An Amazon patent for smart glasses published today by the US Patent and Trademark Office may indicate the online retailer isn't giving up on bold hardware initiatives just yet. Though the company began winding down some of its experimental hardware efforts in August, Amazon appears interested in a pair of glasses that could place video streamed from a tablet in front of the wearer's eyes. The technique is called augmented reality, and everyone from Microsoft and Google to well-funded Florida startup Magic Leap is trying to bring it to market in one way or another.
The Amazon glasses' display would be capable of transitioning from a video or image display to a transparent one. That means viewers could interact with the real world when content isn’t beaming directly into their faces. Because the display would not fully immerse you in a virtual world, software could superimpose 3D images onto your physical environment. That opens up possibilities for so-called mixed reality, where the digital and real blend in interesting ways.
Competition in the AR industry is heating up
"On the one hand, a large screen is beneficial for watching movies, playing games and even reading email comfortably," reads the patent, which was originally filed more than two years ago. "On the other hand, the larger the screen, the bigger the device, which may be less desirable for a light and portable product. Another problem consumers experience with portable devices, like tablet devices, is the lack of ability to immerse themselves in a tablet experience, such as watching a movie on an airplane."
The August layoffs at Lab126, the hardware division responsible for the original Kindle, were the first on the 3,000-person team in the division’s entire 11-year existence. Those cuts were focused on getting rid of the people who’d worked on Amazon’s failed Fire Phone. The firings also let Amazon focus on the home, where its Echo speaker and Dash one-button ordering gadget have seen early success. Whether the AR patent represents a serious product possibility is unclear. At least of one the employees listed moved from Lab126 to a general software engineering role at Amazon proper.
Smart glasses would let Amazon stream even more content to consumers, perhaps through its Prime Instant Video service. But it's not an easy tech to crack. Consumer devices like the Oculus Rift VR headset have yet to launch even to video game-focused consumers, and Google's Glass headset became a public disaster when it became clear nobody really wanted to walk around with $1,500 face computers. Amazon’s patent indicates the glasses would need to connect to a separate device to stream video, meaning it’s more likely for the living room rather than on the go.