Will 2022 Be “Year Zero” for the Post-Mobile Era?
Examining the current competitive landscape for augmented reality and wearable technologies while figuring out where things go from here
For years, the tech industry has been obsessing over a billion-dollar question — what will be “next computing platform” that comes after mobile? Different companies have placed their different bets, with most investment concentrated in either immersive reality (AR and VR) or voice-activated smart home. Over the years, these emerging platforms have all seen substantial development in adoption and consumer applications, but none seemed ready to challenge mobile’s dominance over consumer attention.
In 2021, however, this obsession reached a new pitch as proponents of crypto-based web3 started to gain momentum and expanded consumer-facing use cases, mostly through the DeFi movement. At the same time, the concept of the metaverse crossed over into mainstream press coverage, partly thanks to Facebook’s decision to rebrand as “Meta,” and became a contender for the next computing platform.
Still, if future tech historians shall look back on 2021 as the breakthrough point for both web3 and the metaverse, then there is a good chance that 2022 will become the year zero for the post-mobile era, with various AR headsets poised to enter mainstream consciousness.
Unfazed by the failure that was Google Glass seven years ago (remember that?), various tech companies, including Apple, Microsoft, Snap, and Meta, have since continued to lay the groundwork for AR headsets and smart glasses through high-cost R&D projects. By all accounts, many of these projects will come to preliminary fruition in 2022, potentially ushering in a new era for augmented reality and kicking off a long-prophesied paradigm shift in computing interface. Here is a look at the current AR competitive landscape and how it will continue to evolve, as we stand on this precipice of transformation.
Apple’s Long-Waited “Next Big Thing”
Apple has dominated the mobile era with the iPhone for over a decade, but the company is not resting on its laurels. For years, CEO Tim Cook has repeatedly praised the game-changing potential of AR and how “critically important” it is for the company’s future. Under his leadership, Apple has been putting its money where his mouth is, investing millions of dollars into developing a consumer-ready AR device.
What to Expect in 2022 (and Beyond): Speculations and rumors from its supply chain all but confirmed that Apple is gearing up to debut its first stab at a mixed reality headset that combines AR and VR sometime in 2022. The latest reports suggest that Apple will likely unveil this headset during its WWDC developer event in June, with an official release date later in the year or in early 2023. The first iteration of this headset may be more geared towards developers rather than regular iPhone users, and may support hand gestures enabled by 3D sensors. However, earlier reports have suggested that Apple also has a more lightweight smart glasses product in the works, which could launch as early as late 2023.
Apple’s Competitive Strengths: Although Apple may be comparatively late to releasing its own AR wearables, the Cupertino company is well positioned to extend its existing ecosystem and make AR headsets a mainstream consumer tech product, like it did with smartphones. As with the iPhone, Apple will aim to leverage its tight integration and control of hardware and software to create a smooth user experience that “just works” for everyday users. The company’s well-known expertise in miniaturization and fashionable design, as well as its noted success with wearable products, namely the Apple Watch and the AirPods, all set up a great vantage point for Apple to enter the AR headset market.
The Unlikely Comeback of Google Glass
Google may have been the first to the AR headset game, but Google Glass arrived way too early for the market, both in terms of the technologies it employed and the consumer behavior at the time. The product failed to gain traction outside early adopters thanks to its high price tag of $1,500, clunky design, limited battery life, and privacy concerns. In fact, the cultural backlash to the product and its users (widely ridiculed as “Glass-holes”) was so swift and strong that it came as no surprise that the Explorer Edition of Google Glass, made available to retail consumers in 2014, was only on the market for less than a year before it was discontinued in early 2015.
What to Expect in 2022: Short answer: not much. Since 2015, Google Glass has lived on as an enterprise device, with the second Enterprise Edition released in 2019, mainly to provide hands-free information for field workers in industries such as manufacturing and logistics. Google may choose to update this Enterprise Edition down the line, but there has been zero chatter about Google returning to the consumer headset market. If anything, the company’s decision to discontinue its Daydream VR headsets in 2019, which followed a long line of abandoned Google hardware products, strongly indicates that Google Glass will not be making a comeback in the consumer market any time soon.
