This is the year when augmented reality (AR) is going to reach the mainstream public imagination, although it may take a few years to be fully ready. Several signs point to this nascent trend going mainstream, including Facebook’s F8 conference last week where AR took centre stage with giant glasses projected above Mark Zuckerberg’s head. Calling it a way to “mix the physical and digital in whole new ways,” the Facebook CEO is predicting AR as the next big computing platform.
Unlike VR, which creates a virtual reality world using bulky goggles that have 3D and 360 video, AR puts an overlay over what we normally see. Right now these glasses are clunky and not very sophisticated, but the potential is vast and almost science fiction.
Imagine you’re a pilot landing your plane, and you need to know what flight path and what altitude to follow. Or you’re an air conditioner or elevator technician fixing a complex piece of machinery and need to read the manual to work out which part gets replaced by unscrewing which bolts in what sequence. AR holds the potential to overlay technical drawings on real-world equipment, or a bright red curving line for your flight path, identifying other planes and their trajectories with equally visually bold icons.
Early applications pointed out nearby free WiFi hotspots or specials at restaurants as you held your smartphone up.
But these glasses are getting better, lighter and cheaper. Robert Scoble, one of the most well-known tech journalists in the United States, says there is major interest in AR. “There’s loads of new devices coming that will be smaller and way less expensive than the current US$3,000 Microsoft HoloLens”.
He is expecting Apple to launch a pair of their own later this year, he told me at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona in February. Incidentally, he predicts Apple will unveil a new iPhone and a new watch, as well its new campus.
Last week Michael Abrash, the chief scientist for VR headset-maker Oculus, which Facebook bought for $2bn in 2014, made a striking prophecy at the F8 conference.
“Twenty or 30 years from now, I predict that instead of carrying stylish smartphones everywhere, we’ll wear stylish glasses. Those glasses will offer VR, AR and everything in between, and we’ll wear them all day and use them in almost every aspect of our lives,” he said.
“Despite all the attention focused on AR today it will be five years at best before we’re really at the start of the ramp to widespread, glasses-based augmented reality, before AR has its Macintosh moment,” he added.
Instead of smartphones and their increasingly bright and bezel-less displays, we will have AR glasses that will turn reality into one big screen. This is the future Scoble believes we’ll start to see. Given he was the first journalist Elon Musk took for a ride in a Tesla car, and he’s become a legend for his tech predictions, his forecasts have a habit of coming true.
Now Abrash is confirming this vision of AR glasses changing the way we interact with the world, and he has Facebook’s deep pockets to help him achieve it. Like the 1984 launch of Macintosh, to which he’s referring and that launched the personal computer, there’s still a breakthrough moment needed to make AR go mainstream.
This column first appeared in Financial Mail