset: For gaming, the metaverse and beyond
Capitalizing on this trend, companies like Microsoft and RealWear are already evolving their XR platforms. A variety of players now occupy this space, each with a slightly different pitch. Where do you start if you're looking to use mixed reality to enhance productivity and collaboration?
We suggest looking at our picks for the best AR glasses and XR headsets available, including a rundown of use cases and pros/cons.
Specs: SoC: Qualcomm Snapdragon XR1 | OS: Android Open Source Project 8.1 (Oreo) | Camera: 8 Megapixel color sensor | Connectivity: WiFi, Bluetooth
Google Glass is the OG of mixed reality, and it was a technological marvel when the first generation debuted to much fanfare (though without a clear use case). Google Glass Enterprise 2 builds on Google's early lead in AR, coupling it with a disciplined dedication to providing savvy professional users real value where it counts.
The headset runs (naturally) on the Android Open Source Platform, which is an ideal development platform. It's also relatively inexpensive compared to competitors, running around $1,000 per set.
The aim here is an all-day wearable that's lightweight. For those who may have their hands full with other equipment, the headset provides glanceable and voice-activated control for accessing critical information. It can be deployed usefully by a variety of pro users, from service techs, lab workers, and line personnel to power users who benefit from an extra screen. With an 8MP camera, the headset streams clear video, which can be viewed back at a centralized location for in-real-time oversight and guidance.
The best way to get Glass for your specific application is to work with a Glass Provider, a sector-specific third-party that builds out Google Glass Enterprise solutions for customers. For example, if you're in the food service industry, you may want to turn to NSF EyeSucceed for an application that offers unassisted, hands-free training at the workstation that follows the employee while they learn and perform job tasks.
A complete list of providers can be found here.
Specs: Display: 2K 3.2 light engines | Head tracking: 4 visible light cameras | Eye tracking: 2 IR cameras | Front camera: 8MP stills, 1080p30 video | Microphone array: 5 channel
What do AirBus, Audi, Goodyear, Carnegie Mellon University, and L'Oreal have in common? They've unlocked the power of Microsoft's truly revolutionary mixed reality headset — and you can too if you need to power up your work game.
The base HoloLens 2 headset comes in various trims based on the intended use environment. None are cheap. They range from $3,500 for a standard device to more than $5,000 for a hardhat integrated edition designed to work in rugged environments. But what you get for that investment is truly remarkable, which is why so many big brands have adopted HoloLens for manufacturing, engineering and construction, healthcare, and education.
Unlike Google Glass Enterprise 2, which is designed for quick access to information and as a wearable streaming device for remote workers, HoloLens is about interacting with mixed reality via holographic projections that the user can manipulate. Without the need for gloves, the device allows for fully articulated hand tracking so users can touch, grasp, and move holograms in ways that feel natural.
Collaboration is the real advantage here. Imagine two pharmaceutical scientists connecting over a drug discovery and manipulating a shared hologram while discussing development hurdles. Or an engineer working on a critical component in collaboration with a project leader who can see in real-time how changes to one system impact the whole. This is the kind of use case where Microsoft HoloLens thrives.
Given the scalability of Azure and the deep enterprise bona fides Microsoft brings, it has become the enterprise standard for immersive, holographic mixed reality.
Specs: Display: Dual 1080p AR displays | Camera: 8MP camera | Microphones: 3 integrated mics | Weight: 130g | Degrees freedom: 3
Lenovo occupies an interesting market position with its ThinkReality A3 headset, a potential sweet spot between the field-ready Google Glass Enterprise 2 and the fully immersive (and fully wireless) Microsoft HoloLens 2.
That this unit is wired and designed to be used with a computer or compatible smartphone is undoubtedly its most deterministic feature, and it's going to lose some customers right there. Others looking for immersive collaboration technology who rarely leave the home or physical office -- and who use a PC at work -- may shrug at the supposed limitation.
Lenovo seems to have envisioned its headset as something of a peripheral, an add-on to its existing suite of computers. In fact, the system recommendations are little more than a laundry list of ThinkPad models, though the device also can be used with the Lenovo smartphone Moto G100.
The hardware is lightweight and has features similar to what you'd see on Google Glass Enterprise, including an 8MP camera and integrated speakers. But where Google Glass is designed with field technicians in mind, the work you're likely to do with the ThinkReality A3 is closer to a screen-share with colleagues who can't share a physical office. It excels at that task.
Although, for nearly $1,500 and with serious compatible device constraints, this model won't appeal to everyone.
