Computing

Why Google is a key piece of the AR glasses race

Commentary: An expected new AR headset could help Google figure out an already cloudy landscape, and figure out how everything connects to phones.

Google Glass explored the smart glasses route before. But Google returning to AR could solve a new generation of challenges.
Robert Couto

What seemed likely months ago now seems even more so: Google is reportedly entering the AR headset race. What's weird is that Google has already been here before. Years and years before. 

I wore Google Glass in 2013 on my train commute. It was my first pair of smart eyewear. I also used Google Daydream, Google's VR goggles that worked with Android phones. I tried Lenovo's standalone VR headset that worked with Google's Daydream VR software. I've talked with Clay Bavor, head of Google's previous AR and VR efforts, about the ways the company ended up shifting from hardware back to utility AR apps on phones. The last time I spoke to him, he told me Google was entering a period of "deep R&D" on the future of AR and VR. 

According to a report from The Verge Thursday, Google's next AR headset, codenamed Project Iris, sounds a lot like other upcoming headsets. The hardware blends the outside world through cameras onto a worn display, which sounds like mixed reality in VR. Meta's next headset promises this, and I've tried a high-end Varjo headset that achieves this now. Google's Project Iris, according to the report, may not arrive until 2024.

Google has been in VR and AR for a long time. And its absence from the current, and currently heating up, landscape and its metaverse-infused hype feels bizarre. Google seems like a key piece in the puzzle, and maybe the most necessary one to figuring out the future of smart glasses. 

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Qualcomm is enabling phone-connected smart glasses, using a software platform called Snapdragon Spaces. Google could help expand compatibility in Android, or forge other paths in mixed reality and VR.

Qualcomm

Phones are a part of the solution

Qualcomm's recent efforts to develop smart glasses that work with phones seems like the answer to the question of how advanced glasses can be worn and used without being annoying or impossible to operate. Niantic, Snap and Meta, formerly Facebook, have similar efforts in the pipeline. No one's getting rid of the phone in their pocket, not now or anytime soon. Glasses stuffed with processors are bound to have terrible battery life, at least for now. AR will need to lean on phones, most likely, or at least find a way to easily run apps from phones on glasses. 

I've tried some recent attempts at smart glasses, and none of them have really solved that seamless flow with other devices, especially phones. Google makes Android. Google is also heavily invested in ambient technology -- apps and services that flow between devices, like smart speakers and screens and watches. Glasses are a clear fit in that picture. Google's Project Iris sounds more like a standalone device in the spirit of a next-gen Oculus Quest, but it's also likely to need to be a bridge to those phones. Everyone's going to need to solve that bridge, and right now it's a pretty messy bridge.

Hands-on with Google Glass

Trying out Glass in 2013, a long time ago. Different story, totally different idea, but lessons still to be learned and applied.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Google's experience gives it a clear advantage

Apple's never made a VR headset before, although it's had plenty of experience with AR and wearable tech. Meanwhile, Google already has an entire decade of work invested -- field-testing an early pair of smart glasses followed by developing an entire VR ecosystem.

There's also the other stuff: AR has made its way into Google Search and Maps. Google in 2020 acquired another smart glasses manufacturer, North, that was already selling its hardware in its own futuristic optical shops. Google also owns some VR app developers: Tilt Brush, and Owlchemy Labs, maker of the popular VR games Job Simulator and Vacation Simulator. And as Alex Heath's report in The Verge notes, Google was an early investor in Magic Leap.

Last year, Google experimented with a type of AR telepresence via Project Starline, which I still haven't gotten to try. That project, led by Bavor (who is also reported to be leading Google's new AR headset), looks like it was exploring one of the missing links with VR and AR right now: good communication software. VR still doesn't have its perfect alternative to Zoom, and neither does AR. 

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Lenovo ThinkReality A3, nReal Light, Ray-Ban Stories and my own glasses (left to right). Smart glasses are here, but still feel embryonic. Google's next headset might approach the VR direction first, like Apple's is reported to.

Scott Stein/CNET

Samsung, Qualcomm and everyone else could benefit from Google figuring out the software flow

Samsung has remained quiet on the AR glasses front too, which is odd considering the company's bleeding-edge reputation for experimental tech, and its early work in watches, VR and folding phones. Looking back to Samsung's move last year to fold its Galaxy smartwatches into Google's OS shows that Samsung could use Google's help to drive where AR glasses are going.

This is also true for Qualcomm. While Qualcomm has already been pushing a wave of smart glasses that aim to connect to Android phones using its own custom software, that technology still resides a bit outside of Android and the rest of Google's ecosystem. Qualcomm and Google may not agree on the path of where glasses are heading (and Google developing its own chips suggests future friction), but it's surprising that Android, and iOS, still don't have clear hook-ins for things like glasses. That may change soon.

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Google's Lenovo-made standalone VR headset, circa 2018. The point is: Google can do VR and AR, and already has.

James Martin/CNET

Apple and Google are bound to collaborate and compete

Apple's expected headset could arrive this year, or maybe next. For Google, the story might be similar. When each company chooses to tip its hand and discuss its moves, or offer demos of future products-to-be, is still up in the air, too. Would Google bring up Project Iris at this year's Google I/O developer conference, much like it did with Starline last year? Would Apple discuss its headset at WWDC? Google and Apple announced smartwatches in the same year, 2014. The same thing could happen in 2022 for VR/AR headsets.

And, even if these projects seem to compete, they'll need to find common ground. The whole idea of the metaverse is built on a promise of cross-compatibility. Google and Apple define the mobile space, and if headsets are going to be phone peripherals, or extensions of phones, the future of AR will need to follow a similar path. It could mean Google services on Apple headsets, or Apple services on Google's. Or both, hopefully. But also, just like now, expect a whole lot of walled gardens, too.

Google has confirmed nothing yet, and didn't respond to a request for comment. Neither has Apple. But Google's moves, in particular, will help push the future of AR headsets into the mobile landscape it needs to be living in.