Why Tech Firms are Developing Augmented Reality Headsets

If it seems to you that technology firms are racing to create augmented reality (AR) /mixed reality (MR) headsets, you’re not wrong. Recently The Information reported that Apple eyes 2022 for the release of an augmented reality headset and 2023 for glasses. According to information leaked from an internal meeting, Apple Vice President Mike Rockwell shared details about the design and features of the AR Apple headset and AR Apple glasses. Meanwhile, The Verge reported that Samsung has applied for an AR Headset patent. And those are but two examples. As CNBC reported:

Most of the biggest names in Big Tech are racing to create smart glasses that we wear everywhere and that may replace our phones. Microsoft, Amazon, Google, Snap, Facebook Apple, Magic Leap and others are all working on some form of smart glasses or headset that will change how we view the world around us. Instead of pulling a phone out of our pockets to talk to people or interact with apps, we may do these things simply by speaking to, and looking through, a set of glasses.

There’s a race to be the first to make a set of glasses that everyone will wear, which means they have to be fashionable and sleek enough to wear all day and everywhere you go. Advocates of the technology hope that you’ll one day be able to replace screens in your life with just one pair of smart glasses.

The CNBC story paints a rosy picture that evokes Black Mirror and Iron Man although a number of technical obstacles such as battery drain need to be addressed. Even still, there are already more AR and mixed reality headsets on the market than you might have expected, as this overview from Tom’s Guide shows.

The question is: why are tech innovators placing bets on AR and MR headsets? After all, even though eMarketer says that the use of augmented reality is growing, eMarketer also says that at best only 21 percent of the population is using augmented reality at least once a month. And “at least once a month” may include people who simply play with a Snapchat augmented reality feature in passing or perhaps use an app in a store to configure a product without using augmented reality again for weeks.

Augmented Reality and Adoption

The fact is, augmented reality remains in a nascent state. For augmented reality to take hold – to really break through into the mainstream like the iPhone did — a number of things need to happen, among them:

  • Technology firms need to create hardware that consumers can afford and use continuously (think battery life).
  • Designers need to build an elegant user interface for the hardware (a problem that has dogged virtual reality headsets).
  • Businesses need to create compelling content that people will use repeatedly as opposed to one and done (think utility, not just entertainment).

But here’s the rub: the hardware innovators cannot wait for all the pieces to fall into place. Apple didn’t become one of the world’s most valuable brands by waiting for consumers to tell them what to design. Apple made some calculated bets that our increasingly mobile society would accommodate an elegantly designed smart phone or that increasingly fitness conscious consumers would actually buy a smart device that they wear on their wrists to monitor their health. So Apple unveiled the iPhone and then the Apple Watch even though consumers were not asking for these products.

Right now, the technology innovators are creating a device waiting for a problem to solve or a way to enhance users’ lives. And that’s OK. The market and the spirit/trend of the times needs to also align to have the right cultural fit. And it does take time to create a headset that achieves the right user, content, and market needs – as reported, Apple is now looking at 2022 for release of a headset. And a lot can happen between now and 2022. The biggest question: how much augmented reality content are we going to see beyond games and retail experiences? The next two years will be crucial. 

All the forces needed for augmented reality to take hold are still coalescing. And no technology firm wants to be left behind when demand takes off. That’s why Google launched Glass – as it turns out, too far ahead of the curve, before there was an adequate supply of augmented reality content to justify anyone buying a pair. Apple was a bit ahead of the curve with the Apple Watch, too – initially, many Apple Watchers saw the device as just another wearable without understanding how well Apple had tapped into the growing wellness market, but that was also an Apple strategy that was iterated on and evolved after the product was released to the market.

Augmented reality headset innovators are experiencing what I call a version of the innovation curve. When there is a demonstrable consumer problem that needs to be solved, the innovation curve is fairly immediate and somewhere between linear to exponential (think hockey stick model) when it comes to adoption versus time. The path to uptake is steep, and innovators need to move rapidly to meet demand or lose out to swifter competitors. As in the AR headset case, the consumer demand is less demonstrable, and the slope more gradual awaiting the inflection point to steep or even exponential growth. Innovators need to endure a longer journey, and adoption will be slower, but there is a payoff for those companies that can develop a product as consumer demand begins to accelerate and product-zeitgeist fit is awakened.

In a future post, I’ll discuss the innovation curve in more detail. This concept spans ideas and technologies well beyond AR, and I’m excited to be discussing it. Stay tuned!

Mark Persaud

Mark Persaud

Practice Lead, Immersive Reality