By Sarah E. Needleman and Jeff Horwitz
Tech companies are accelerating their development of
computerized glasses for consumers, in a competition between
Facebook Inc., Apple Inc. and others that proponents say will usher
in a new way for consumers to use technology.
The devices feature augmented reality, which overlays digital
content onto a person's view of the real world. Augmented reality
has been available for years in smartphone apps, such as Niantic
Inc.'s hit game "Pokémon Go" and shopping tools that enable people
to see how a coffee table might look in their living room. Now
companies are pushing to put the same technology directly in front
of consumers' eyes, an effort that could open up a category of
computing in the years to come if they can overcome technical,
ethical and financial hurdles.
Facebook last month said it is working on AR glasses in tandem
with sensor-packed wristbands that can detect finger movements,
part of a broader push in researching the development of software
and hardware to support the eyewear. As an interim step, the
social-media giant this year is releasing eyewear with some tech
capabilities in partnership with EssilorLuxottica SA's Ray-Ban
Niantic Chief Executive John Hanke last week posted a tweet
touting progress on its planned AR glasses, which it is making in
partnership with chip maker Qualcomm Inc.
Other companies are guarding their plans. Apple is working on an
AR headset for consumers, which analysts expect to hit the market
as soon as next year, and has plans for AR glasses to follow.
Analysts also say Snap Inc., which already sells camera-equipped
sunglasses it calls Spectacles, is developing consumer AR glasses,
and that Alphabet Inc.'s Google, which entered the space in 2013
with Google Glass before focusing on sales to business customers,
is likely to try a consumer play again.
Apple, Snap and Google declined to comment.
The AR push reflects a belief among many technologists that
face-borne computers could be a transformational class of products,
enabling people to look up directions on a map, scroll through text
messages or call up a recipe right before their eyes -- and without
losing sight of the real world. Tech companies see AR glasses as an
opportunity to drive consumers to spend more time in their
ecosystems, where they can show ads, sell products and pursue other
"To have a chance to potentially pioneer a new era is very
exciting," said Andrew Bosworth, vice president at Facebook Reality
Labs, a Facebook unit focused on augmented and virtual reality.
"This is a technology that doesn't live in my pocket; it lives on
Virtual reality, or VR, is a technological cousin of AR that
blocks out a user's view of the real world for a fully immersive
Early consumer items will have limitations with technology and
design, and they may not be able to easily accommodate people who
rely on prescription eyewear. Stylish, all-day-wearable specs where
digital content is projected through lenses are at least a year
away, analysts say.
Augmented-reality headsets and glasses already on the market
primarily target professional and industrial users rather than
consumers. Microsoft Corp. has taken that approach with its
HoloLens headsets, and last week announced a deal worth up to $21.9
billion to build and support custom versions of those AR gadgets
for the U.S. Army. Magic Leap Inc., a startup that has been
developing AR gear, shifted its focus toward business customers and
last year replaced its CEO with a senior Microsoft executive.
With earlier models of glasses, consumers had complained about
battery life as well as a lack of functions beyond what could be
done on a smartphone or other tech gadgets. "Joe and Jane consumer
for the most part is comfortable with the tech they currently
have," said Ramon Llamas, research director of augmented and
virtual reality at International Data Corp.
Adoption of consumer-focused AR glasses is expected to be slow
at the start, as analysts estimate early iterations to cost around
the same as a new high-end smartphone, which can be at least
Consider the gradual increase in sales of Facebook's Oculus
headsets that use virtual reality. Global unit sales of Oculus
headsets -- one of the top-selling VR devices -- were 3.5 million
in 2020, up from 400,000 in 2016 when the device made its debut,
according to market researcher International Data Corp.
IDC estimates that fewer than 1 million units of AR glasses and
headsets will be sold this year, but projects that will grow to
23.4 million units in 2025, with businesses accounting for roughly
85% of purchases.
Technical hurdles to making AR glasses for consumers include
extending battery life, minimizing heat output and meeting people's
expectations for fashion, comfort and price, said Brian Ballard,
CEO of Upskill Inc., a maker of AR software for businesses.
"That's a combination of things that are extremely hard to pull
off," he said. "The full tech stack-and-supply chain for Iron Man's
glasses doesn't exist yet."
Mr. Hanke said Niantic soon plans to do public testing of its AR
glasses. He expects competition to rise as the underlying
technology evolves, but noted that the most lucrative aspect of AR
will be in software.
"A lot of the magic in AR is going to come from the device
knowing your place in the world," Mr. Hanke said.
Another challenge for companies making AR glasses is dealing
with issues such as user privacy and security. Facebook is
soliciting feedback from tech experts, regulators and consumers on
this front, Mr. Bosworth said. For example, he said it will be
important to consider how people might feel talking to or just
walking past someone wearing AR glasses.
"These things are going to have always-on cameras, always-on
microphones, " Mr. Bosworth said. "This really is a technology that
demands a public conversation about what the capabilities are going
to be, what's acceptable and not."
Facebook is aggressively spending to recruit top-tier AR and VR
talent, according to people familiar with the company's plans. A
Facebook spokeswoman declined to comment on the size of the
company's investment in AR and VR or its recruiting strategy in
Write to Sarah E. Needleman at email@example.com and Jeff
Horwitz at Jeff.Horwitz@wsj.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
April 06, 2021 12:38 ET (16:38 GMT)
Copyright (c) 2021 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.