Facebook is known for its social network, but it's pumping huge money into AR and VR devices. The company is the owner of Oculus, but it's been open about its interest in augmented reality glasses – one of the great untapped wearables.
True AR glasses have long been promised – but startups and tech giants such as Google and Apple have struggled to turn the potential of augmented wearables into a consumer reality.
You can read our deep dive into the state of AR tech and the challenges it needs to overcome. But read on for an exploration into Facebook's ambitions and its smartglasses roadmap.
This article was updated in September 2021 to acknowledge the launch of Ray-Ban Stories
The most important tech of the 21st Century
Back in 2017, Michael Abrash, chief scientist at Oculus who heads Facebook Reality Labs Research, wrote a detailed blog post about the future of AR and Facebook’s plans to play a critical role in that future. Abrash writes: “AR glasses have the potential to be one of the most important technologies of the twenty-first century.”
Abrash has since explained AR glasses are “still years off”, but it makes sense the tech company is working hard to keep up with the competition – Apple and Google are also pushing ahead with AR.
Although it might still be early days, there’s plenty to get excited about when it comes to Facebook’s longer-term plans to bring AR to your face. Including a new research project, a collaboration with Ray-Ban and the development of other wearable devices that could play into a much broader and ambitious AR ecosystem.
Filtering out the competition
Snap's AR Spectacles, announced in 2021, are still for developers only
One day Facebook’s AR tech might be built into cool wearables – more on that later. But it’s already being used to create the face filters you know and love (or loathe) on Instagram. Think adding a virtual hat to your selfies or changing your skin to shiny chrome, so you look like a robot.
Over the past five years, Snapchat and Facebook/Instagram have been battling to be the go-to face filter app of choice. Instagram might have tipped it judging from the number of users alone. And, thanks to Instagram’s Spark AR filter platform, all users can create their own filters too.
But Snapchat did do similar with Lenses in 2017, a new version of filters that would allow users to place 3D objects in the world around them. We saw this as a big step forward for AR at the time, and it did a lot to familiarize people with simple AR.
What’s more, after a rocky period post-IPO, Snap’s shares are starting to pick up the pace, and recovery is in full swing. It’s already launched its third-generation Spectacles, which can take and view 3D photos, and there’s a more advanced pair – the fourth-gen Spectacles – on the way to developers soon, showing the brand’s commitment to the concept of AR headgear.
What’s important here is that Facebook might have competition from Snap as well as big tech brands like Google and Apple. But, importantly, Snap has user numbers in the millions, while Facebook has more than two billion to rely on. Which, at least for now, sets it apart.
Project Aria prototype smartglasses
The biggest news about Facebook’s latest AR plans came in September 2020, with the announcement of Project Aria. This is a research project from Facebook Reality Labs that aims to develop wearable augmented devices.
Around 100 Facebook employers are currently using the wearable research device (above). The goal is to help the Facebook Reality Labs team understand what software and hardware are needed to create truly wearable AR glasses. So far, we know the research device will use sensors to capture video and audio, eye movements and location data.
The announcement outlines some expected uses for these AR specs eventually, including navigating a new city and taking a photo. As well as some cooler ones, like interacting with a friend’s avatar when you can’t be with them in person or a digital assistant offering you notes and useful stuff in meetings.
Facebook acknowledges this kind of tech is still a long way off and explains that there will need to be significant developments to make AR a reality for us all, like improvements in audio and visual input, AI and materials to build a lightweight frame.
Making smart glasses stylish
Ray-Ban/Facebook connected specs are due this year – but they won't use AR
The long-term implications of Project Aria are extremely exciting. But a recent partnership with Ray-Ban suggests that Facebook is more interested in bringing smart specs to our faces than AR specs in the short term.
This means that, rather than adding a virtual layer to your day to day interactions with AR specs, smart specs will offer much simpler functionality.
“These glasses won’t be an AR device, so it’s likely that they’ll use audio or cameras but won’t offer any kind of heads-up display to a user,” This will make them very similar to what’s on offer from Snap’s Spectacles, but with the style points of a Ray-Ban tie-in.
“Facebook is clearly aiming to make its smartglasses products fashionable as well as functional,” Leo Gebbie, a senior analyst for XR and Wearables at CCS Insight explains.
“Bringing an established eyewear player like Ray-Ban on board seems like a sensible move.”
What does the future hold?
Facebook has made it clear that developing AR glasses is the goal of Project Aria after the research phase. This makes a lot of sense. Not only will it keep the company up with the competition, it already has a massive platform and Oculus under its roof, along with some of the industry's leading AR and VR experts.
“Facebook has carried out something of a PR blitz recently, with senior executives – including Mark Zuckerberg – making it clear that VR and AR are strategic priorities for the future,” says Gebbie.
He explains that the company has taken a strong position in the VR market – the Oculus Quest 2 is currently the most popular headset according to Steam. And although VR and AR are different, the development of the tech, materials, software, optics and many other things go hand in hand.
“Facebook has said it sees VR and AR as two sides of the same coin, but I think over time we’ll probably see a greater focus on the AR side,” Gebbie says.
There are no prizes for guessing that social applications will be at the heart of Facebook’s future AR plans. “Allowing seamless digital interaction where AR makes it seem like your family and friends are right in front of you is the Holy Grail for many device makers and developers, so I expect to see heavy focus on this,” Gebbie tells us.
But he also says there could be many other use cases for a Facebook AR device on your face, including gaming, entertainment and productivity. However, rather than identifying different uses, the more we read about Facebook’s AR plans, the more we think the focus is about creating a valuable, seamless experience, like bringing the best bits of your phone to your face.
In Michael Abrash’s 2017 blog post about the future of AR, he writes: “AR will ultimately need to be a cloud of inference that surrounds you all day, helping you so intuitively that when you take the glasses off, it will feel like part of your brain has gone to sleep.” Imagine the AR specs reminding you what your colleague’s name is, overlaying directions onto the path in front of you, sending reminders, helping you translate things. The potential applications are endless.
We’re also interested in how Facebook’s other tech developments beyond VR and AR could work in tandem. The Verge reports that the forthcoming Facebook smartwatch could be a controller for future AR experiences. We know that AR glasses will only catch on if they’re wearable, functional and genuinely helpful. Ensuring they tie into the broader Apple ecosystem and work seamlessly with other devices will be one way to guarantee their value – especially for those who already own a lot of Apple devices.
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