Google’s Competitive Strengths: Despite being incapable of launching a successful hardware product that it didn’t acquire, Google does have a foothold in mobile AR today with its ARCore developer kit, which is what most Android developers use to build AR experiences. While Google is unlikely to extend this foothold beyond Android phones, other manufacturers like Samsung and Vuzix may leverage ARCore to build their own AR operating systems. Google’s industry-leading machine learning and AI capabilities could also come into play, as AR headsets call for more intuitive, hands-free interfaces that will likely be supported by AI assistants.
Snapchat’s Developer-Centric Strategy
Beyond the mobile OS duopoly of Apple and Google, other platform owners also have varying degrees of post-mobile AR ambitions. Among them, self-proclaimed “camera company” Snap may be the one that is most focused on developing AR experiences.The parent company of Snapchat has been working on this initiative for many years, predating much of its current competitive set. Snap debuted the first iteration of Spectacles, which are smart glasses dedicated to recording short videos for Snapchat, in 2016, with a second generation that followed in 2018, and a third edition with a trimmed-down frame in 2019. All three editions failed to gain mainstream traction, but nevertheless Snap persisted, unwavering in its AR vision.
What to Expect in 2022: In May 2021, Snap unveiled the latest edition of Spectacles, this time with built-in support for AR experiences. We expect the company to continue its push for this AR edition of Spectacles in the coming years with a developer-focused strategy. Billed as a “prototype device for AR creators,” it came with dual waveguide displays capable of superimposing AR effects made with Snapchat’s developer toolkit. Snap has shipped it to developers for testing their AR creations that go beyond mobile. Early reviews from tech publications praised its versatility and promising potential, despite its limited field of vision and short battery life. There is no consensus on when Snap would release a consumer-ready edition of AR Spectacles, but it likely won’t happen in 2022.
Snapchat’s Competitive Strengths: Snap may not be able to compete with industry heavyweights like Apple and Facebook when it comes to R&D budget, but the company’s clear vision for building Snapchat into a camera-first platform that extends beyond mobile gives it a greater focus on AR than most of its competitors in the field. Its developer-oriented strategy will help it get a headstart on unique experiences made for AR headsets. To date, Snap has reportedly signed up 250,000 people to create more than 2.5 million AR effects. Besides, the Gen Z-heavy fan base, combined with a demonstrated willingness to create AR ad products and brand opportunities, also boosts Snap’s chance at succeeding in the race towards post-mobile AR.
Facebook’s “Meta” Path to AR (and VR) Headsets
Facebook was relatively late to the AR game. For years, the social media giant was focused on making immersive VR headsets a viable consumer product. While its Oculus headsets are currently the best-selling VR hardware in the market, Facebook alone wasn’t able to make VR a mainstream platform. As AR started to overtake VR in recent years, Facebook followed the hype and formed a partnership with Ray-Ban maker EssilorLuxottica in 2020 to develop its own AR glasses. In September, Facebook unveiled its first attempt at AR glasses with the launch of “Ray-Ban Stories.” Bearing a slightly bulkier frame than regular Ray-Bans and competitively priced at $299, this device allows wearers to listen to music, take calls or capture photos and short videos and share them across Facebook’s services using a companion app.
What to Expect in 2022: As part of its recent rebranding as a metaverse company, Facebook (now Meta) has found a new way to frame the AR and VR projects from its Reality Labs division. The company has teased a high-end mixed reality headset codenamed “Project Cambria” that would be capable of delivering both AR and VR experiences as a standalone device, and it is reportedly set to come to market over the next two years. As the company continues to build out its Horizon virtual spaces and experiment with new use cases for the metaverse, AR headsets will likely be part of that vision as well.
