Though the Next Big Thing won’t appear for a while, we know pretty much what it will look like: a lightweight, always-on wearable that obliterates the divide between the stuff we see on screens and the stuff we see when we look up from our screens. “We know what we really want: AR glasses,” said Oculus’s chief scientist Michael Abrash at Facebook’s F8 developers’ conference in April. “They aren’t here yet, but when they arrive they’re going to be the great transformational technologies of the next 50 years.” He predicted that in the near future, “instead of carrying stylish smartphones everywhere, we’ll be wearing stylish glasses.” And he added that “these glasses will offer AR, VR, and everything in between, and we’ll wear them all day and we’ll use them in every aspect of our lives.”
That may seem surprising to those still thinking of mixed-reality wearables as a series of over-promises: Google Glass’s humiliating stumble; Snapchat’s low-selling Spectacles; Magic Leap’s epically late headset; and, um, the disappointing initial sales of Oculus’s own virtual-reality headsets. But you can write those off as baby steps, because all the big companies are going long on augmented reality. In 2018, you’ll see the building blocks on your mobile phones. These are just the earliest attempts at a new technology platform that will eventually have its unveiling as a mainstream, must-have wearable.
Indeed, an augmented reality Manhattan Project has become one of those things—like streaming video entertainment, search engines, and a phalanx of Washington lobbyists—that every self-respecting tech oligarch must have these days. And as far as the future is concerned, tech’s Big Five believe it may be the most important.
There’s been an increasing consensus that artificial reality—the technology that tricks the senses into seeing, hearing, and interacting with digital objects and scenarios as if they are as substantial as the furniture we sit on and the people across from us—will become the Fourth Platform in computing. Each of the previous three uber-platforms, coming roughly every 15 years or so, has been an epochal event, offering an opportunity for reshuffling the power rankings of tech companies. And each threatened the existence of industry leaders blinded by the false sunshine of the Innovator’s Dilemma, which holds that the winners in one round of tech progress are too locked into their victories to bet on the next wave.
In the early eighties, personal computing destroyed mini-computer companies, and launched Apple and Microsoft. The mid-nineties saw the explosion of the internet, bushwhacking endless industries and spawning giants like Google and Amazon. The 2007 iPhone kicked off the mobile era; companies going all-in thrived, while those that came late to mobile (yes, I mean, you, Microsoft) suffered.
In the short run, we’re stuck with a landscape ruled by five behemoths (Microsoft has recovered enough to join the cabal). These companies appear so powerful that it would be easy to miss how fragile their futures may be. A new technology platform always forces a new round of musical chairs as the companies that are the first to recognize it and build the tools to support it dominate a new wave. Augmented reality is that new platform. (Some even call it the final computing platform, but that’s really reserved for the inevitable brain implant, which is easily another 15 years out.)
Not every company working on post-reality glasses shares an identical vision; some have differing views of how immersive it should be. But all have quietly adopted the implicit assumption that a persistent, wearable artificial reality is the next big thing. The pressure of the competition has forced them to begin releasing interim products, now.
When something doesn’t work, the companies can’t afford to give up. Look what happened at Google. One of the most humiliating missteps in its history was the botching of Glass, which started as a geek passion project and wound up as an object of ridicule. Instead of burying the incident, the company persisted. As I reported last summer, Glass is getting great reviews from serious businesses, like manufacturing and health care, giving Google’s parent company Alphabet an apparent edge in actually field-testing the glasses concept.
Microsoft might beg to differ. It has already released its own device, a more immersive headset called HoloLens. And newer companies dedicated to augmented reality, such as Magic Leap (powered in part by a $350 million Google investment), are pushing the limits of the current science. But you can bet your Bitcoins that Amazon and Apple are also striving to be the Warby Parker of this new paradigm. Just check out some of Apple’s patents. And earlier this month, Amazon joined the fray, introducing a new AWS service to help developers create applications in augmented and virtual reality. Available now in preview, it lets non-VR experts create “scenes” that run on a variety of devices, including Oculus, Gear and Google’s Daydream. Called Sumerian, after the seminal Mesopotamian civilization, it signals Amazon’s belief that its dominance in commerce will extend to an artificial world.
While we wait for the ultimate augmented reality glasses, 2018’s version of augmented reality involves layering information—from Harry Potter characters to Ikea furniture—onto the live images provided by your mobile phone camera. Apple, Microsoft, Google, and Facebook all are providing deep toolsets for developers to create apps for this approach.
All of those efforts are just a test run for the ultimate vision quest: a set of always-on glasses that will blur the line between the physical world and a digital contract made of pure information. The impact on society will be mind-boggling and, in some respects, troubling and even dangerous. But we’ve got maybe between 5 and 15 years to start arguing about those effects. Meanwhile, in secret labs around the world, tech oligarchs and wannabes are hard at work inventing a wave of computing that will literally be in your face. Like it or not, the next field of battle in tech is for your field of vision.