Eight years ago, Google launched a bold experiment: it wanted millions of people to pay $1,500 to don a pair of augmented reality (AR) glasses. Via a small display built into one of the lenses, “Google Glass” feeds the wearer a constant stream of data: texts, location updates (including turn-by-turn directions displayed on a map) and virtual reminders. In theory, the device was supposed to move the world beyond smartphones to “wearables”.
Despite Google’s aggressive push, however, Google Glass failed. Many consumers found the design unattractive. They were already satisfied with their smartphones, and did not see the point of spending a significant sum for yet another device. Google’s marketing and sales apparatus also failed to effectively explain the benefits of Google Glass.
Now, the tech industry seems determined to give AR glasses another shot. Meta (formerly Facebook) is essentially betting its existence on virtual reality (VR) and AR experiences; Microsoft is targeting the company with the HoloLens, an expensive AR headset; and Apple has long said it was hard at work on AR glasses that could somehow pair with the iPhone.
Even Google has reportedly hired technologists for a new AR project, suggesting that the Google Glass debacle hasn’t entirely suppressed the company’s appetite for technology. For this latest effort, Google is looking for technologists skilled in the Linux kernel and driver model as well as real-time operating system (RTOS) development.
Will these new projects succeed where Google Glass failed? It depends on a handful of factors. For starters, good design is key: no one wants to walk around in public with an ugly piece of hardware on their face. Fortunately, tech companies seem aware of this problem; for example, the new “smart” Ray-Ban from Meta hints at a future in which AR glasses are beautiful and stylish. Apple is not left behind in the field of “cool design” either. But hardware constraints (such as the inclusion of an on-board battery of sufficient size for a few hours of use) can impact form factors more than any self-respecting designer would like, at least during the first few years.
But just as important as good design is the need for a significant third-party ecosystem of cool AR apps that people actually want to use. One of the main reasons Google Glass failed is that, unlike smartphones, it didn’t have a “must have” app that only worked in conjunction with a set of AR glasses. Good apps turn material from merely interesting to absolutely essential.
Unfortunately, it’s also a bit of a chicken and egg situation. Developers won’t enter the AR market until they know their efforts will be rewarded. According to Emsi Burning Glass, which collects and analyzes millions of job postings across the country, only 8,796 jobs requiring AR skills have appeared in the past year (although it projects that jobs related to AR will increase by 64.4% over the next two years) . Companies such as Meta and Apple will have to convince developers – many developers – that creating interesting products for this market is worth the effort.
As these companies begin rolling out AR glasses over the next few years, pay close attention to the size and viability of the developer ecosystem. This will give you a good idea of the rationale behind the tech industry’s burgeoning obsession with AR, as well as the need to devote your time and resources to building AR apps and services.