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The personal big screen

by Nathan Pilkenton

May 2023

Summary: I believe the near future of AR is simply a 'personal big screen' for viewing content streamed from other devices, and that this future is much closer than many think.

The AR hype train

To me, it seems like the hype for AR in particular is directed towards the wrong things. People think AR is about having directions projected into the air in front of you, or store shelves with added product information, or the brilliant depiction in HYPER-REALITY.

But I'd guess all that everyday mixed-reality stuff is at least 5 and probably 10+ years away:

The personal big screen

I have a different vision of the near future: using AR glasses to project content from your computer on one or more virtual displays—a ‘personal big screen’. The size of these displays could be virtually limitless,
(pun intended)

making it possible to have an IMAX-sized screen in front of you even in a tiny studio apartment or on an airplane.

Compare this vision to the mixed-reality AR described above, and it’s clearly closer within reach:

Making it real

I’ve been wanting the ‘personal big screen’ for a few years now, and of course, I haven’t been the only one with this vision. Others have actually been working to make it real. A few examples:

Bottom line: we're making progress, but nobody has fully stuck the landing yet. The Xreal Air is by far the closest in my opinion, though it still has some drawbacks.
For the record, drawbacks include: the screen is fixed in the center of your vision, so it jiggles around as your head does. Plus, that means you have to move your eyes around to look in the corners, instead of moving your head. (It's okay for video content but definitely not good for productivity.) The display isn't super crisp and the glasses are still just a little bulky to wear for long periods.

One note: I've left out offerings like the Microsoft Hololens, Meta Quest Pro, Magic Leap, etc. The quality of those displays might be high, but they're all headsets, aimed at businesses, and not designed to work simply as displays for other devices.

Missing the point

It seems like most people judge these devices by fancy futuristic standards of what AR should be. For example, many reviewers dismiss the Xreal Air because it’s not a very good ‘interactive’ AR product. (I haven’t even tried the mixed-reality features, but I can't imagine they would work very well.)

Reviews often feature quotes like this:

Ultimately, the [Xreal] Air glasses could’ve been a milestone on our journey into AR. Instead, we’re left with another example of how awkward and unwieldy augmented reality is. It’s still a pretty incredible flat monitor, though, and for the right person — like me — that is more than enough. (Mashable)

To me, this is completely backwards. The headline should be that it's an incredible flat monitor, and if you want games or interactive experiences, you should buy a headset.

The Air’s interactive hardware isn’t great because it doesn’t use a battery, it doesn't look stupid, and it’s slim enough to wear for a long time. That's exactly what makes it a better ‘personal big screen’ than the other options on the market. Sure, it costs $400, but so would a TV or a nice desktop monitor.


Who knows what new products Apple will announce at WWDC next week? From initial reports, it seems likely they will launch a fully-immersive VR headset, with AR glasses following next year (or even later).

But what I’d really like to see is a simple set of glasses that do nothing more than create virtual displays for an iPhone, iPad, or Mac. Call it the Vision Pro, or something.

While the Xreal Air is a pretty great product, it’s not quite good enough for mass appeal. The screen is a little too blurry, the glasses are a little too bulky, the integration is just a little too buggy.

But Apple could do it. If anyone excels at taking mostly-proven consumer tech and creating the definitive version, it’s Apple. Of course the industrial design would be excellent. They have the brand equity to make a luxury product, so they can pull out all the stops for things like display quality. And they own the ecosystem with macOS and iOS, so the integration should be smooth as butter, just like it is for AirPods.

In fact, I think AirPods are the right comparison for this product. Imagine if Apple launched the “Vision Pro”, a pair of AR glasses that simply projects a big screen from your Mac or iDevice. Just like the AirPods launch, people would scoff at the high price. They’d say that nobody needs an AR screen when all their devices already have screens built in. They’d laugh at the limited functionality. They’d say the glasses look stupid and nobody will wear them.

But can’t you see people using them, in your mind’s eye? Laying in bed with their glasses on? Travelers watching movies on the plane on their personal big screen? Teenagers flopped on the couch, watching videos on their glasses instead of their phone? Couples sitting side by side at home, each watching their own show?

Just like wireless earbuds have taken over as 'personal sound', I'd bet some type of AR 'personal screen' will start to become commonplace within the next few years. The floating supermarket signs may take a while longer yet. 

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