Apple and Facebook join augmented reality race

Tech giants betting AI glasses could replace smartphone as primary computing tool

Facundo Diaz, co-founder and chief executive officer of Vrtify, wears a pair of Microsoft HoloLens glasses  at the SXSW Interactive Festival earlier this month

Facundo Diaz, co-founder and chief executive officer of Vrtify, wears a pair of Microsoft HoloLens glasses at the SXSW Interactive Festival earlier this month

 

Apple and Facebook are gearing up to challenge start-up Magic Leap and Microsoft’s HoloLens in the race to create a pair of augmented reality glasses that could one day replace the smartphone as consumers’ primary computing device.

Apple is stepping up its efforts in AR eyewear, according to people with knowledge of its efforts, while Facebook is also researching the technology that can make what chief executive Mark Zuckerberg calls “glasses small enough to take anywhere”.

Both companies, however, are set to be beaten to market by Magic Leap, the secretive Florida-based company that has raised $1.4 billion from investors including Alphabet and Alibaba.

Magic Leap is preparing its long-awaited AR eyewear for release later this year, according to people familiar with its plans. The “light-field” eyewear is said to be smaller than Microsoft’s HoloLens, with a wider field of view, but larger than a regular pair of glasses. The headgear will be tethered to a small pack that provides battery and processing power, to put in a pocket or attach to a belt, and is likely to cost in excess of $1,000. Magic Leap declined to comment.

Magic Leap has suffered from a spate of executive departures in recent months, raising concerns about whether its product would ever emerge from its secretive development process. It is now more than a year since chief executive Rony Abovitz said that the product would launch “very soon”.

Questions remain about whether Magic Leap can develop the software experiences that will entice people to buy and wear its hardware – a common challenge across the industry.

HoloLens

Among Silicon Valley’s heavyweights, Microsoft is furthest along in AR after unveiling HoloLens two years ago. Developers have been able to buy the all-in-one device for a year now but Microsoft has set no date for releasing HoloLens to consumers, creating a potential opportunity for Apple and Facebook to catch up.

Apple first began to build a team to examine the feasibility of a head-worn device more than a year ago. Now, it is devoting more resources to its augmented-reality efforts, with the aim of taking it from a science project towards a consumer product, according to people familiar with the company’s plans. However, any launch is still at least a year away, perhaps much longer. Apple declined to comment.

As its engineers have become more adept at miniaturisation technology with products such as its AirPods wireless headphones and the iPad’s Pencil, AR seems to have overtaken Apple’s secretive car project as the company’s top priority for its next big launch, beyond the iPhone.

Although design chief Sir Jonathan Ive told the New Yorker in 2015 that the face was the “wrong place”, chief executive Tim Cook has begun to talk up AR technology. At a Utah tech conference in October, Mr Cook said AR would “take a little while” to arrive but “we will wonder, when it does, how we lived without it. Kind of how we wonder how we lived without our phones today.”

Challenges

Facebook’s Mr Zuckerberg has said that it could take up to 10 years before the technology catches up with his vision for AR, even as its Oculus Research division works to solve the many tough engineering challenges involved in creating a product that is compact and lightweight yet powerful enough to use all day.

“The goal is to make VR and AR what we all want it to be: glasses small enough to take anywhere,” Mr Zuckerberg said in a Facebook post after visiting Oculus Research’s lab in Redmond, Washington in February, which he said was “pushing the boundaries of virtual and augmented reality”.

At its Silicon Valley headquarters, Facebook has also been hiring experts in computer vision and consumer electronics at its new Building 8 hardware lab, to bolster the efforts at its Oculus VR unit. These include Frank Dellaert, a professor working in robotics and computer vision at the Georgia Institute of Technology.

While Facebook’s AR hardware efforts may be more nascent than those of some of its rivals, the company began work more than a year ago on developing applications for social networking in virtual reality. Demonstrations have included cartoonish avatars taking VR “selfies” in 360-degree renderings of real places.

– Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017

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