Why Google is a key player in the AR glasses race

Google Glass Photography

Google Glass has explored the smart glasses route before. But Google’s return to AR could solve a new generation of challenges.

Roberto Couto

What seemed likely months ago now seems even more likely: Google is entering the AR headphones race. The strange thing is that Google has been here before. Years and years ago.

I used Google Glass in 2013 on my train ride. It was my first pair of smart glasses. I also used Google Daydream, Google’s virtual reality goggles that worked with Android phones. I tried Lenovo’s standalone VR headset that worked with Google’s Daydream VR software. I’ve chatted with Clay Bavor, head of Google’s previous AR and VR efforts, on the ways the company ended up shifting from hardware back to AR utility apps on phones. The last time I spoke to him, he told me that Google was entering a period of “deep R&D” about the future of AR and VR.

According to a report by The Verge Thursday, Google’s upcoming AR headset, codenamed Project Iris, sounds a lot like other upcoming headsets. The hardware blends the outside world through cameras onto a weathered screen, which sounds like mixed reality in VR. The next headphone from Meta promises that, and I tried one high quality Varjo headphones who gets it now. Google’s Project Iris, according to the report, may not arrive until 2024.

Google has been into VR and AR for a long time. And its absence from the current, and currently warming, landscape, and its infused by metaverse hype sounds bizarre. Google appears to be a key piece in the puzzle and perhaps the most necessary to discover the future of smart glasses.

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Qualcomm is enabling phone-connected smart glasses using a software platform called Snapdragon Spaces. Google can help expand compatibility on Android or create other paths in mixed reality and VR.

Qualcomm

Phones are a part of the solution

Qualcomm’s recent efforts to develop smart glasses that work with phones seems to be the answer to the question of how advanced glasses can be worn and used without being annoying or impossible to operate. Niantic, Photograph and Meta, formerly Facebook, have similar efforts underway. No one is going to get rid of the phone in their pocket, not now, not anytime soon. Glasses full of processors must have terrible battery life, at least for now. AR will need to lean on phones, probably, or at least find a way to easily run phone apps on glasses.

already tried some recent attempts at smart glasses, and none of them really solved this streaming with other devices, especially phones. Google makes Android. Google also invests heavily in environmental technology — apps and services that flow between devices, such as smart speakers, screens and watches. Glasses are a clear fit in this image. Google’s Project Iris looks more like a standalone device in the spirit of a next generation Oculus Quest, but it’s also likely to need to be a bridge to these phones. Everyone is going to need to sort this bridge out, and now it’s a pretty messed up bridge.

Handy with Google Glass

Trying Glass in 2013, a long time ago. Different story, totally different idea, but lessons still to be learned and applied.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Google’s expertise offers a clear advantage

Apple has never made a VR headset before, although it has many experience with AR and wearable technology. Meanwhile, Google already has a full decade of work invested – field testing a pair of smart glasses, followed by developing an entire VR ecosystem.

There are also other things: AR has entered Google search and maps. Google in 2020 acquired other smart glasses maker, North, which already sold its hardware in its own futuristic optics. Google also has some VR app developers: Tilt Brush and Owlchemy Labs, maker of popular VR games Job Simulator and Vacation Simulator. And, as Alex Heath’s report in The Verge notes, Google was an early investor in Magic Leap.

Last year, Google experimented with a type of AR telepresence via Starline Project, which I haven’t been able to try yet. This project, led by Bavor (who is also spearheading Google’s new AR headset), appears to be tapping into one of the missing links with VR and AR right now: good communications software. VR still doesn’t have its perfect alternative to Zoom, and neither does AR.

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Lenovo ThinkReality A3, nReal Light, Ray-Ban Stories and my own glasses (from left to right). Smart glasses are here, but they still look embryonic. Google’s upcoming headset may approach VR direction first, as Apple’s is reported.

Scott Stein/CNET

Samsung, Qualcomm and Everyone Else Can Benefit From Google Discover Software Stream

Samsung has remained quiet in front of the AR glasses too, which is odd considering the company’s reputation for cutting-edge experimental technology and its early work on watches, VR, and foldable phones. Looking back on Samsung’s move last year to fold its Galaxy smartwatches on Google’s operating system shows that Samsung could use Google’s help to direct where AR glasses are going.

This is also true for Qualcomm. While Qualcomm is already pushing a wave of smart glasses that aim to connect to Android phones using its own custom software, that technology still resides somewhat outside of Android and the rest of Google’s ecosystem. Qualcomm and Google may not agree on which way the glasses are going (and Google developing its own chips suggests future friction), but it’s surprising that Android and iOS still don’t have clear connections for things like glasses. That could change soon.

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Google’s standalone VR headset, made by Lenovo, circa 2018. The point is, Google can do VR and AR, and it already has.

James Martin/CNET

Apple and Google are obliged to collaborate and compete

Apple’s long-awaited headset could arrive this year, or maybe next time. For Google, the story might be similar. When each company chooses to hold hands and discuss their moves, or offer demonstrations of future products, it’s still up in the air. Would Google introduce Project Iris at this year’s Google I/O developer conference, just as it did with Starline last year? Would Apple discuss its headset at WWDC? Google and Apple announced smartwatches in the same year 2014. The same could happen in 2022 for VR/AR headsets.

And even if these projects seem to compete, they will need to find common ground. The whole metaverse idea is built on a promise of cross-compatibility. Google and Apple define the mobile space, and whether headphones are phone peripherals or phone extensions, the future of AR will need to follow a similar path. It could mean Google services on Apple headphones or Apple services on Google. Or both, I hope. But also, just like now, expect lots of walled gardens as well.

Google has yet to confirm anything and has not responded to a request for comment. Neither does Apple. But Google’s moves in particular will help propel the future of AR headsets into the mobile landscape it needs to live in.

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