There's a race for the next great pair of smart glasses. Apple is reportedly working on a pair. So is Facebook. And Niantic Labs, creator of AR phone games Pokemon Go and Harry Potter: Wizards Unite, said Thursday it's collaborating with Qualcomm on a reference design solution that will mix hardware, software and cloud services, using a just-announced ARVR Snapdragon XR2 chip for phone and PC-free headsets.
Unlike previous AR headsets like the Magic Leap and the HoloLens 2, which have been expensive and targeted at enterprise or deep-pocketed entrepreneurs, it sounds like Qualcomm and Niantic's plan is to find ways to make affordable AR smart glasses (and software) that everyday people might actually wear. There's no clear time frame for when this design might emerge, but it seems like it'll run parallel to existing efforts from other companies like Apple over the next few years.
Niantic has already been a major player in phone-based AR: The company has a world-mapped AR system called the Niantic Real World Platform, which Pokemon Go, Harry Potter: Wizards Unite and Ingress run on. It also has a fund to encourage developers to make other location-based AR apps with their platform. According to Niantic Labs' co-founder and CTO Phil Keslin, "Access to this new collaborative architecture between Niantic and Qualcomm Technologies is expected to be provided to creators via the Niantic Creator Program when available."
It's unclear whether Niantic plans to sell its own AR smart glasses or whether this is a project to enable others to find a way to co-develop for phone and headset AR at the same time. According to Qualcomm XR head Hugo Swart, "We build a reference design to enable other hardware manufacturers to commercialize." He wouldn't confirm Niantic's plans beyond that, and neither would Niantic.
The highway is littered with attempts like Google Glass, Snap Spectacles, Vuzix Blade and others. But with VR and AR getting a second wind and Apple continuing to drive glasses-based rumors, this Niantic project could someday do for smart glasses what the company did for phone-based AR games.
Correction at 12:55 p.m. PT: Fixes the spelling of Phil Keslin's last name.