Specs: Passthrough: Native passthrough, 8MP 1080p autofocus camera | Weight: 90g | Resolution: 480x853 per eye | Tracking: Non-positional 3DoF
The Vuzix Blade Upgraded headset is intended for remote access to multimedia content at work, whether that's distributed field techs or workers on the line. With greater connectivity and the ability to project instructional content, schematics, and live help, the Vuzix Blade Upgraded empowers workers to finish the job on a single service call and do it right the first time -- a massive time and money saver.
The headset also has great promise for collaboration in more traditional work environments and for remote workers who are looking for a great way to eliminate the distance in remote work. In fact, it was designed with remote collaboration in mind -- a hallmark of the new era of work, education, and play.
The Blade Upgraded glasses benefit from the same features as the regular Blade and now include an auto-focus 8-megapixel camera, built-in stereo speakers, and advanced Vuzix voice control. The glasses render objects in the field of view in full color and can be used as FPV glasses for drone users, both commercial and consumer.
This is a durable piece of kit for the connected worker.
The best AR glasses are the Google Glass Enterprise 2, an all-day wearable that's lightweight. They have an 8MP camera and stream clear video and are at a decent price point.
Google Glass Enterprise 2
Starting from $1125
8 Megapixel color sensor
640 x 360 pixels color display
Microsoft HoloLens 2
8MP stills, 1080p30 video
2K 3.2 light engines
Lenovo ThinkReality A3
Varies, but about $1,500
Dual 1080p AR displays
Vuzix Blade Upgraded
8MP 1080p autofocus camera
480 x 853 pixels per eye
There is a growing number of options out there, but the field has quickly segmented itself around particular strengths. If you want a fully immersive experience capable of sharing and manipulating complex schematics, the quality of Microsoft's HoloLens 2 is tough to beat. If you work in the field and are looking for ways to increase efficiency, take a look at Google Glass Enterprise 2. And if you're just looking to give your PC-based work a little more collaborative potential, the Lenovo ThinkReality A3 is worth consideration.
Choose these AR glasses...
If you want...
Google Glass Enterprise 2
The best overall option.
Microsoft HoloLens 2
AR glasses that are great for collaborating.
Lenovo ThinkReality A3
Wired AR glasses.
Vuzix Blade Upgraded
Remote access to multimedia content just about anywhere.
We compiled this list from a mix of hands-on reviews and input from experts in the field unaffiliated with the brands represented. The challenge was choosing a good mix of professional-level XR for a variety of use cases. We went for top performers in a variety of categories to appeal to the broadest range of professional consumers.
The primary use cases for XR and AR among professional users include service technicians, front line workers (such as logistics workers), designers, and anyone who prioritizes remote collaboration.
Of those, field service is the sector that's seeing the biggest transformation as a result of the technology. Why? AR headsets are allowing how firms structure their knowledge distribution infrastructure to evolve. Previously, field service technicians needed to be highly trained employees with deep experience and decision-making skills. However, investment in training such employees is immense, and turnover is massively disruptive.
But in the AR paradigm, field service knowledge can more easily be centralized. Imagine a veteran service technician in an office overseeing a team of less experienced field techs distributed around the country. The experienced technician can essentially watch through the eyes of her team in real-time on her screen. She can deliver necessary schematics, interject when there are questions or uncertainty, and perform a critical quality control function.
That said, AR is making its way into a number of fields and associated use cases. Professionals are using it to train others, to root out mistakes in repetitive work, and to help with customer satisfaction, to name just a few.
These headsets tend to put a premium on development capability. Fortunately, there are plenty of options out of the box, as well. Google Glass Enterprise 2, which is an Android device that emphasizes flexible development, is available via niche resellers that can set up devices based on specific customer needs. HoloLens similarly works with a host of familiar Microsoft apps, and Lenovo's device is plug-and-play, assuming the thing you're plugging into is a PC.
To persuade friends and colleagues to use XR/AR, focus on the interactivity and ROI. Fortunately, the solutions represented in this list have done a lot of the heavy lifting for you. Microsoft, in particular, has a very useful webpage highlighting efficiency-related savings, such as average travel time saved per sector and annual ROI, as well as collaborative potential.
Another excellent tactic is to tout the centralization of knowledge resources that AR can provide. By installing a core group of experts tasked with helping field or front-line workers and technicians, companies in many sectors reduce their turnover vulnerability while saving money on training costs.
There's also a very clear tie-in to the way work has changed since the start of the pandemic. Many workers are remote, but many bosses fear what that will mean for collaboration. AR can help bridge the gap between an in-person workforce and distributed workforce realities.
Tell your boss this is one way that teams might have their cake and eat it too.
Here are a couple others that might appeal to creative professionals and power collaborators.