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Why the battle over AR glasses will dominate tech and culture through the 2020s

AR glasses

At the moment, we have Oculus, HTC, Microsoft, and many other headset developers vying for control of the market. Oculus is making great headway with their Oculus Quest, while HTC is doubling down on the enterprise level with the HTC VIVE Pro. In short, VR in 2019 will be fascinating to follow. Yet in the background, AR glasses are steadily improving their capabilities, quietly and surely.

AR glasses already populate the market. Vuzix is a leading developer with cutting-edge technology and patents, while the Google Glass spluttered some lift into the ecosystem (before shrinking back again, and then coming back yet again in 2019). Yet a new wave will come soon, as rumors of Apple and Facebook are developing their consumer-end versions whisper across the internet. Magic Leap lept into AR in 2018, with a new verison in production.

Yet their societal impact will be seismic, rupturing the way people communicate and work. Mobile phones changed social conventions and the way we socially communicate. AR glasses will do the same.

Why develop AR glasses now?

Short-sightedness is on the rise across the world. In Seoul, over 95% of men aged 19 suffer from myopia, the clinical word for the common condition. Some estimates say that one-third of the world’s population could be affected by it by the end of this decade. That is a lot of people who need a new pair of specs.

The reasons for the sharp rise vary from education to electronics, yet the point remains the same – we all need glasses.

This leads to a massive market opportunity. The glasses industry is currently worth over £100bn. Glasses are not a fun toy to buy, like a games console or a set of headphones. Glasses act like a utility, a necessary part of someone’s life. Dominate a market, and you act like a utility company who provides the absolute necessities of family life. The tech giants spotted the trend, and want to dominate the market.

Who is developing AR glasses?

Vuzix is a current main player in the market, serving powerful sets which brings a punch, for a price. The company has a high share-of-voice in the sector, coming up as the first results for AR glasses. Like vines, they cling to the phrase with a tight grip, melding themselves to the trend as much as possible.

The strategy worked. Vuzix recently announced that its Blade Smart Glasses can now be sold in Japan, meaning it now sells across 35 countries.

Vuzix hopes consumers use the glasses instead of their phones. Paul Travers, President and CEO of Vuzix, is hopeful for the future. As he says, “Vuzix Blade Smart Glasses can deliver content alerts and information to consumers without taking their phones out of their pockets.”

Paul notes that the company has a significant amount of interest. “Some of the largest wireless carriers in the world across North America, Europe, and Asia, have shown strong interest in deploying our waveguide and smart glass technologies products for their wireless networks in the near future and see its ability to drive cellular services, including 5G, and provide a competitive advantage.”

Its expansion and popularity on shows such as CES indicates a healthy and strong company. This is in contrast with the bulky Google Glass which creeped into the background after bad marketing, a hefty price tag, and lack of adoption. Then again, it has made a new comeback in 2019.

Yet Apple will arrive, to stand alongside Magic Leap. And Facebook is not far behind.

AR Glasses and Facebook

In October 2018, Facebook confirmed they are making AR glasses. Ficus Kirkpatrick, Head of Augmented Reality at the company, told TechCrunch that “we have a lot of very talented people doing really, really compelling cutting-edge research that we hope plays a part in the future of headsets.”

This is the next logical leap for Facebook. Currently, they are reliant on the mobile headsets of Apple, Google, and other handset manufacturers. Taking control of the hardware itself, like Apple, brings more control. The mobile market is currently suffused with mobile phones, where the growth markets are in the emerging regions. The time is right to diversify.

Will Facebook’s AR efforts conflict with its VR division? Not at all. Oculus’ Chief Scientist Michael Abrash said that VR offers rich, immersive experiences which can be used at home, as a new platform for play. Glasses are a socially acceptable equivalent which are more socially acceptable than a bulky headset. (The whole talk is fascinating).

Facebook harvests users’ data, not without criticism. To extend their capacity to collect data, they need to track users when they are not checking their phone. Instead of tracking habits when they’re in the bathroom, they collect data when they are socializing, having fun, or seeing family.

We may not see the glasses soon, but they are sure to crop up between 2020 and 2022.

Michael Abrash discussing immersive technologies at Oculus Connect 5. Source: Oculus.

Apple rolls up its sleeves

Across the industry, there are whispers that Apple AR glasses are on their way. Sleek and stylish with form and function, the glasses are the next natural step for Apple and its brand. While it is unlikely that Apple will reveal any details in 2019, we can expect more hints on its development.

Very little is known about them at this time, except for small pieces of information that are either leaked from Apple, or are extrapolated from their corporate filings and acquisitions.

For example, in 2014 Apple acquired Luxvue, a company creating tiny, super-bright displays; useful if fixed to the lens of glasses. Other companies followed: Sensomotoric, which does eye tracking; Vrvana, an AR headset; and Metaio together with Flyby, both AR startups. These movements raise several flags that Apple has been developing AR applications for many years.

Patents complement the acquisitions. In 2018, the US Patent & Trademark Office published a patent application that describes devices that place AR Maps on a surface.

Apple’s move to AR makes sense. The company takes steps to make technology not only functional, but also stylish. The iWatch displays its capabilities in a variety of fashionable icons, dominating the watch market afterwards. Apple understands that their products are a desirable fashion statement, and their products should be designed so that users can be proud to show them off.

Glasses are the next step, as so many people are reliant on them for sight and already switch them to follow fashion trends (myself included). Speculators say Apple will announce them in 2020. If they do not… well, as the saying goes, hindsight is 20/20.

Enterprise use of glasses

Similarly, using AR glasses to improve enterprise applications is a burgeoning financial area.

For example, the dynaEdge DE-100 with AR100 Viewer smart glasses uses Windows 10 with the performance-based feature set of industrial-grade smart glasses. With the addition of task flow, tasks can be assigned and worked through. This is the first step of many for using glasses with companies.

Similarly, Google Glass relaunched their glasses for the same reason; there is usability for AR glasses and major companies.

A Magic Leap into the future

So what about Magic Leap?

The Magic Leap One: Creator Edition launched in August 2018. After the unicorn hid under a mountain for several years, it finally jumped out – to find it was not as magical as people expected.

Games like Angry Birds showed the potential of the device, yet its not the graphical powerhouse which initial trailers revealed over the last few years. While the concept is there, the hardware needs more work.

That said, Magic Leap started several creator programs to finance people to make applications for the product. Recognizing the need for great software, the company is building goodwill with the developer community by helping and guiding projects. Magic Leap is building the foundation for a strong second go.

Magic Leap One. Photo credit: Magic Leap.

Impact on society

So we have several technology companies potentially vying to become the AR spectacles of the future. Assuming decent price ranges, low regulation, and consumer trust, AR glasses will get some decent pickup through the 2020s. What impact will this have?

If the impact is similar to smartphones, then it can be treated as the next step. People will be checking their messages without using their phone. Directions can flash on the screen, not buzz in the pocket. Calls and meetings can be seamless. Cameras snap life moments. The glasses would accompany the lives of people more intimately than a phone which can be slipped in a drawer.

This intimate connection continues many people’s reliance on checking social media consistently. The blend of social and life becomes warped when there is a virtual overlay over the world around people. Once the virtual and real blend, as it does now, would people turn back?

This is all extrapolation based on current trends on mobile use. Comparing current trends with future innovations is unwise. The comparisons are easy, though can easily turn false. Time will tell.