Lenovo ThinkReality A3 Glasses
Lenovo ThinkReality A3 Glasses Review
Current augmented reality (AR) technology requires an external CPU to drive a meaningful experience. In a couple of years, that may not be true, but for now, on-device CPUs limit the experiences available and the amount of time in experience due to battery drain. Lenovo recognizes the reality of AR’s state with their excellent but pricy ThinkReality A3 glasses that aim to deliver AR experiences to business. The Lenovo ThinkReality A3 Glasses are not a consumer AR headset. At around $1,500, the Lenovo ThinkReality A3s cost as much as many higher-end laptops, and that’s before you pay for custom prescription lenses.
Lenovo ThinkReality A3 Glasses Specifications
- Lightweight AR Glasses – <130g
- Binocular 1080p resolution displays with a 45PPD
- Dual fisheye cameras for 6DOF tracking
- 8MP RGB camera
- Qualcomm XR-1 SmartViewer
- Integrated speakers and microphones (3)
- IP54 rating
- USB Type C, USB 3.1
- DisplayPort v1.4 compliant
- Conforms to ANSI Z87.1 requirements
- Connects to either a PC or mobile device via a removable USB-C cable
- Room-scale tracking in six degrees of freedom
- Lightweight, foldable frames with cosmetic and industrial options
- Ergonomic fit kit to enhance comfort
Software support includes
- Voice recognition
- Object recognition
- Image recognition
- Head/gaze tracking
- Barcode reader
- HDCP for DRM
What we like
I have always leaned toward AR for practical virtual solutions. While VR offers advantages for applications like gaming, content consumption, and therapy, AR’s ability to overlay reality provides a safer, more mobile, and better “life”-integrated solution. In training, for instance, images can be mapped to machinery, or the human body, with instructions on how to replace a capacitor or perform surgery. Looking at multiple displays keeps people connected by offering transparency to the world beyond.
On compatible Lenovo laptops, the Lenovo ThinkReality A3 Glasses do just one thing: create virtual monitors through its dual 1080p displays. Once I got the hang of it, and it does take some rethinking of the relationship between the user and the workspace, I found creating multiple monitors a valuable tool. I saw the work I did at VR pioneer EnvelopVR reflected in the virtual displays floating before me.
Lenovo Virtual Display Manager (VDM) for Windows 11 and 10 must be loaded for the virtual displays to work. The app is not without its quirks. Leaving the app open after removing the glasses from the laptop leaves the virtual Windows in the wrong place to control the computer. More than once, I had to reboot the laptop to reclaim my dominion over Windows. Make sure to shut down the VDM to retain control over the current session.
Initially, the Lenovo ThinkReality A3s were limited to use with laptop workstations, those that harbored a discrete graphics card. Fortunately, Lenovo and Microsoft engineered around that limitation and the A3s now work on many of Lenovo’s higher-end laptops.
But that’s it for the PC Edition. Virtual displays. There are no other apps for tethered Windows. All other AR applications rely on the Motorola G100 phone as a deployment platform for the Enterprise Edition.
For the A3s to be their most effective, owners who wear glasses should invest in prescription inserts. Lenovo ships the glasses with a sample. While not ideal, I found my own eyeglasses thin enough that I could wear them without too much bother, though I eventually started wearing the A3s without my glasses, realizing that being near-sighted is an advantage in AR. One of the nice things about industrial AR glasses comes from the combination of safety glasses to protect their wearers from physical harm while working in AR.
The glasses include speakers, with volume control buttons, to enhance AR with audio. That feature, along with the extended monitors makes them ideal for video conferences that require access to more data than most desktop or laptop setups support. AR glasses also ensure that only the wearer of the A3s can see displays with proprietary or personal information.
Other features that can be tapped by developers include object recognition, voice recognition and a barcode reader for merchandising and inventory applications.
The mobile experience uses a gaze-based navigation system. Unfortunately, the apps are limited. They are also less than engaging. A retail shop allows for selection of items and a tap on hot points to see feature descriptions, but those descriptions are not readable. The menu also supports 360-degree views, but without user control. The item just rotates around a center. A Ducati motorcycle can be brought up in all its red and chrome glory. The motorcycle can be exploded. But nothing else. No selection of parts, no rotation of the exploded model. Cool as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far enough.
The menuing systems works fairly intuitively, but I do find myself often recentering the system to my line-of-sight. Since there is a button for recentering, I’m guessing its not just me. The video above shows how the visual and on-device navigation systems complement and supplement each other.
I like the gaze approach, but as noted in the “What could be improved” section below, the limited AR apps with even more limited functions do the glasses no favors in terms of attracting interest.
And for those who want to have fun, the glasses support any app that runs on Windows or select Android apps on the phone, meaning you can watch YouTube at lunch, and no one will know. Android apps may not behave as expected in the AR UI.
What could be improved
Software remains a hindrance to the wider adoption of AR solutions. While I could see an industrial portal for solutions, I was not allowed access into the customer space so I’m not sure what Lenovo customers have cooked up for the A3s (save a few video demos). Regardless, the demo software available left me underwhelmed with static images and poorly executed interactive experiences.
