by Larry Magid
This post first appeared in the Mercury News
Virtual Reality (VR) headsets have been on the market for years, including several iterations from Meta’s Reality Labs, most recently its Quest 3 headset, introduced late last year. And while millions of VR headsets have been sold, they are still far from a mainstream product.
Hints of what’s to come
We’ve already seen hints as to what’s to come. Google Glass, which is no longer available even in beta let alone as a real product, consisted of eyeglasses with a video display. As I write, I’m wearing a pair of Ray-Ban Meta Smart Glasses that don’t have a smart display but do have a microphone and speakers that allow me to get information about what I’m seeing via audio. Although useful, they’re still relatively primitive with only about four hours of battery life and limited capabilities. Eventually, Meta and its competitors will release more advanced versions of these glasses that have a smart display, better battery life and much better software that will be able to recognize buildings, guide you with maps that you can see without you having to move your eyes from what you’re looking at and much more.
There may come a time when some company releases glasses that will give you the name and a short bio of people you run into at parties, but that’s not available now or in the near-term because of technology limitations and privacy concerns. For now at least, it would be a PR nightmare for Meta to introduce that feature.
We’re already seeing some promising new products. Apple’s Vision Pro is far from something you’d wear on the street, but it does allow for both virtual and augmented reality experiences. Apple says that when someone enters a room while you’re wearing the glasses, you can see them, and they can see you, including your eyes. It also allows you to watch movies on what looks like a giant screen with a form of surround sound that Apple calls “spatial audio.” And it’s the first Apple device with a 3D camera.
At its current price point, I expect the Vision Pro to mainly be purchased by developers and wealthy tech enthusiasts, but that’s often the initial case with new technologies that may eventually get down in price or prove their worth in ways that make people willing to pay a premium price.
And now Sony has entered the field with a device it describes as an “immersive spatial content creation system,” which includes an XR head-mounted display. It’s equipped with Qualcomm’s just-released Snapdragon XR2+ Gen processor, 4K OLED Microdisplays and video see-through function. The device, which doesn’t yet have a name or a price, was introduced Tuesday at CES in Las Vegas. Aimed initially at developers and content creators, it features “spatial recognition,” with six cameras and sensors and a ring controller to manipulate virtual objects.
There are several other early examples of this emerging extended-reality technology. Snap, the parent company of Snapchat offers Spectacles ($380), with limited AR functions, there’s Rokid Max AR Glasses, Smart Glasses with 360” Micro-OLED Virtual Theater ($329), Virtue One XR/AR Glasses ($439) and XREAL Air 2 AR Glasses ($399). PC.com picked the Rokid Max as the top contender while acknowledging, “We’re still far from fully functional, self-contained augmented reality glasses that can scan your surroundings and provide live updates and contextual information based on what you’re looking at.”
Generative AI, which is all the rage in Silicon Valley — is already finding its way into some of these early offerings. As Brittan Heller wrote in The Information, “emerging technologies are part of a synergistic ecosystem. Rather than heralding the demise of the metaverse, generative AI may well prove to be its catalyst, fueling accelerated development in extended reality technologies.” Although it is still relatively primitive, there is a bit of AI technology built into the Meta Ray-Ban Smartglasses, including the ability to answer basic questions with more features slated for later this year. Amazon has Alexa built into its Echo Frames, and we can expect more AI integration as augmented reality glasses continue to evolve.