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New Vuzix MicroLED smart glasses show how small the future is becoming

A projector the size of a pencil eraser, built into eyeglass frames.

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A MicroLED projector is shrinking Vuzix' latest smart glasses into something that doesn't look very weird at all.

Vuzix
This story is part of CES, where our editors will bring you the latest news and the hottest gadgets of the entirely virtual CES 2021.

Taking a first or second glance at the pair of glasses that Vuzix CEO Paul Travers holds during a Zoom call, they look familiar. They're like glasses I would shop for. They're almost like the glasses I'm wearing. The company's next-gen glasses, coming this year and showcased virtually at CES, look more normal because they're using a far more compact projector with MicroLED technology.

Most smart glasses use internal projectors to send information to the lenses, where the wearer can see it. The MicroLED tech used here comes from a partnership with Shanghai-based Jade Bird Display, and the two companies look ready to release a variety of wearable displays and glasses using the new co-designed tech.

I previously tried a pair of almost-normal smart glasses, made by North, at last year's CES. That company has since been acquired by Google and those glasses are no longer for sale, but Vuzix looks ready to keep pushing regular-looking smart glasses forward even further.

I also test-drove Vuzix' thick Blade smart glasses two years ago, but those used a much larger Texas Instruments DLP projector called Cobra that Travers showed me in comparison to the company's newest MicroLED module. It's a big size difference. It means the new glasses have much slimmer arms, and can more easily hide most of the tech in the frames.

MicroLED tech, besides being small, can also individually turn pixels on and off rather than blast a lot of light all the time. Vuzix' last display couldn't do that, which also means these glasses should have significantly better battery life.

Vuzix's Next Gen Smart Glasses (they don't have any other official name yet) will have versions with cameras and ones without, along with spatial audio and waveguides to display stereo screens on etched lenses that Vuzix promises could even work for my severely myopic (over -8) prescription (a higher-res 1080p version is in the works for next year.) The glasses could optionally have LTE for a self-contained connection without a phone. "You will see this morph into standalone glasses that can be your phone," Travers says, though 5G isn't yet feasible because of battery and design limits.

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A look at the size of the whole display engine. It's small.

Vuzix

Vuzix has a Qualcomm chip in its Next Gen smart glasses. Travers wouldn't confirm which one, although he says it's not possible yet to put Qualcomm's high-end XR2 chip, used in the Oculus Quest 2, on such a small pair of glasses. "I wish it was an XR2 that was in these glasses," he says. "Believe me, we tried to fit them in."

Vuzix already works in the medical landscape with some of its heads-up displays, which can slide into complicated equipment in ways that larger devices like a Microsoft HoloLens might have a hard time with. The company's next-gen MicroLED smart glasses look like glasses right now, but it's also possible that this tech will find its way into a lot of other forms and products. Travers mentions that the tiny display engines, with or without waveguides and lenses, will be sold to others. "These are going to be like a parts supplier," Travers says. "If Google wanted engines, they could buy from Vuzix [and Jade Bird]." Travers mentions scuba-diving glasses and gun sights as a couple of areas where these displays could end up.

Vuzix won't be alone in the next wave of smart glasses. Facebook is expected to release its first pair of glasses later this year, and companies such as Qualcomm have already suggested a wide range of AR glasses is on the horizon. Vuzix' tech is an indicator that the glasses are going to get more compact, but even so, it may be a while before these turn into the fully holographic-display glasses that sci-fi stories have long dreamed of.