February 14

Augmented reality is arguably the next big thing for its potential to replace the smartphone and change how people interact with technology. Across the industry, all efforts are currently phone-based with Google’s approach focused on Lens, Maps, and ARCore. However, a new report today shines further light on the situation — suggesting those efforts are largely the extent of the company’s AR ambitions at the possible expense of hardware glasses.

The Information today published a history of Google’s AR efforts, and revealed the lack of a known future roadmap for the glasses form factor. In 2015, Google — like the rest of the industry — believed that virtual reality was the future, and placed company veteran Clay Bavor in charge of those efforts. Previously in charge of Gmail and other productivity apps, he consolidated efforts, set out on phone-based Daydream, and began working on a “premium Google VR headset, code-named Dawn.”

That VR focus blindsided the company to Apple’s work on ARKit, which brought augmented reality apps to iPhones and iPads. Despite initially wanting to remain focussed on virtual reality, “Google executives demanded a response” that led to Google’s ARCore for Android in early 2018. According to The Information, that push for a competing offering “left some employees exhausted and questioning Bavor’s vision and why he hadn’t acted sooner.”

At the moment, Google’s AR efforts are primarily focussed on Lens visual search with 500 out of Bavor’s 680 employees working on it. ARCore continues to get new features that emphasize Google’s machine learning prowess, while Google Maps has flashy AR navigation with Live View.

In terms of VR, Google has drastically pulled back with the phone-based Daydream View no longer sold, while Cardboard has been open-sourced. That said, today’s report claims that “Bavor didn’t officially cancel the premium VR headset and Daydream platform.” Namely, standalone Daydream with the sold Lenovo Mirage Solo is still around as mostly a developer platform for AR prototyping.

Looking towards the future, The Information reports that as of mid-2019 Google does not have a “comparable” AR glasses project to those of Apple and Facebook. Speaking to former employees, many note how the company’s deliberately slow approach was shaped and scared by Glass. Last I/O, Bavor made comments saying that Google was focused on “deep R&D” for hardware and devices.

Taken with today’s report, that does seem to confirm Google’s lack of immediate consumer plans to compete with Apple or Facebook.

9to5Google’s Take

Google not being as committed to AR as its competitors is disappointing. According to the latest reports, Apple’s effort nears 1,000 employees and is planning to first release an AR headset in 2022, and actual glasses the year after. Meanwhile, Facebook has publicly confirmed its interest and shares a similar end goal.

Fundamentally, AR glasses require a breakthrough in display technology. The hope for Google was that it was working towards such a hardware advancement in secret, while it publicly shows off AR services. For example, it’s very clear how Google Lens and Maps navigation could be the key reason why to buy Google glasses.

Of course, Google could have something by the mid-2020s, but the lack of a start now does not inspire confidence or a set vision.

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