Facebook’s Competitive Strengths: Being late to the game and suffering reputational troubles, Facebook has a lot of drawbacks working against it when it comes to AR, but Zuckerberg’s well-documented ambition of turning Facebook into a platform after missing out on the mobile OS may just be the single strongest driver any company has towards a post-mobile paradigm shift. Earlier bets placed on Oculus are starting to pay some early dividends, and Facebook might just be able to pull off a consumer AR headset with smart partnerships while piggybacking on the metaverse hype. In addition, its strategy of pushing “metaverse for work” for remote work may mean its mixed reality headsets could be an office equipment before it enters the consumer market.
Microsoft Hedges Its Bets with Hybrid Approach
Microsoft started working on its mixed reality headsets before most tech companies, debuting a developer-oriented edition of HoloLens in early 2016 before launching an enterprise version in the following year. In 2019, Microsoft unveiled HoloLens 2, improving on the display and tracking capabilities, but didn’t change its enterprise-driven approach for this product. Despite being one of the first-movers to the AR headset market, its narrow rollout strategy has somewhat limited the impact of HoloLens so far.
What to Expect in 2022 (and Beyond): As the shift towards remote work has gained momentum throughout the pandemic, Microsoft’s enterprise-driven approach for HoloLens should help the company effectively compete against Facebook’s Horizon Workroom for remote workers. Yet, that doesn’t mean HoloLens will stay in the lane of enterprise use for long. In fact, Microsoft has just signed a deal with Samsung to collaborate on a future generation of its HoloLens headset that will presumably be aimed at consumers. Although that headset is not expected to launch until 2024, it certainly shows that Microsoft is finally starting to expand its approach.
Microsoft’s Competitive Strengths: Historically, despite not being a hardware-oriented company, Microsoft has had some successes with its Xbox game consoles and, perhaps to a lesser extent, the Surface laptops. In the pursuit of conquering the AR wearable market, however, its strong capability in cloud computing, led by its cloud service Azure, second only to Amazon’s AWS in market share, should prove to be helpful in developing standalone AR devices. In addition, the popularity of its productivity suites also gives the enterprise edition of HoloLens a competitive edge that no other AR headset maker has.
Look Out for the Gaming Companies
Besides these five major players in the race to post-mobile AR hardware, we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention some of the more software-oriented efforts coming from video game companies like Roblox, Epic Games, and Niantic in their efforts to push the envelope on AR experiences. For companies like Roblox and Epic Games, this may be tied to their larger metaverse ambitions. Epic Games, for example, acquired Sketchfab, a 3D-model sharing platform, earlier this year to boost its Unreal Engine and in-game creation tools for 3D objects that will be portable to mixed reality experiences down the line. Plus, there are the AR-first companies like Niantic, maker of popular mobile AR game Pokémon Go, which also has a stake in how the post-mobile AR landscape evolves.
What to Expect in 2022: Some of these software-focused AR efforts today may even lead to hardware projects of their own down the road. In fact, Niantic has reportedly commissioned a reference design for its own AR glasses, although there’s no word on whether this will be going into production any time soon. If these game companies do ride the metaverse wave and are able to expand their in-game universe and virtual venues to mixed reality environments, they’d likely become a crucial fraction of the post-mobile AR era as well.
Augmented reality (AR) technology presents a gateway to a hybrid future where our online lives are interwoven into our physical surroundings. It promises to enable frictionless, contextual access to information and digital assets, and enliven offline activities with the kind of digital malleability that makes online events fun. AR is one of the most important emerging technologies for marketers not only because of the paradigm shift in the computing interface it represents, but also for the new ways it will create for brands to engage with consumers.
Until then, brands can use this time to continue working with platforms to establish a library of 3D branded assets, explore new consumer-facing use cases, and understand how consumers engage with AR in different contexts, all in preparation for the hardware breakthrough that’s on the horizon for AR.