The Lenovo VDM app user experience needs to continue to improve. Industrial apps don’t feel the same obligation to offer an intuitive experience for their users. People will be trained. People should not have to be trained.
The app and gaze Enterprise Edition UI seems akin to Lenovo’s other UI problem…the TouchPoint and trackpad combo that complicates input on their ThinkPad laptops. It may seem that offering options is good. Making good design choices is good—and two poor options don’t add up to one good one.
I know hardware companies create products like the ThinkRealty A3 Glasses to drive hardware sales, but I would like to see the A3s support more platforms, including other PCs and Apple’s Mac, as well as iOS phones. Modern software finds niches through hardware independence. Lenovo has a good product that might grow the market if they open it up to a wider range of developers.
4K resolution per eye would render more detail than the current 1080p resolution, but that is an evolution bound to happen as component costs drop.
More immediately, a longer USB-C cable would improve the use of the A3 Glasses, but from conversations with Lenovo, it appears signal strength limits the cable’s length. Still, I felt a little bound by cable based on where my laptops sit on my desk. I should not have to rearrange my desk for a cord constraint.
The ThinkReality A3 Glasses also prove power-hungry, even when off. Left on a G100 phone, they will quickly drain the battery. Invest in Lenovo’s auxiliary cable that allows external power while using the glasses.
Finally, field of view, or FOV, is limited to a box with the A3 Glasses. As a wearer’s head moves around, part of the virtual world gets revealed. It is not immersive in the sense that the entire FOV is filled with virtual or potential virtual content. There is a box, and the work takes place in the box. The same is true of virtual displays. Depending on settings, the virtual displays may only reveal a portion of their content. They can be pushed back further, but then the content becomes less intimate, often hard to read.
The box FOV will remain an issue for AR because the FOV on AR will likely never be a full spread until, perhaps, the science fiction of AR contact lenses becomes a reality. Until then, the augmented part of augmented reality sits in a box of some shape and size relative to the wearer’s overall FOV, clearly demarcating the edge of both realities. Keep that in mind because videos still don’t make that user experience accessible. You won’t meet “the box” until you put on a pair of AR glasses.
Lenovo ThinkReality A3 Glasses: The Bottom Line
The Lenovo ThinkReality A3 Glasses offer a good platform for the development of tethered AR experiences. Though expensive, they are not nearly as expensive as earlier industrial-quality AR wear. And they are industrial AR wear, which means the AR hardware will likely prove the least expensive part of any solution.
The A3s downfall, like all AR glasses, comes not from hardware but from software that can’t be built with the same ease as other apps. The complexity of layered spatial overlays and the realtime rendering of models appropriate to the situation make AR apps a major engineering challenge. 3D gaming and its rich environments, while impressive, exist in a captive environment where the developer controls all the variables and, importantly, also which variables to ignore as they set the rules for the virtual world.
AR, however, lives in our world and needs to coexist with most of our rules, at least those related to the spatial orientation of objects with each other. That means AR must cope with unforeseen variables that obstruct, interrupt, or otherwise disrupt the intended actions of the experience. Mobile AR lives in the wild, so it must also contend with the safety of the wearer, unlike VR, which doesn’t constrain the FOV as much, but it does constrain the user. AR works well with out-of-context abstractions, such as a shared 3D model that can exist anywhere as an object floating before the viewer. That same principle holds true for multiple monitors floating before one’s eyes.
AR also does well when intimately paired with physical objects, such as an engine, where the entire engine’s model exists in AR and pattern-driven mapping quickly identifies objects and adjusts views and instructions to match what it sees through the 8-megapixel cameras. Unlike VR, which requires controllers to input to in-world situations, AR retains access to hands and keyboards and mice that work the same as they always do, which makes adoption and coding more straightforward.
AR, however, struggles when asked to do too many things in realtime, and thus the best demonstrations and the applications in use severely constrain the use of overlays onto the real world. The fewer variables in play, the lower the chance that the AR experience will end with an expectations mismatch and the ensuing disappointment.
Glasses like the Lenovo ThinkReality A3s are not yet ready to replace the laptop. The virtual experiences are not smooth enough, or weighted enough to provide the same comfort and reliable touch points as their physical counterparts. The virtual displays are close to something I would like to use daily, as I sit here surrounded by five displays driven by five different devices. The savings for enterprise security centers, network monitoring, space operations…the cost savings and access to information makes an enticing case. But for the rest of us, hunting for a monitor in our peripheral vision or trying to master an app to control virtual experiences still feels awkward because it is.
Until AR glasses deliver virtual experiences that feel as grounded as real experiences, they will remain a niche product for firms with unique and compelling use cases. Those use cases will likely prove difficult to scale and hard to share beyond screenshots or watered-down versions that don’t give away their secrets, making it even harder for organizations to find the inspiration and justification for their own investments.
The following video offers application and deployment inspiration that can’t be experienced through Lenovo’s demo software that doesn’t live up to this trailer. (Read Lenovo’s answers to the UX Design Award prompts here.)
Lenovo provided the ThinkReality A3 for review. Images courtesy of Lenovo.
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