Narain Jashanmal

September 3, 2022

5.  Glass Speculation

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With the fall Apple (iPhone) event almost upon us, time to speculate if there'll be a "One more thing..." moment.

Apple does things their own way and speculation around a pair of Apple AR/VR glasses has been rampant, but it's remained unclear if, when, how and with what type of product they'd enter the market.

Still, it's interesting to consider the current general personal computing context that could lead Apple to such a move.

Everyone has a phone that connects to the internet.

You can do pretty much everything you want to (and things you didn't even know you wanted to) with that phone though, to riff on Gibson's oft quoted maxim, what you can do on your phone isn't evenly distributed, yet.

There's been some playing around with phone form factors from Samsung, Huawei, Microsoft and Xiaomi you own one of these? Does anyone you know?

There are similar experiments with laptops by folks like Asus and Lenovo (Bjarke Ingels uses one!) but...ditto (other than Bjarke, of course).  Most people are just really happy that Apple brought back MagSafe, removed fans and gave us insanely good battery life.

We've got computers for our desks, our laps, our hands, our wrists, our ears, other, uh, parts of our body, our cars (soft of); but...what about for our faces?

For VR, Meta (fka Facebook) has been the leader with the Quest (née Oculus) series, with the current Quest 2 being the most sold VR headset ever, by a sizeable margin. Steam, DPVR and Vive (aka HTC) have participated in the hardware space for a while, with Steam being prominent in VR software. Pico (aka ByteDance, parent company of TikTok), has started to expand outside China, which has led to recent gains in market share (Insider, Counterpoint). Relative to phones, VR hardware remains a small market with unit sales in the double digit millions.

Smart glasses, which incorporate some combination of outward facing cameras, microphones and speakers into glasses, have been around for a while. Snap was early to market with Spectacles, now in their third generation. Spectacles have cameras and microphones, but no speakers, so they can be used to capture photos and video, but not to take calls or listen to audio. Amazon Echo Frames and Aether take a different direction, featuring a microphone and speakers, but no cameras, they enable you to take phone calls give instructions to a voice assistant and listen to audio. Ray-Ban Stories, created in partnership with Meta, combine cameras, microphones and speakers into the only smart glasses that do it all. Sales info is hard to come by, but this article about the sales of Snap Spectacles up to 2021 indicate that - so far - it's a much smaller market than VR, in the high hundreds of thousands, low millions of units overall.

AR glasses, which overlay digital information onto the physical world have been a tough proposition going all the way back to Google Glass, the challenges of which are well documented. Snap have been working on next-gen Spectacles that feature AR, but with their recent restructuring it's unclear how much further investment this project will get or even if a consumer version of these will ever come to market. Recently, Nreal, Lenovo and Vive have launched AR glasses that tether, either physically or wirelessly, to a computer or phone - which do the heavy lifting - and are focused on more narrow use-cases around entertainment, wellness and productivity, rather than being self-contained, general purpose computing devices.

It's been even tougher for MR glasses, which don't just overlay digital objects on to the physical world, but enable those digital objects to interact with the physical world. Magic Leap and Microsoft HoloLens are the canonical examples here. Neither have made it to market as viable consumer products.

This landscape raises a bunch of interesting opportunities and questions for Apple. As noted above, there's been plenty of experimentation in the space of face computers, and Meta has carved out a position for themselves to an extent that no one else has. But, is the Quest today's equivalent of Nokia or Blackberry and  Glass the iPhone? Or is Quest more like Sonos and  Glass the original HomePod?

The general speculation is that Apple will do a full-blown, high-end headset, in a more glasses-like form factor that is AR focused or combines AR and VR.

Given Apple's historically conservative approach to new categories, this would seem to go beyond the realm of speculation into that of fantasy. Apple tends to constrain the capabilities of their first-gen hardware, with a focus on getting the form factor and user experience right, while intentionally limiting the features (to the ones people most likely to care about) in order to have a greater success of consumer adoption.

First-gen AirPods are a good example, they didn't have noise-cancellation, came in only one shape and color and lacked tactile volume controls. What they did feature was a competitive price point, seamless pairing, stable connection, good sound and very good battery life. These initial trade-offs, combined with the Beats acquisition, have helped Apple become a market leader in headphones.

Taking cues from their approach to AirPods, it's safer to bet that  Glass will be something more akin to the Nreal Air or Vive Flow than to the next-gen Snap Spectacles, original Magic Leap or forthcoming Meta headset. A companion device, that tethers either to a Mac or iPhone (probably the latter, wirelessly; maybe the former as well, physically, for development) that's focused on entertainment ( TV, Game Center) and wellness ( Fitness+). If that's what it is, it doesn't need necessarily need cameras which lowers both the cost of materials and simplifies the computational overhead. Even without cameras on the headset itself, there is the opportunity to use the iPhone camera (similar to the way the Watch does) and ARKit overlays from there, though addressing latency (if wirelessly tethered) is non-trivial. 

Disclaimer: I worked at Meta from 2014 - 2022, in Reality Labs from 2021 - 2022. Whatever I've written here is based on speculation and/or publicly available info.