The (Virtual) Shape Of Things To Come

Meta is taking us forward to a world where augmented reality glasses are well understood and useful.

“You’re crazy!” I hear you say. “Meta has moved on. Mark Zuckerberg looked foolish when he talked about the ‘metaverse.’ He claimed he was investing in the long-term future of AR but all he did was throw billions of dollars away. He’s like a hummingbird flitting from one pretty flower to another. This year Meta has pivoted to AI, the latest obsession, right?”

You’re wrong, my headstrong pupil, but your confusion is understandable. We live in a world of short attention spans; it’s hard to understand long-term projects. And we spend too much time being critical and tearing things down when we should be appreciating progress.

Let’s review the basics, then I’ll tell you about ongoing Meta projects that you haven’t heard about yet.

In 2024 Apple is selling Vision Pro and Meta is selling Quest 3. They are virtual reality devices with the merest hints of what it’s like to experience a digital layer over the real world.

What do we know about VR? Take notes because this will be on the test.

(1) VR is a niche, primarily for gamers. It will never be adopted widely by businesses.

(2) But that’s fine because VR devices are a perfectly nice source of revenue. Meta brought in more than a billion dollars in the fourth quarter from sales of Quest 3 headsets. Apple lined up $700 million in Vision Pro presales, with most analysts predicting that revenues will soar from sales in 2024 and especially as less expensive, more capable versions come on the market.

(3) The current devices are quickly increasing awareness of VR and AR. This is arguably more important in the long run than the number of people buying them today. The companies are beginning the long process of acclimating us to seeing tech gear on people’s faces in public. Looks funny, right? I’m old. I remember when it looked funny to see someone talking to the air on a fancy-schmancy mobile phone.

(4) The devices on the market today reflect the ongoing work being done to miniaturize tech for AR glasses to come. Apple and Meta are the big players spending billions on improving the technology; Qualcomm is deep into production of specialized chips, and many other companies are producing components or working on their own products.

“Big words!” you sneer. “Mythical glasses to come? Prove it!”

Rumors, all I have are rumors. But about a year ago Apple’s Vision Pro was just a rumor. Deals are being cut, prototypes are being shown in photos, work continues.

Would you be interested in glasses with AI capabilities? Completely normal looking sunglasses but look at a sign in French and ask your glasses to translate it and you’ll hear the translation. Ask your glasses, “What kind of bird is that?” and they will tell you. “Recommend a restaurant within walking distance,” and get an answer based on your current position. No visuals, just a voice using the AI tech that all the cool kids are talking about. Plus you can listen to music, make calls, and take photos and videos, all with voice commands.

Just kidding about the “rumors” thing. AI-powered smart glasses are available today from Meta, which did a deal to fit the tech inside Ray-Ban frames. They’re selling quite well.

Meta has more in the pipeline.

Mark Zuckerberg met with the CEO of electronics giant LG last week to cut a deal on next-generation technology for AR and VR devices that incorporate AI. The rumors say the first project will be a next-generation AR/VR headset – “Quest Pro 2”? – with the goal of surpassing the tech in Apple’s Vision Pro at a lower price.

There was an even more interesting rumor last week.

Business Insider heard a rumor that the Meta AR team is being pushed to have AR glasses ready to demo at Meta’s Connect conference in September. They would look similar to the current Meta Ray-Ban sunglasses but with built-in visuals to supplement the real world. Maybe the translation of the French sign would be a visual overlay on top of the sign, the way Google Translate works today when you hold up your phone. Maybe a sign would follow the bird in flight showing the name of the species.

Glasses like that won’t be ready to sell this year. At one point Meta said not to expect AR glasses before 2027. If they’re shown off, it will just be a proof of concept.

But there’s a clue in a photo that Zuckerberg posted a month ago on Threads. It shows him at his desk in 2024.

There’s a Quest Pro closest to his laptop.

There are six pairs of glasses on the desk, some with clear lenses, some with sunglass lenses.

The anonymous sources at Meta told Business Insider that at least some of those are prototypes of the AR glasses that will be shown off later this year if they’re ready.

Sometimes progress comes in small increments, a football being advanced down the field a few yards at a time. This is what it looks like while it’s happening.