We had a lot of news in the XR space in 2021, and a lot of trends could be distilled from that news. Trends around VR adoption, opensource, low and no-code development. However, some of the most exciting trends are all around AR glasses.
It’s been said before, but (probably) not by me: this could be the year that we see consumer AR glasses start to break into the mainstream. At ARPost, we don’t make promises and we don’t sell fortunes, but here we’ll look at some of the trends that have us so optimistic.
The Obvious Outlier
As alluded to, we’ve been fooled before. Many of us watching this space, even more or less from the inside, have thought that consumer AR glasses were finally here. And we’ve been wrong. At least once, we’ve been so wrong we never lived it down. We’re talking, of course, about Google Glass.
Google Glasses were the first arguably-AR glasses on the consumer market, coming out in 2013. To be clear, I didn’t predict that Google Glass was the dawn of AR glasses – I wasn’t writing in immersive tech yet; I was a senior in high school and didn’t put on a pair of Google Glasses until I was in college. But, if I had been in the field back then, I’d have been fooled.
A lot of people were. After all, it was a Google product and a lot of people expected the world. However, the product wasn’t super exciting. It worked and it did what it was meant to but it failed to meet consumer expectations inflated by science fiction visions of an augmented future. (If that sounds familiar, it’s happening right now with VR and the metaverse.)
Google Glass retired to the enterprise sector and much of the public gave up on AR glasses. A lot of people who see this headline might say that they’ve seen it before – and they might have seen it in 2013. It might have jaded them against clicking and reading through and we don’t blame them. But, we think that this year is different. Here’s why.
The Building Storm
We’re going to forego an in-depth discussion of the obvious: just about every aspect of mobile computing, network connectivity, and graphic displays have grown by leaps and bounds since Google Glass came out nine years ago.
While some people were let down by Google Glass, most of us never stopped hoping for consumer AR glasses and a growing number of companies have risen to meet the challenge. One has delivered and many have made promises, whether that’s just at the crowdfunding level or whether developer models and SDKs have gone out.
Nreal Is Already Here
Naturally, we have to talk here about Nreal. The AR glasses finally rolled out to US consumers with compatible 5G devices on the Verizon network. This is a relatively small fraction of the potential market for the device, but it still sold out on short order.
This could be a repeat of the Google Glass story. It could be a boom of naive interest followed by a bust of unrealistic expectations for the technology. But, Nreal already has a more robust product with a better developer ecosystem than Google Glass had. And, having lived through Google Glass might have tempered consumers to give them a more realistic outlook on AR.
Competitors Waiting in the Wings?
Norm is another company that we’ve been keeping an eye on, but we’ve been keeping an eye on them for a while and have yet to see a product. They crushed a Kickstarter campaign back in 2019 and ARPost reported at the time that they should have been available by the end of the year but they have yet to hit shelves – though they are still available for preorder.
It’s an unfortunately similar story for UK startup PhotonLens. The company launched in 2020, partnered with Chinese company Shadow Creator that same year, held a product launch in June 2021, and seems to have disappeared in the meantime. The website is currently dark, and the company LinkedIn page lists only two employees. After a deeper dive, we actually realized that the company might have been shut down in November 2021.
So, why are we talking about these companies that have seemingly gone dark? Because there’s competition now. When everyone has a pending product and an SDK, a pending product and an SDK is all one needs to compete. However, now that Nreal has launched an available product, hopefully some of these other companies may have to reorganize and deliver a product.
Other Sources of Hope
There’s one other area worth talking about: enterprise companies with consumer-adjacent product offerings. Lenovo ThinkReality and Vuzix are both currently marketed strictly for enterprise but have products that could easily see adoption in consumer markets if only they were made available – particularly for Lenovo who already has consumer product lines.
There are also big tech companies that have yet to play a hand. The return of Google and the advent of AR glasses from Apple or Meta are widely rumored, but they always have been. Further, Snap continues to refine Spectacles, but they remain a limited access developer product which – for whatever reason – Snap seems to show little interest in ever mainlining.
We are also still seeing independent projects like Lynx, which offers VR and AR glasses including a $600 “standard” model. The company announced a successful Kickstarter campaign in November 2021 and held product demos at the Augmented World Expo. We hope to see them go places, but there’s always a chance that they’ll slip out on us like others seem to have done.
Changes in Hardware Design
Computing components have gotten faster, smaller, cheaper, but that’s not what we’re talking about here. Here, we’re talking about a revolution in the way that these components go together. It’s called “modular design.”
In modular design, a basic frame can work with any number of interchangeable hardware components changing everything from the fit of the headset to the uses for the device. DigiLens, RealWear, and ThinkReality are already making AR glasses built with modular design.
This month, DigiLens announced updates including a more efficient waveguide and a polarized 720p LED light engine. Because of modular design, developers already using the AR glasses don’t need a whole new model to benefit the updates – they can simply swap out the updated components.
“DigiLens’ technology will play a key role in helping head worn devices fulfill their potential as the next evolutionary step in computing,” DigiLens CEO, Chris Pickett, said in a release shared with ARPost. “In 2022, we are poised to offer even more solutions that will improve on our core technologies and shape the future of XR technology for years to come.”
DigiLens is currently only for developers, and the remaining companies discussed are still only in enterprise. However, just like modular design can be used to build up a basic product, it may also see life as a way to pare down enterprise products to make them more available to consumers with less robust needs.
This kind of model has already been explored in consumer VR by HTC VIVE. Consumers can get a foot in the door with a standard headset and then buy into optional accessories and adapters that expand the functionality of the headset. This also allows VIVE to update hardware through adapters and accessories instead of a fast turnover on headset models.
Easier On-Ramps for Software Developers
Developer ecosystems have been a subtle theme throughout this article that deserves greater exploration. After all, a weak developer ecosystem was one of the things that we identified early on as a weakness for Google Glass. However, it’s easier and easier for developers to get involved. There are a few reasons for this.
For one thing, low and no-code engines for creating XR experiences are becoming increasingly common and robust, making it easier for more people to get into XR development. The more people there are making experiences for AR glasses, the more reason there will be for people to buy into this technology.
Further, you may have noticed that we keep talking about “SDKs” – that’s “software developers kits.” When hardware manufacturers make SDKs available prior to public release, they build anticipation for the project but they also allow developers to populate their platform with the experiences that we were just talking about.
All Signs Point to AR Glasses
Will we see mainstream consumer AR glasses in 2022? It’s probably safe to say that we will see greater adoption than in any year prior. Will everyone have a pair by this time next year? No. But, all of the pieces are coming together to make 2022 a year for AR like 2021 was for VR.